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Collins and Hope filed an appeal, and posted a $35,000 bond that gave them the right to stay in the church while the matter was still before the court. Last May the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of King. Doctrinal issues may have given rise to the dispute, the justices concluded, but courts can only use "neutral" principles of law regarding property disputes.
Collins and his supporters have asked the state supreme court to hear the case. "It's not what we want to do," he sighs. "But this has been something that the courts haven't gotten right yet." It could be months before he and Hope Lutheran learn whether the justices will try to untangle what happened at the little church on the hill, and if they do, months more before any decision is made.
King is equally determined to see the matter through. "It's been declared our church," he says. "We are doing this not necessarily to be vindicated, but to bring to light, in a public way, that we were wronged."
It's not just church services that feel different these days, says Carl Blomgren. It's the whole town of Hastings. The rift caused by the ouster and the lawsuit may, in good Lutheran tradition, be a quiet one, but the pain is palpable. "I was good friends with Al Johnson, and I haven't spoken to him since the trial," he laments. "Tim Rusch won't talk to anyone. King is the one that caused all the legal problems and pitted friend against friend, downsized the congregation, and has taken us all to court.
"We've definitely lost something in our town, and the damage will probably never go away," Blomgren continues. "The split hurt pretty bad. Every Sunday, we pray for them just as we'd pray for anybody else."
Even as they wait for an end to the bitter power struggle, both Collins and King know that it's now simply a fight to the finish, a battle to see who will be the last one standing. And that makes both men uncomfortable. King is sad about the effect the dispute has had on the community. He sees his former parishioners around town all the time. "Often, it's like running into your ex-wife at the grocery store," he says. "But we pray for them, always."
Collins sees it, too, and almost feels sympathy for his former minister. "As much as I believe we own that church, I do feel bad for Bruce King," he concedes. "Outside of his beliefs, he is so meek and mild. If he loses this case, his career will be over." But, he says, King doesn't care. The pastor has absolute faith that God called him to bring Shepherd of the Valley back into the fold, Collins is sure: "He would have been happy if he were the last one at the church."
News intern Nick Wunder contributed research to this story.