In an early scene of the new documentary The Overnighters, a young man with bloodshot eyes describes how he ended up jobless and homeless in the fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. After a fruitless job search in his Indiana hometown, he read an article claiming there was “boatloads” of work in the oil fields of North Dakota. Desperate, he borrowed money from his grandmother and bought a one-way ticket to Williston. At this point, he leans back in his chair, saying: “It’s been trial after trial and I’m at the end of my rope.” Unconsciously, his hands grip his throat as he leans forward again.
Through this man and others like him, The Overnighters reveals a hidden dark side of American energy production. Beyond environmental concerns, the film adds the fear that this voracious industry treats human beings as expendable in ways reminiscent of the social novels of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Upton Sinclair. However, as stark as they are, neither the human nor the environmental costs of fracking are the main focus of The Overnighters. Rather they provide the ominous background to the more singular story of human desperation found in the film’s subject: Pastor Jay Reinke.
Curious about life in an oil boomtown, San Francisco based filmmaker Jesse Moss began reading the Williston Herald in 2011. His curiosity was kindled by Pastor Jay Reinke’s column, which called on the community to welcome the men traveling to Williston hoping for jobs. Moss noted this as an unusual sentiment in Williston, especially following the kidnapping and murder of Montana schoolteacher Sherry Arnold by men looking for oil work. Moss called Reinke and the pastor explained how he allowed out-of-work newcomers to sleep on the floor of his church. Reinke invited Moss to come see what was happening. Traveling alone, camera in tow, Moss ended up living among the homeless men and women in the church for periods as long as six months, filming this exercise in charity on a daily basis.
There was no noble beginning to the “overnighter” program. A man came into Reinke’s office saying that he had been sleeping in his car for three weeks and couldn’t take it anymore. The pastor offered him the floor of the church. Word spread and Reinke continued saying yes to the desperate men and women who came into his office until the church was housing dozens each night.
Perhaps because of a natural screen presence or because, as a pastor, he is practiced in living a public life, the story irresistibly gravitates toward Reinke. Reinke comes across as energetic and forthright with a compassion born of equal parts idealism and pragmatism. He recites the simple rationale for his work: “I can’t save the world. But there is a man standing in my office. I can help this man.” He hugs the men who unburden their pain on him and begins his days striding cheerfully through his church, gently but insistently waking the sleeping men by singing hymns. The burdens of the desperate men he has befriended become his own and he prays with them: “Oh God. Please. Where we are tempted to despair. Give us hope.” For stretches of the movie the audience is almost willing to believe that he might embody this hope. Almost.
Reinke’s charm is accentuated by his openness and self-consciousness. His positivity is peppered with asides like: “No one has pure motives. Maybe my motivation is that I don’t say ‘no’ very easily and it’s better to say ‘yes’ and live with the consequences.” However, as Reinke’s story unfolds, these comments seem less like reflective self-deprecation and more like the cries of a burdened conscience. As Reinke’s program balloons, accommodating 50 men every night in the church, cracks begin to show in his persona and in the congregation of Concordia Lutheran Church. Belying the etymology of their name (Concordia: of one heart), Reinke’s flock begins to balk at his open-armed stance toward the needy out-of-towners, several of whom have felony convictions. Made uneasy by the men inhabiting their church and dubious of a pastor they perceive as incautious, congregants begin to leave the church. Here, too, Reinke is transparent, acknowledging that just as his faith prompts him to love and serve the overnighters, he is called to love and serve those who don’t want them there.
This tension builds to a dramatic third act revelation that requires a rethinking of Jay Reinke’s work and motivations. The intimacy of this portion of the film is almost off-putting. It includes a conversation between Reinke and his wife in which he reveals something so personal it is almost too uncomfortable to watch. It is helpful to know that initially Pastor Reinke protested the inclusion of this portion of the film, fearing that it detracted from the message of hope the overnighters program represented. However, director Jesse Moss convinced Reinke and his family that their willingness to be open about their lives was a powerful message and would not obscure the message of the film. Reinke has supported the film, helping to present it at Sundance and other festivals.
The opening scene of the film foreshadows the disintegration that Reinke’s persona will undergo. In shadowy twilight, Reinke, facing away from the camera, contemplates how “it is easy to become a facade, maybe especially when you are a pastor.” Only after witnessing Reinke’s personal disintegration does it become possible to understand the depth of torment in these words.
With all of its complexity, it is difficult to know what Reinke’s story means. What does it mean that, even at their best, human beings do good for very complex and sometimes conflicting reasons? Certainly, if we look this closely at anyone’s life, cracks will begin to show. Perhaps Reinke summarizes the meaning best when he states that even in the generous act of welcoming the homeless, he was just “a broken person helping to take care of other broken people.”