Hopes for new life dashed in America’s oil boom-town

Pastor Jay Reinke goes over the rules for his Overnighters program. (Credit: Drafthouse Films)

The American Dream is alive in North Dakota. The latest frontier in the great American oil scramble attracts people across the country and around the world with the hopes of striking it rich. Stories trickle back home of people making six-figure salaries for jobs involving physical labor. People, mostly men, show up daily to turn around their luck after years of hardship. For some, the move is in the hopes that a new life can begin and the many troubles will remain in the past.

The people arriving by the day in Williston quickly find it is not what they expected. The challenges of finding work and a place to live led many who arrived in the town to Pastor Jay Reinke and his Overnighters program. The Lutheran pastor opened up the doors of his church to provide the new arrivals a place to eat, sleep, receive counseling and on Sundays, to pray. The program quickly proved controversial within the church community and the town of Williston. Parishioners questioned the goals and motives for letting strangers, and in some cases former criminals, stay in Concordia Lutheran Church.

The Overnighters program and the story of a new American boomtown drew filmmaker Jesse Moss to Williston.

“What drew me to this story to begin with is that this is American mythology made real,” Moss said in an interview with Humanosphere.

“That there is a modern-day boom town is interesting. You see the promise that it offers is seductive. It is a place where people generally don’t care if you went to jail if you can do a good job. You can’t leave your burdens on your way out there.”

He stayed at the church with the other guests for six months, filming their stories and the charismatic pastor who sought to support the struggling newcomers. The resulting documentary, The Overnighters, ends up placing a greater focus on Reinke as he attempts to preserve his program. And like the men he tries to help, he cannot escape his past or his true self.

“From the moment I met Jay, it was electrifying. I knew something important was happening there,” said Moss. “He was pretty besieged after six months of running the program.”

Reinke attempts to reach out to the greater community to build support with mixed results. Yet, it is his attempt to be everything to everyone that is behind the eventual undoing of the program.

With familial support, Reinke allows a California man named Keith Graves to stay in his home. The decision was due to the fact that Graves is a sex offender and Reinke wanted to support him without drawing negative attention to the Overnighters program. However, doing so meant telling another man, Paul, who was staying with the Reinke family he had to leave.

It sets off a series of events that lead to the downfall of Reinke and his program. The documentary also introduces some of the men who participate in the Overnighters program and their challenges in trying to make it in Williston. Like Graves and Reinke, they too are unable to find the dream of success that they hoped for in going to Williston.

Other accounts and promotional material liken the documentary to John Steinbeck’s seminal Grapes of Wrath. The initial idea and the way the story begins is very much similar to the novel about a family’s hardship during the dust bowl. The economic downturn in 2008 set many Americans back. With little opportunity, the oil boom of North Dakota sounded to many men like the answer to all of their prayers. It was sold as the very embodiment of the American dream; success is possible through hard work.

Reinke is shown in this film production still addressing oil-patch workers from his church pulpit. (Credit: Drafthouse Films)

Reinke is shown in this film production still addressing oil-patch workers from his church pulpit. (Credit: Drafthouse Films)

Moss gained remarkable access, due in large part to the fact that he filmed it himself.

“When I think about the intimate places the film goes, I think it was because I went it alone, just with the camera,” said Moss.

The most intimate comes at the end and can be only described as a major plot twist. The trust built by Moss allows him to partake in intimate discussions and moments in the lives of the people he films. As a result, viewers gain a glimpse into the reality of a frontier American town. Moss calls it a corrective to the oil boom story and it achieves that by showing just what happens to a town when oil is discovered.

“This is a goliath of industry that moved in and shattered a way of life that people rightly have a nostalgia for,” he said.

Reinke, the man who was trying to help broken men rebuild their lives, is now on the other side of the pulpit. The ramifications of the program have left the pastor now working in the oil industry. And Keith Graves, the man who stayed at Reinke’s home will go to trial in January for forcing women into prostitution and trafficking them.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.