Those who have already seen Jesse Moss’ documentary, The Overnighters (opening this Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox) during its run on the festival circuit earlier this year know that it’s a film that’s nearly impossible to talk about without spoiling it. To spoil the film and where the tale of Pastor Jay Reinke from Williston, North Dakota ultimately leads would be to unfairly blunt the dialogue and conversation the film attempts to create. It’s hard, not only because elements creep into the fabric of the film that shouldn’t be spoiled, but also because of how deeply personal things become for Reinke as the film progresses. It makes a potential interview with Reinke refreshing, but awkward because it’s never certain just how fresh the emotional wounds depicted in the film have caused him truly are.
Reinke was a pastor at the Concordia Lutheran Church in a community that was experiencing a sudden and seemingly never-ending influx of migrant and transitory workers from across the world and country. The goal of these workers is to ostensibly gain potentially lucrative employment in the energy sector and in the nearby oil fields. Williston, however, isn’t equipped to take on so many new and impoverished residents, many of whom sleep on the streets and in their cars.
Moss documents Reinke’s efforts to use his church for “The Overnighters” program, an initiative that will allow those without housing to remain on church grounds from sundown to sunup provided that they can keep things clean, lawful, and mostly Christian. What starts off as a noble initiative to curtail a potential homeless epidemic in his small town turns into a public relations nightmare where sometimes frightened community members will look down at the church as an eyesore and a threat to public health and safety.
In person during our talk for the film’s premiere at Hot Docs earlier this year, Reinke remained kind and soft spoken like many pastors would, but still clearly shaken and somewhat weary by his constant need to defend himself in light of where his well meaning initiative placed him and his family within the local media’s perception. It’s also obvious that the more gregarious and analytical Moss finds Reinke not only a great subject to follow, but a great source of strength, around which a better dialogue about the American economic condition can take place.
We talked with Moss and Reinke about the possibility of a new American Great Depression, questioning how a community can help its own, how churches can find themselves in public relations quagmires, and about the dialogue they hope the film brings about.
Dork Shelf: The film touches on something that I don’t think a lot of people realize. People don’t want to come out and say that there’s – to some degree – an economic depression going on in America that’s dated back to the Bush administration. The film positions America as really being in a Grapes of Wrath styled scenario where people have to take a chance, uproot their lives, and go where they can for work. We’re you aware that other communities throughout the U.S. were in similar situations?
Jesse Moss: I’m still surprised, I guess, by the number of people who say they have no idea what’s going on in their country. I guess that’s just because I’ve been living it and because I know it so well. I’m not saying that I’m not paying attention to all these individual stories, but this is definitely an indicator of a national trend. I see – and this relates to that Grapes of Wrath style migration – that we’re becoming a nation where a certain strata or class of working Americans have to move to work because the industries they once relied on in their communities aren’t there anymore.
But the one industry that seems like it will always be there is the one that can meet the demand for energy. Energy doesn’t stay in one place, either. It goes wherever the resources are. And sometimes there’s infrastructure to support that business, and sometimes, like in North Dakota, there isn’t. And yet, it brings in thousands of people. That’s the transformation, and I think that necessity to move, to migrate, to work, it’s been in our history before, but its impact on lives, families, and communities is something I don’t think that people understand, and I think that’s part of what the film explores.
DS: Canada has a similar kind of community like that if you look at the Alberta oil sands communities, so it’s not just an American feeling, but it feels like in this American community there’s a push against helping people who genuinely want to work, and Jay is here trying to make a difference. What’s it like personally to be the only person in a community that’s spearheading a campaign to help people?
Jay Reinke: I was in a position, in a location where that just made it possible. So to be in a position where people would know me as a pastor and as someone who had a building that had floor space, it all came together. We were sort of outside the boundaries. It wasn’t really planned. It all just started with one man. He didn’t even ask. I offered him a place to stay, or else he would have been living in his car.
