Finding God in a North Dakota oil boom

Over at the Dickinson Press (North Dakota), reporter Amy Dalrymple has been writing a fascinating series titled "Faces of the Boom." Whereas most of the country (outside of Washington, D.C., at least) is facing economic hardships, prolonged unemployment and housing problems, North Dakota has something of a boom. If you or anyone you know has been out of work in the last couple of years, you've probably heard the advice to head there for work. Many people have and Dalrymple has gotten a ton of interesting stories profiling the changes that the town has seen during this time. She wrote about why hotel owners, based on their experience with a boom during the 1980s, aren't keen to expand too quickly. She wrote about how some new residents are already getting active in politics. Many of the stories are about how the long hours or long distance from home are wearing on the workers. There have been looks at how one North Dakota native used his Wall Street expertise to gain from oil investments. One guy she profiled is only 20-years-old and his lack of experience meant he had to be super persistent to get work. Another profile was about the women who are living in the temporary housing facilities for oil field workers.

The people she has picked for profiles are great -- they are colorful characters who help tell a broader story. A veteran father and his son, Hawaii natives far from home, brothers paying off college loans. You get the idea.

In her latest Face of the Boom, she covers a religion angle for "'And the door will be opened to you' (Matthew 7:7): Weary heads find place to rest in Concordia Lutheran Church." Dalrymple does a good job of getting some fun quotes in the piece, which begins:

WILLISTON — Each time someone new arrives at Concordia Lutheran Church looking for a place to stay, the Rev. Jay Reinke has the same reaction: “Oh Lord, not another one.”

The small Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Williston has 30 to 40 job-seekers sleeping inside the church on a typical night, with dozens more who stay in their vehicles in the church parking lot.

We're given some background about how the church got involved with housing people. It began when a man from Idaho told the pastor he was going to give up and go back home. The pastor invited him to sleep in the church. Then another man stayed. All told, some 450 people have slept inside the church while they look for work and housing. More have used the parking lot to camp out.

New arrivals to Williston are often unprepared for the city’s severe housing shortage driven by the influx of people looking for oil jobs. Those in need of housing quickly hear about Concordia through word of mouth.

When they arrive, Reinke gives them the same message:

“I’ll say, ‘I need to tell you that you are a gift. You’re a gift to us. You’re a gift to Williston. Welcome,’” Reinke said. “Sometimes men have just started to cry. They have been so alone, they’ve just really suffered. And they haven’t felt welcomed.”

There are some good anecdotes. They try to limit the number of overnighters below 40 individuals, but have had as many as 54. One night they'd maxed out before a pregnant woman two weeks shy of her due date arrived. The church has had to get creative, including allowing people to sleep inside the pastor's 15-passenger van and Chevy Lumina.

I think this story touched me personally so much because I'm a pastor's kid. And as many children of pastors know, helping strangers is part of the day-to-day life of their parents. Without making any universal assumptions, it's safe to say that people in need figure out that going to a church or pastor will be more fruitful than randomly going to strangers. I could write a book about all of the people we met -- sometimes Lutheran, sometimes not -- who were in need and knocked on our door. Or called at 3 AM.

The story gives some good details about rules that guests must abide by and how the church runs background checks on guests. Some stay briefly, others for months. One of the guests is interviewed, who explains that you have to live in town to get work but that you can't get housing once you get there.

The reporter even found a congregational elder who was once opposed to letting people stay until he got to know them. We hear that some members have found the change -- overnighters getting baptized, new members joining the church, etc. -- somewhat difficult.

The story even deals with the concerns some neighbors have about the overnighters. Here's how it ends:

Most nights, Reinke is at the church at 9 p.m. when it opens to the guests and he often does devotions with them. Reinke returns at 6:45 a.m. each day to walk through the church and wake the guests up by singing “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.”

“And they like it,” said Reinke, who has led the church for 19 years. “If I don’t show up, they’ll say, ‘Pastor, we missed your song this morning.’”

The hours get long for Reinke, but what keeps him going is hearing stories from guys about being able to send money home to their families and paying off mortgages.

“Despite the frustrations, I am the recipient of so many blessings because of these people,” Reinke said. “Yeah, there are burdens, and yes there are difficulties, and yes you’ve got to say no sometimes. So what? It’s worth it. It is worth it.”

Now, obviously this is a somewhat extraordinary situation. Not all congregations are housing many dozens of guests each night. But I wish we'd see more stories about what the day-to-day life of a congregation is like. And I'm certainly thankful for the stories we do see.

This reporter managed to explain quite a bit about what life is like in a boom town by using just a small part of this one congregation's story. Nice photos, too.

Image of North Dakota oil rig via Shutterstock.

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