Napa Valley Register, June 21, 2003
By VIVI STENBERG-WILLIAMS, Register Staff Writer
A Napa couple is tapping into an ancient Nordic religion to lead a growing number of prison inmates toward a spiritual awakening.
Guided by Norse gods and goddesses, John and Monica Post are leading the rapidly growing National Prison Kindred Alliance (NPKA). At their last count, the Posts said they sent out more than 11,000 newsletters to imprisoned followers of a religion called Asatru. They also run Himminbjorg Publishing, which offers books and material on Asatru, and John founded a church called The Temple of Wotan to assist the alliance’s work within American prisons.
While the Posts say their work is devoted to providing a spiritual anchor for people who desperately need it, not everyone is enthusiastic about their efforts. As recently as last year the Posts were linked to an organization that some experts say supports white supremacy, which has caught the attention of groups trying to prevent race-based violence. Watchdogs including the Anti-Defamation League say the Asatru religion is being manipulated to offer ideological support for white supremacists.
A Scandinavian religion
In the living room of the Posts’ Napa apartment, an altar stands heavily adorned by small figurines depicting Thor and Odin, whom John Post calls his “patron deity.” Rune-inscribed decorations and drawings submitted by prisoners depicting Norse gods and goddesses adorn the walls of the couple’s busy home office.
The Posts said they know of about 12 other Odinists in Napa, and estimated that there are about 200 Odinists total in the Bay Area.
Since January 2002, Himminbjorg has offered books, CDs, pamphlets, Viking ornaments and artwork through a Web site to fund the prison outreach program.
The religion that the Posts espouse is based on what some believe to be a wholesome belief in the value of ancestry.
“Asatru means to be true to the gods,” Post explained.
It is also one of the terms used to label the pre-Christian, native religion of Scandinavia and Germanic countries. Modern-day followers of the polytheist religion believe the values of the gods and goddesses are passed on through ancestry. It is a non-authoritarian and decentralized religion as practiced in the United States today, and followers gather in small groups called kindreds or hearths.
Post described the Asatru faith as a religion of freedom, responsibility and choice. Ripe with symbolism and rites, Post said the Asatru faith community has a lot in common with indigenous native tribes around the world.
And despite its northern European origin, Post said anyone can become an Asatruar, regardless of race.
Other followers “may not have the same connection based on ancestral memory that someone from, say, Norway or Denmark might have, but definitely, anybody can (become an Asatru). The gods and goddesses, I don’t think are discriminatory in who they pick on,” Post said, laughing.
Asatru and hate groups
Others view the inclusiveness of the Asatru religion with skepticism.
Rose Gabaeff, assistant director of the San Francisco chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said that although Asatru may be a legitimate religion for many, it is increasingly popular with white power groups. The ADL was initially formed to fight anti-Semitism but is now dedicated to fighting bigotry and extremism in all forms.
“Asatru is not inherently racist, and is practiced by many New Agers,” Gabaeff said. “However, (Asatru) is being co-opted by racists, particularly young, disaffected but intelligent skinheads. It appears to be growing and spreading within the white supremacy world.”
Mark Potok, an editor of a publication that tracks the radical right for Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, says that elements of Asatru provide support for a supremacist ideology.
“The reason why this is so popular among neo-Nazis is a growing belief that Christianity is a religion for fools and weaklings,” Potok said. “It’s foolish to turn the other cheek. Asatru is a muscular religion, where might is right.”
The Posts said they have taken a clear stance against the racist elements of the faith and its followers.
“A lot of the kindred are formed along racial lines, and it’s a white religion so to speak,” John Post said. “However, we made it perfectly clear when we started last year: ‘If you want to follow your political racial views, you go over here and do that. We are doing the religion, and religion only. If you want to stay within the religious parameter we can, and will, help you.'”
In fact, Post said that he turned to Asatru not for racist reasons, but to help the prison community. He was attracted to Asatru after a lifelong search for the right faith, which had led him to seek out such varied fare as Scientology, Hinduism, Buddhism and Catholicism.
While serving 13 years in federal prison for unarmed robbery in Florence, Colo., Post said he was exposed to “a vicious cycle called recidivism” in which his fellow inmates would continually return to crime and then to prison.