I guess when you ask that question, it forces me to ask myself “What am I doing now for these people?” Nothing. So I’m kind of in a point where other people were before and I’m not doing anything for them. I have to really wrestle with that. Why am I not doing anything for these people? Granted, at one point I was able to and in many ways that was really wonderful, but so many people don’t know how to respond, or maybe they’re just fearful of what the long term implications of helping people might be.
DS: In this community, there’s an interesting push and pull between what they want and the burden they don’t want placed on them. They want the industry, but they don’t want what it will take to build that industry. You experienced a lot of that first hand. There’s a huge boom in terms of the energy and money that could be brought into the community, but at the same time, they don’t actually want to face the fact that they need a bigger work force, and that the people who would likely take these jobs are the kinds of people who would make residents uneasy for a variety of founded and unfounded reasons.
JR: I think that’s really one of the biggest misconceptions when we talk about where the incoming money will be going. The community before this time had largely been retailers and wholesalers who would benefit from a lot of these new arrivals and the new industry, but largely the community itself won’t see anything. All of that goes to the state.
JM: But the state has to kick some of that back, right?
JR: But they have to PLEAD to see any of it. So, it’s not like the community is flush with money all of a sudden. The roads are still going unrepaired and unpaved.
JM: I mean, a lot of it is just that the rate of growth and expansion is just such that it’s just literally ripping the community apart at the seams. The roads are cracking, law enforcement is overburdened, housing can’t keep up. There’s a feeling that the market will correct itself and things will stabilize, but the growth continues to soar.
You’re right, though. It’s an uneasy embrace where this organism just moves in and kind of tears you apart. It’s beneficial in some ways. Some people will make a lot of money. But it will fundamentally transform the character of life. In a town that had become accustomed to a small town way of life, that’s a huge burden to place on them all at once.
JR: I do think that Williston was – especially because of the last boom – was so stable, which I’m not sure is quite the right word since nothing was really moving, that it stayed as just this homogenous society. There wasn’t much move there. I said this in the film, but it’s true when I say that I’m not even sure I belonged there. I was on the outside twenty years ago, and I’m just not really a part of the fabric of the community. It’s a very stationary environment, and now all of this is coming at it, and it’s hard to receive it all.
DS: It’s eye opening in the film when you’re sitting down with some of your parishioners and one of them states that what you’re doing is a PR issue. That kind of blew my mind since I thought helping people was something that shouldn’t be viewed as a PR issue.
JR: You mean in terms of its impact on the neighbours?
DS: Yeah, I find it strange that a church organization would have to go through something like that when they take a stand on a community issue.
JM: Well, you have to manage perception. Some of that has to deal not just with the general character of the place and general sense of unease and fear that gets directed at them – the manifestation of that fear of what’s growing in their backyard that gets directed back at the church – but that climate of fear around the murder of Sherry Arnold. That fear was maybe out of proportion with the actual reality. Those fears take on a life of their own, and they become tools that can be wielded for political or commercial purposes. That creates a perception problem.
The other thing, [to Jay} is that you were really careful about things. We used to kind of joke that Jay could have a second career in politics. That’s an arena where perceptions are important, too, but you would talk about the program and these men, and you called them The Overnighters because you didn’t want to use the term homeless. Because that’s a term that connotes something specific to people in their mind; this picture of a dysfunctional shelter dweller. That is NOT who these people were, and when they were that kind of person, you generally turned them away, anyway. But that one word, that perception, that’s a PR problem.
JR: And so much so that I would tell the men to not go to the city park. Because there were guys who would hang around that park who weren’t going anywhere. They would just sit there, drink all day, and expect everything to come to them. That was the fearful side of it for the community from my perspective. I literally and expressly told the people with us that you could not go to the park. I could not afford to have them look like they were associated with those people.
