For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – Galatians 5:14
The Overnighters unsettles you, right from the very beginning, even as things seem so full of promise and Christian goodwill. The documentary, last year’s Special Jury Award winner at the Sundance Film Festival, opens with Pastor Jay Reinke wandering the darkened halls of his church, singing praise songs, and waking up all the men sleeping on the floor—the outliers in an influx of workers looking to strike gold on the oil fields of rural North Dakota.
Jesse Moss, the film’s writer and director, centers his tale on the enormous social and civic challenges facing these small towns as they navigate the oil boom of the last few years. While major publications like the New York Times have been covering the situation for some time now—the lack of affordable housing leading to homelessness, the lengths that these men go to for employment, the effects of rapid population change on a small community, the increase of crime and prostitution, and the inevitable clash between newcomers and long-term residents—the larger culture seems to have turned a blind eye to these developments. Moss’s documentary invites us to take another look.
There are no easy answers for some of these problems—the inequalities in our world, disparate incomes and opportunities, racial prejudice and discrimination, mental illness—Jay Reinke is with them in the struggle. He is a pastor who can empathize.Ostensibly, the film is about the American Dream—men chasing after wages, after redemption (after all, convicted felons can easily find work in the oil fields)—and what it means for those already situated quite comfortably in that area. But of course it’s also about so much more.
One of my favorite lines comes early on when Pastor Jay talks about what it means to love his neighbor as himself. For him, this means loving people who are at the very margins of society. Loving this kind of neighbor—the scary kind, the ones we are not sure will ever be redeemed—makes perfect sense to Pastor Jay, and it is what causes him to open up his church as temporary housing, as a place to help men get food and company and encouragement. But the camera also pans along the congregation as Pastor Jay leads the Sunday Service, women wearing pastel dresses and Easter hats. And, says Jay, his neighbor is also the parishioner who doesn’t want “the overnighters” in what they deem their space.
Jay is warm, gregarious, caring, yet burdened by a mountain of stress and worry on his back. With his khaki shorts and glasses perched low on his nose, Jay looks like a typical midwestern Lutheran pastor. He is the bridge between two divides—the men who sleep in his church and the congregants who attend and pay his wage.
At one point Jay tells one of the overnighters that it might be a good idea to get his hair cut. Appearances matter the pastor says, with an apologetic shrug. The neighbors, the church people, they look on with suspicion. The man, laughing and joking only moments before, looks slightly stunned. Did Jesus have short hair? he asks. Pastor Jay doesn’t hesitate for a second. Jesus didn’t have our neighbors, he says, and walks off to put out another proverbial fire.
This is not an easy film for anyone who has ever wondered WWJD, for anyone who claims to love and serve that wild, messy prophet-savior Jesus. In The Overnighters Williston, North Dakota, becomes a metaphor for the neighbors we do and do not like to serve. But Jesus truly does love them all. Even when there are no promises that any of them will change.
The documentary asks hard questions: What do we do with the seemingly beyond repair? Where is the church in the ministry to the most broken in our world, the ones who will never have the traditional redemption story, who will never be self-supporting, who always fall by the wayside of addiction and rootlessness?
We tend to shy away from these seemingly dead-end ministries, preferring evangelism and discipleship and church-growth strategies; works of mercy—especially when the dividends are so paltry—are left for the few pious among us to perform, like Pastor Jay. He dons the mantle with fervor, but also ominously opens the documentary with the assertion that we all have vast disconnects between our personal and private selves—even the Mother Theresas among us.
So too must we wrestle with what to do when a congregation is unwilling to engage in the realities of the world they inhabit. Having grown up as a pastor’s child in smaller, conservative churches, I found the tensions of the church meetings and one-on-ones with Pastor Jay painful to watch. Clear-eyed congregants asking when things will return to normal, when the sanctuary will smell better, when the “problem” of these men with literally no other place to sleep will go quietly away. There are fears of danger, fears of sexual predators, fears that this world they now find themselves in—surrounded by the broken and battered—is the new normal.
Pastor Jay tries to listen respectfully while insisting that it his Christian duty to help them. And then, the lines of men waiting to talk to the pastor, the ones coming off drugs, shaking, talking too fast, dark circles under their eyes, expecting another person to dismiss them. Pastor Jay listens, both troubled and hopeful, and hugs them. There are no easy answers for some of these problems—the inequalities in our world, disparate incomes and opportunities, racial prejudice and discrimination, mental illness—he is with them in the struggle. He is a pastor who can empathize.
And this is the real crux of the story. In its final minutes, the narrative takes a sharp turn which was perhaps hinted at all along. Pastor Jay, it turns out, is no unsullied saint, as he’s been warning us the whole time.
The end, however, does not negate the beginning. It is a tale that pervades our oldest Testament, the truth that God uses broken people to help other broken people. Watching Pastor Jay in the final minutes of the film—shattered, sorrowful—I am reminded of David. Not the handsome boy-king who saved everyone, but the adulterer, the murderer, the warlord, the absentee dad, the unhinged. God consistently uses the most broken, damaged people to bring his kingdom. In the end, the very worst parts in ourselves can become the very place from which love and empathy flow freely.
But the church, and indeed the world, is not quite ready for the radical nature of grace and redemption, we are more suited to stories of perfect pastors and men who suddenly learn to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet in scripture it is the wounded and damaged who are able to be authentic before God, who are able to grasp a real and true relationship with a Father who loves them. We have forgotten that in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus, it is the overnighters who have the best seats in the house.