The initial intrigue to Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters was not a familiarity with his previous material. His filmography is fairly well-known, with documentary work like Full Battle Rattle that won awards at SXSW and was nominated for an Emmy, as well as some cinematography and direction work with National Geographic. What drew me in was the premise of a pastor ministering in the modern-day boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. What sort of compelling narrative could be structured from the day-to-day work of a pastor in a Midwestern city? As a pastor in a slightly bigger midwestern city, my life is honestly not that compelling from week-to-week, so I wondered what could possibly make this story something worth documenting.
I was certainly not disappointed once watching this film. Moss captures the work of Pastor Jay Reinke and his church, Concordia Lutheran Church, as they seek to be a place of refuge and a home to people traveling from all over the world to find work and hope in Western North Dakota. The consistent thread of every person they highlight is this theme of a hope for a better future. Reinke takes in these people that have come seeking a better future and helps them to search for work and give them a place to stay, since there is literally no place for many of these people to sleep, even if they have a job. The demand in the city is too great, as is the need among the people that show up at Concordia Lutheran Church, and the main conflict and narrative is the back and forth between Williston’s citizens and these newcomers to their city. Pastor Reinke fights to keep his Overnighters ministry open as the citizens of Williston and the city government express their heightening concerns over so many desperate and needy people coming into their city that threatens their once quaint and small town existence.
This main narrative paces the documentary and it meanders between the main thread of Reinke’s ministry, his family, and conflicts and these smaller stories of some of the people he cares for in the Overnighters ministry. As the story progresses we see Pastor Reinke’s heart for these displaced and downtrodden people. He is staunchly committed to Jesus’ command to “love you neighbor” and to care for the foreigner and alien in your midst, an echo of God’s call to the Israelites to be a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations. Pastor Reinke hugs a man clearly affected by years of drug abuse after he expresses the difficulty of following after God, invites these men (with his family’s agreement) to live in his home, and cares for people that no one else wants anything to do with; criminals, sex offenders, drunks, etc. There is an amazing, inspirational tenacity to his love for these people and something any Christian believer could imitate.
It is easy, especially as a pastor, to become a facade. You have a public persona that you come to believe and your private person is something completely different. When that happens the result is always pain.
However, and this is what makes Moss’ movie so great, is that Reinke also is a human, and therefore has many foibles. Pastor Reinke is a caring man but he can also be harsh, angry, and unyielding. At the beginning of the movie, he sits among the graffiti littered ruins of an old church (a beautifully well done shot) and opines that it is easy, especially as a pastor, to become a facade. You have a public persona that you come to believe and your private person is something completely different. When that happens the result is always pain. It is a beautiful observation of the peril and paradox of Christian ministry. On one hand we have a great thing in caring for the poor and oppressed, but if we are not careful we can be swallowed up by the very thing we are striving for. It’s not just an inspirational tale of one man’s love for others, but also a caution to blazing that trail at the expense of others.
I believe that every pastor and every church planter, but really any Christian of any denominational stripe, should sit down and watch and then discuss this movie. It confronts us with what it means to truly love our neighbors and to count the cost of loving those who are different and even dubious. Not only that, but it illuminates a lot of perilous and paradoxical aspects of the Christian faith. How do we balance being salt and light to everyone, not just those we think have needs, and what do we do when our love for others causes conflict and scandal? It prevails on our notion that loving our neighbor is all touchy feely and confronts us with the reality that love is messy and really hard work. The inspiration is just as confrontational as the caution and it makes this movie so wonderfully impelling and earnestly advisory.