A couple of weeks ago I got the chance to do an extended review of the very high quality documentary by Jess Moss, The Overnighters, over at Reel Thinking. For those of you who might have missed it, here is that review and the original link to the Reel Thinking post. Check out their website, as well. Blaine just had a guest post on the new horror film It Follows, and they have a great site!
Typically how pastors have been portrayed in movies is not really always favorable. It’s a tough thing to pull off an authentic pastor/priest in a movie or TV (just ask The Walking Dead, who can’t seem to get it right in the comics or TV), and as is often the case, the portrayal is either too simplistic, too insanely over-the-top, or just plain absent. While you don’t need a pastor or clergy member to effectively tell a spiritually significant story, when done well a narrative with a significant clergy presence can be very profound (see Calvary from last year).
The Overnighters, on the other hand, is a feature-length documentary from Jesse Moss (Full Battle Rattle, Speedo) that is a non-fiction portrayal of a Midwestern pastor that is one of the best and most significant portrayals of a pastor on-screen that I have ever seen. It focuses on the “Overnighters” ministry to the many people traveling from all over the world to find work in the modern day boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. The ministry is the work of Pastor Jay Reinke and Concrodia Lutheran Church, where he pastors and where many of these hopeful people eat and sleep. The church has responded to the need to house the hundreds of people who don’t have homes yet have jobs or are still looking for jobs.
While it is an immensely inspiring story of a pastor and the church responding to Jesus’ call to care for those in need in their community, this ministry and the people who are ministered to are just one element of a very compelling and layered narrative. Pastor Jay Reinke’s personal story opens and closes the movie and is by far the most captivating storyline that Moss explores. An incredibly gifted and loving man, Pastor Reinke is also an incredibly flawed human, like all of us. Pastor Reinke’s story highlights the passion and the peril of Christian ministry.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2
The ministry to the “Overnighters” is the passionate pursuit of Jay Reinke, and the movie makes no doubt about it. It is evident from an early scene where around the dinner table his wife recounts that when she first met him he had a Native American homeless man living in his basement. He has the gift of hospitality, and that heart of Jay’s is the driving engine behind the ministry to these displaced and homeless men and women (although it is mostly men). Reinke’s passion for the people he ministers to keeps him going when things got difficult. Without a love for people, as Jay shows, there is no way our efforts will be sustainable and last for the long haul.
A love for people will also foster a passion to see people progress in their discipleship and faith. We echo Paul’s love for the Philippians when he said that to remain with them, “for [their] progress and joy in the faith.” (Philippians 1:25). There are a number of people in the film who have stuck around to continue to help with the Overnighters ministry and it is a joy to see their progress in faith from having none to helping love others. Without this type of passion to see people actually progress in ministering to others, again, our resolve would be lacking.
One particularly poignant portion of the movie is when he is sitting down and talking to a man who clearly has had issues with drugs and alcohol. He describes his life and his pursuit of God but eventually breaks down in tears over the difficulty of following Jesus and having the problems he has. Pastor Reinke hugs him and assures him he is loved and prays with him. Later, he tracks the guy down as he is leaving town to make sure he is doing alright. It is a great moment where we see the passion for people and their progress in the faith in Pastor Reinke’s actual pursuit and follow up of this broken man.
It is Pastor Reinke’s love amidst the brokenness of these people that is the biggest reminder of that our love of others comes from a passion for a person: Jesus Christ. From his prayers to God to his morning singing of the doxology, we see that no ministry can sustain itself without a firm commitment to Christ (Eph 4:15; Col 2:19). I was blown away by the example of Pastor Reinke and Concordia Lutheran Church as well as their firm commitment to Christ through worship, prayer, and Bible Study with the people they were ministering to.
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:11
The first third of the movie is incredibly inspirational in showing the loving and life-shaping impact the Overnighters ministry is having on all of these displaced and hopeless individuals. However, what makes this movie special and what adds lots of humanity is when the cracks and weaknesses of both the ministry and Pastor Reinke’s life start to show amidst the pressure of taking care of people and the outside pressure of those in the city. It shows us that ministry may be and need a passion, but it is also incredibly perilous.
At the halfway point of the movie it becomes abundantly clear that, although this ministry is incredibly beneficial to so many, both the regular congregation of Concordia Lutheran and the community of Williston opposes much of what Pastor Reinke is doing. Reinke stumps both in congregational meetings and at city councils that being a Christian people means caring for those who are homeless and in need, but all the congregation and city can see is the drastic change in their lives. As one church members puts it, “it’s not the “Christian” thing to think, but these people are taking over my plains, my prairie.” These scenes reminds us that no matter how good the work is that we are doing, we will come up against strong opposition from within (the church body) and without (the world).
Not only will we see opposition, but an equally large peril is that in our desire to share Christ with and love others, you will be disliked. One of The Overnighters more difficult scenes is when a long time leader of the Overnighters ministry messes up (his own sin) and is forced by Jay to be done helping and leave in order to keep up the appearance of the ministry. As he leaves he verbally chews out Pastor Reinke and voices his displeasure at his choices and leadership. Whether justified because of our own sin or unjustified because of other people’s sins against us, there are going to be people who, despite your best efforts, will not like you.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” John 15:18
Lastly, and largely the most gut-punching for a pastor, is that not only will the world dislike you but it can be even more sinister when people like you. When you are liked and adored for your ministry, i.e. have a movie made about it, there is a temptation to buy into that significance and begin to believe the hype and adoration. Many of the choices made in the movie set Pastor Reinke on a path where the Overnighters ministry swallows up his identity, his family, and his life. In his own words, “It’s easy to become a facade, maybe especially when you’re a pastor, but I know for me. The public persona, you can believe that, and the private person becomes something else. And the result is always…pain.”
The grueling realizations made in this documentary force us to confront what we are really worshipping. Every church planter and pastor, really any Christian of any denomination, should watch this movie and discuss it afterwards. When we separate our daily work and especially our ministry from the person of Jesus Christ, it will almost certainly fall apart and result in pain. However, when we connect our passion for people and people’s progress with the person of Jesus Christ, we are assured that he will be with us and will deliver us from temptation and be a shelter from the storm in perilous times.
Go see this movie, if you have not seen it, and make sure to digest it and discuss it with others to enrich this movie going experience. You can watch The Overnighters on Netflix Instant, as well as rent or buy it from major digital providers such as iTunes and Amazon.
This review was originally posted on Reel Thinking on March 5th, 2015.