Because perception IS everything. Say, for example, you see a bunch of teenagers standing on a corner, and they’re just standing there in a pack and think about where your mind goes from there. I think you always have to be managing and making sure that you try to minimize a visual impact on people. I really did preach that! I really did that. I always said, “Now is not the time to draw attention to yourself. Now is the time where you have to fit in. It’s not the time to assert your individuality. It’s time to blend.” Because the community isn’t ready for that. You would be helping your neighbour by softening that impact.
DS: Well, when you put a label to anything, the first reaction is to stigmatize it. The film and what you did, show that most people who are classified as homeless are actually more transient than anything else; people who will bounce around looking for new opportunities.
JM: That’s something very true. There’s a huge segment of the American population that in this economy struggles to secure affordable housing. People live in their cars and campers, but they work. Maybe they have money, but they can’t afford a stable place to live. I feel like this is an indicator of a trend that’s not only happening in Williston, but in my own hometown of Palo Alto, California. That’s a prosperous place, one of the most in the United States and the epicentre of Silicon Valley, but it has a similar problem. Williston is not an anomaly and alone in having to grapple with these questions. There’s a church in Palo Alto that was putting people up that were homeless, and they got into trouble with the neighbours and there was a great deal of litigation. It’s definitely not unique to Williston.
DS: Now that the film has been playing in other areas of the country, have you been hearing about other communities that have been going through similar growing pains?
JM: I think there’s been a recognition that the film creates this space for a dialogue around really profound and important questions that we face as a society, be it about living-wage work, questions of faith, questions of opportunity, and I think it allows people who come from very different places to engage those questions.
The recognition gained by bringing the film around via non-traditional methods –whether it’s to church congregations or to community showings in towns that don’t have art house cinemas or don’t show documentaries – will help show that. That’s why I wanted to make this film, to precisely start talking about that. I wanted to talk about this program in the hopes that it wouldn’t be lost to time. But Jay and I made this journey from two very different stations and places in life, and this movie allows that journey to be shared and to keep going.
That’s what our limited festival and travelling experience has showed us. I think people are moved, and they want to try to show it to others.
DS: There’s also an interesting portrait of Christianity on display. I think in many ways it shows a truer Christian ideal of what people should strive to be in their community if that’s the path they want to follow. It makes people think about the concept of what makes someone a “good Christian.” A lot of members of the community identify as Christians, but they also see things in very black and white, cut and dry terms. Do you, Jay, see that sort of mentality as being a problem within some church communities?
JR: Well, I’m not sure this really answers your question, but I do want to say this: it’s not the case to say that if churches aren’t giving people a place to stay that they’re somehow wrong. That’s just not the case. I mean, in many cases a lot of churches wouldn’t be sure what to do in this kind of a situation or have the means. It is a circumstance where unusual things came together, I saw an opportunity to serve, and I’m pretty big on that.
But I guess I’m just grateful for the fact that I could think this way and for people to understand what I was trying to do. The other night at a screening, a woman said, “We would love to look at this film in our church so people can ask themselves what we can do.” Maybe it won’t be something like this, but rather than call someone else to do something, maybe people will ask what they can do in their own community. I really appreciate when that kind of a question gets posed. People can maybe start to imagine that they could do something.
JM: I think if anyone see the film as a value towards having that kind of a conversation is helpful, You could have a sermon, or maybe you could watch the film as a way to show people what the country is facing. It’s emotional and illuminating, and I think the film can be very effective in bringing people to a place of conversation.
JR: You know, Jesse, i don’t think I ever thought about that before. (laughs) No offense to you. (laughs) I always thought, “Oh yeah, people are just going to sit in church and watch a movie.” I mean, people DO that all the time (laughs), but now having seen people react that way, I get it. I actually got an invitation the other night from someone who asked if I would like to come to their church and speak after the film.
Just the fact that people are asking these questions, and what the needs are in front of them, and who their neighbours are, and what they can do, is what I like. That conversation is engaging, and I really like that the film has that sense of ownership and personal risk that it invites other people to take a closer look at those questions.