The Overnighters: A Documentary about the Bakken Oil Fields, a Lutheran Pastor, Sin, and Service

The Overnighters: A Documentary about the Bakken Oil Fields, a Lutheran Pastor, Sin, and Service February 18, 2015


The Overnighters (2014) is writer/director Jesse Moss’s documentary film, centered around the men who seek a fresh start in the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota–and the pastor (Jay Reinke) who tries to welcome them.

This film exemplifies what engagement with faith in film can be–honest, messy, conflicted, and human. As The Overnighters begins, we are given a hint that Reinke is far more complicated mere outward appearances may suggest. Through his own narration, he hints to us that everything about him is not necessarily as it appears. He hints at the difference between public persona and private character. And we know we are in for a more real, engaged tale of what it means to be a Christian in the world than the neatly polished “Christian movie” we have experienced in the past.

As the film begins to unfurl, we see Reinke championing the dusty, tired, hopeful men who come to Williston, North Dakota where there are high-paying jobs to be had in the massive Bakken oil field. Even fast food workers are paid well in Williston. In the midst of a nation-wide recession, men (and sometimes women) are driven from every corner of the country to find work, prove themselves, and make a new life for their families. Sadly, when they arrive, they often have nowhere to go. Wages are high, but rent is astronomical and it is nearly impossible to find places to live. Even if workers bring motor homes and get permission to park them on private property, city ordinances are beginning to push even such accommodations out. Men who travel to Williston have often spent their last penny to get there, and when they can’t find somewhere to live or a job, they are desperate and vulnerable.

Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston believes that God has brought these men to the church’s door. “What a profound thing that we have people literally walking up to our door from all over the world, saying, ‘Can you help me?'” he says. But Williston is nothing if not a small town in the midst of tumultuous change. Outside influences have not always been welcome, and sometimes bring dangers real and imagined (think of the well-publicized Sherry Arnold murder). Reinke establishes the church as a shelter for men who have come to town to work, believing that the men who have come to the church’s door in need are his “neighbor.” He argues, “A Christian ethic is now, ‘Who is my neighbor and how do I serve him?'”

Reinke is a visionary and argues persuasively that Christians should not yield to fear of the other, but should receive the other as “gift,” even when the gift comes with the burden of doing things that are challenging. He works to love even his adversarial congregation members (who he says are also his neighbors), even as he struggles to understand their and the community’s resistance to the church’s work providing shelter to these neighbors. (“It does amaze me that giving people floor space is provocative,” he says.)

Overnighters1But then the narrative begins to turn. Things happen that begin to reveal that Reinke is every bit as much both saint and sinner as Lutheran theology claims. He overrides wise cautions and boundaries that really do need to be set up. He rushes forward in idealistic fervor, sometimes neglecting his family and even exposing them to potential harm. He sometimes lords his power over others when they try to tell him the truth. He teaches some powerful truths, but he is also a very, very flawed man. He tells a drug addict at one point, “We’re more alike than we are different. I’m broken. You’re broken. We’re all broken.” This truth reverberates through the final moments of the film.

In many ways–and in more ways than I’ll reveal here–Pastor Reinke’s pursuit of unrelenting, pell-mell service to the workers of the oil fields seems to be not only coming from the motivation of caring for others, but also from a deep need to be so busy that he does not have time to listen to the haunting voices within. If he slows down, he might have to face some very real truths about himself that are difficult and painful. And so he goes and goes and goes. He runs his family into the ground. He ends up disillusioning some of his dearest friends and co-workers. He hides significant truths from people who need to know them. He gets angry with friends who don’t tell the truth, even as he fails to tell the truth. (Perhaps their flaws are too much like looking into a mirror at his own.)

The film ends with a shocking confession made to Reinke’s long-suffering wife. I am conflicted that the filmmaker included this very personal moment. While it was powerful, I felt myself wishing for her sake that it was not put in the movie. Are not pastors’ families enough on display that their most private moments also must be broadcast? Surely there was another way to convey the information of the scene with more compassion for those involved.

I am also conflicted about abruptness of the ending. While the majority of the film is exceedingly well-crafted, the ending raises significant questions about Reinke’s role as leader and about boundary issues in ministry. While the nitty-gritty details of the confession are not fully unpacked–probably out of respect for the Reinke family–the viewer is left wondering which of Pastor Reinke’s natures is the dominant one: saint or sinner? Perhaps the discomfort of that ambiguity is where the filmmaker wishes to leave us, contemplating our own mixed motives even in our shining moments of service. Certainly life does not wrap itself up neatly with a bow–and false closure has been a big flaw of past faith-oriented films. This is not a “Christian film” in terms of genre, but a mainstream documentary that features a profoundly religious man. But I did wish for at least a bit more understanding, if not closure, when it came to the ending.

But even if the ending of The Overnighters is imperfect and leaves more questions than answers, I still found the film to be an extremely important, human, and real engagement with what it means to be a human being who is a person of faith. It made me think of the many times in my experience that church leaders attempted to get congregations to reach out to the “other” with God’s love, only to meet resistance from powerful members of the congregation. It made me think of how my own experience of life in small town North Dakota was an experience of sameness upon sameness, and how difficult it is for entrenched communities to embrace outsiders or even begin to understand their experience. It made me think of my own struggle to welcome the “other,” particularly when the other appears unexpectedly and without the context of relationship. It made me think that all too often, my response to new neighbors is fear instead of welcome. And it made me consider that good boundaries in a community are important–and while naysayers and resistant people may have selfish motives, sometimes beneath their self-focused words is a kernel of truth and wisdom which should not be disregarded. Sometimes God uses grouchy, resistant people to put the breaks on leaders who are nearing dangerous cliffs.

And despite all of Pastor Reinke’s flaws and sins, the film challenged me to more commitment to serving my neighbor. Though Pastor Reinke lacked balance and boundaries in his life and though he sinned against his community and family, his vision of church as a place where we serve our neighbors in Jesus’s name was compelling to me. I wouldn’t call him my hero (he did some very bad things), but I would say there is a lot I admire about what he tried to do. I pray that God continues to heal him, his family, his church, and his community from the times when he failed them and hurt them.

The point is, nobody’s good at loving, but we need to do it anyway. Broken people need love.–Pastor Jay Reinke


What do you think? Is there anything in the Christian message that is inspiring to you when it comes to serving your neighbors, particularly those who are very different from you? Can people be terribly flawed, and yet–at the same time–able to do really noble things? When someone betrays your trust, are you able to forgive them, or do you feel they are forever damaged by that failure?

Photo source: © 2014 – Drafthouse Films.


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