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Squatter takes up residence in church

An arrest has been made and a man has been charged with criminal trespass after it was learned through surveillance video that he was living in the Nazareth Lutheran Church in Kenmare.

4/21/15 (Tue)

The Nazareth Lutheran Church in Kenmare was being used as a makeshift residence until church officials discovered the unwelcome guest while viewing surveillanve video.

By Marvin Baker

An arrest has been made and a man has been charged with criminal trespass after it was learned through surveillance video that he was living in the Nazareth Lutheran Church in Kenmare.

Church officials declined to name the individual citing an ongoing investigation, however, the Rev. Michon Weingartner talked about the incident leading up to the arrest.

She said back in January a person was found inside the church building while staff were setting up for a funeral. The man was told to leave.

Instead, he came back and spent what Weingartner said were several overnights of use as a residence.

“A long-distance phone call on our bill made us aware,” Weingartner said. “And it appears there is evidence of multiple uses; several calls made all hours of the night.”

There was no evidence of theft, according to Weingartner, only that the individual, or individuals were scrounging around for food in the church refrigerator.

“It was low-key enough to not draw attention,” the pastor said. “It appeared they were very aware of when I was and wasn’t there.”

About a year ago, the church’s food pantry was broken into and surveillance cameras were installed following that event.

“Once we saw it on security camera, we filed the criminal trespass charge,” Weingartner said. “We were notified that someone called from the church and that was our first heads up.”

Weingartner added the video showed more than one person being in the church during the same timeline, but wouldn’t elaborate further.

Following a meeting of church leadership in the wake of this incident, Weingartner said the decision was made to lock the church from this point forward.

“To have the building open and accessible doesn’t seem to be an option anymore,” Weingartner said. “The concern is if someone goes in alone and is confronted by someone like this. What if children are in the building? That’s why we made the decision to lock.”

And locking the church brings up another concern for Weingartner and the church council.

“The church (in general) should be a sanctuary and that’s why we struggle with this,” Weingartner said. “The incident has called that into question.”

Her former church, Augustana Lutheran in Minot, was locked, presumably justified because Minot is North Dakota’s fourth largest city.

“But not in a small community,” she explained. “Those unmet and in need will not be able to get in.”

To circumvent the issue so the church can continue on its mission, Weingartner said several council members have been issued keys, their telephone numbers provided to a calling tree of people and messages have been posted to check with the office.

Weingartner said her telephone number, and the numbers of the president, vice president and treasurer have been posted on the door of the church.

“If the community has concerns about this, let us know, we want to be available,” Weingartner said. “We’re trying to make it as available as possible.”

The Kansas native said she has heard of people sleeping in pews at night to get out of the cold, but nothing like what’s happened in Kenmare in the past four months.

Part of the reason the church exists is to help people in need and when the man was first discovered, it was chalked up as someone in need who the church would have cared for.

But the individual charged with criminal trespass, apparently wasn’t grateful.

“If there is a need, it will almost always be granted,” Weingartner said. “But not in this case. It was a disrespect to the church and I told the individual that he wore out his welcome.”

Her hope now is that perhaps this man will learn a valuable lesson about himself, about the church and about compassion.

And, as the economy shifts down, she believes more needs will be coming and she wants Nazareth Lutheran to be the door in the community.

But, the pastor, the council and the parishioners will not tolerate someone living in Nazareth in secrecy, trashing the place and racking up a long-distance phone bill.

“Hopefully, this will be making some kind of impact on this individual,” Weingartner said... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!