Before his release in 2001, Post said he made an oath to fight recidivism by founding the National Prison Kindred Alliance. Through the alliance, the Posts say they work with state and federal authorities as well as prison chaplains to establish the belief system as a legitimate religion.
“I would like to see us create some sort of support network (through the NPKA) to where we could provide the vocational and rehabilitation training that the prison system isn’t giving anymore,” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League does not consider Post’s organization a hate group, but Gabaeff said the NPKA “has contacts and affiliations with hate groups, and most of its imprisoned members are racists.”
Post cheered the ADL’s decision to not label his alliance as a hate group, but questioned Gabaeff’s assessment of its membership as consisting largely of racists.
“I’m sure that the racial element is there,” Post said.
But, he added, “I am sensitive and touchy about the racial thing because it is not what we’re about and I really despise somebody who’s making that lie. I’m not in the business of lying, I’m not in the business of printing lies, I’m in the business of trying to help people.”
Severing ties with 14 Words
For several months last year, the Posts were at the helm of a racist publishing company called 14 Word Press.
14 Word Press was launched in Idaho in the late 1990s by Katja Lane, the wife of David Lane, a central figure in the American white supremacist movement.
David Lane was convicted of racketeering in conjunction with the white supremacist group The Order and for being the getaway driver in the 1984 hate crime murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg, who had lambasted white supremacists on his Denver radio show. Lane, who is serving a 190-year prison sentence in Florence, Colo., later coined the phrase “14 words” for his basic philosophical belief, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Potok described Lane as “one of the most scary characters around.”
“It’s absolutely clear that Lane is very much a leader in the white supremacist movement,” Potok said. “He has a remarkable ability to reach out from within prison.”
The Posts were involved with 14 Word Press until December, but John Post said that they have severed all ties to the company. There is no affiliation between 14 Word Press and the Post’s Himminbjorg Publishing, he said. 14 Word Press is currently based out of Wilmington, N.C.
When the couple rid themselves of publishing literature under the auspices of 14 Word Press, John Post said they lost about 20 percent of their client list.
“I thought we would lose at least 60 percent,” he said.
Instead, he says he found a sincere interest in the religion from many of the prisoners with whom he corresponds.
“The neo-Nazis and the skinheads that we’ve had contact with have come to have a new respect for us,” said Post. “They understand we are a religion and a religion only and that we have taken a stand — not just with the world in general — but with them.”
To add to the organization’s legitimacy in the eyes of prison administrators who often require credentialed clergy to make way for organized worship, Post said he decided to found a church.
With the Temple of Wotan, a state-registered church, Post said he hopes to build a respectable priesthood.
“Right now, the way our faith is set up … pretty much any yahoo can become a gothi (priest),” said Post, who said he holds the higher title of allsherjargothi of the church.
“But the Temple of Wotan will not ordain just about any yahoo. We have very strict guidelines and you have to know your stuff before we would even think about ordaining you.”
One of the guidelines, Post said, is that the new gothis cannot be racist.
“When you swear the oath to the gods and goddesses of the temple you become the tool of the gods and a servant of the folk — and that’s all there is to it.”
The efforts of the Posts to reach behind bars has not come without cost, they said.
Last year, the duo estimated that they spent $60,000 of their own money to keep their businesses afloat, forcing them to file for bankruptcy in December when they severed ties to 14 Words.
“We truly are a nonprofit,” John Post said, with a quick laugh.
What keeps them going are the letters they receive from inmates and positive phone conversations, they said.
Although the couple are quickly becoming leaders within their community, the Posts said they don’t always announce their unique faith when they are out and about.
“There is a certain amount of persecution involved in being a known Asatruar,” John Post said.
In fact, the couple said that one of their two adult daughters is no longer on speaking terms with them.
“She is so overwhelmed by what we are doing that she does not know how to talk with us,” said Monica Post. She adds with a swift smile, “she’ll come around.”
Despite the monetary and personal sacrifice, the Posts said they will continue the work of establishing the outreach group and the church.
“Some days it is not (worth it), because we will get the racial letters and those either bum us out or infuriate us,” John Post said. “But then we get letters from some of these guys saying ‘You have really turned my life around,’ or we’ll get a letter or a phone call from a parent saying ‘I don’t know what you did to my son, but thank you.’
“Those little nuggets really make it worth it.”