WILLISTON, N.D. – Each time someone new arrives at Concordia Lutheran Church looking for a place to stay, the Rev. Jay Reinke has the same reaction: “Oh Lord, not another one.”
The small Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Williston has 30 to 40 job-seekers sleeping inside the church on a typical night, with dozens more who stay in their vehicles in the church parking lot.
The practice started in May 2011 after a man from Idaho told Reinke he was going to give up and go home. Reinke invited him to sleep on the floor of the church.
After that, a second man stayed, and the numbers gradually grew. A total of 450 people – primarily men – have slept inside the church while they searched for work and housing, along with an unknown number who have called the parking lot home.
New arrivals to Williston are often unprepared for the city’s severe housing shortage driven by the influx of people looking for oil jobs. Those in need of housing quickly hear about Concordia through word of mouth.
When they arrive, Reinke gives them the same message:
“I’ll say, ‘I need to tell you that you are a gift. You’re a gift to us. You’re a gift to Williston. Welcome,’ ” Reinke said. “Sometimes men have just started to cry. They have been so alone, they’ve just really suffered. And they haven’t felt welcomed.”
The number of guests sleeping on cots or on the church floor peaked at 54 in one night. Reinke aims to keep it in the 30s, but sometimes it’s tough.
Last week, the church already had more than 40 people registered, but then a pregnant woman who was two weeks from her due date arrived with nowhere to sleep but her car.
“How do you say no to a pregnant woman?” Reinke asked.
Reinke often gets creative rather than turn people away. Last week, the church library where women sleep was full, so Reinke brought his family’s Chevy Lumina to the church parking lot and let two women sleep inside. In other cases, he has allowed people to sleep inside his 15-passenger van.
Guests are allowed access to the building no earlier than 9 p.m. unless they’re part of a Bible study. Doors lock at 11 p.m., and everyone needs to be out of the building and parking lots by 8 a.m. They also take turns doing cleaning chores each morning.
The church keeps records of all of the people who stay in the building and does background checks. If someone breaks the rules, such as drinking alcohol, Reinke asks them to leave.
“There’s people that we have to kick out,” Reinke said. “That’s hard, that’s really hard, but we have to.”
Some stay for just a night or two, but many stay for weeks or months.
Steve Tanck, a 56-year-old husband and father of two from a suburb of St. Louis, stayed in his van in the church parking lot last week. Tanck, who has owned two businesses and is a journeyman electrician, said he submitted several applications online before coming to Williston, but didn’t receive a single phone call.
“If you want the job, it seems like you have to be here,” Tanck said. “You get here and there’s no place for you. That’s why we have this train wreck.”
Bob Guderjohn, who has been one of Concordia’s elders for 18 years, said there were some community discussions about developing an emergency shelter or other solution, but those plans seem to have disintegrated.
“Nobody stepped up other than Pastor Reinke and our church,” said Guderjohn, adding that community members and other churches have made financial contributions.
The “overnighters,” as Reinke calls them, have created some stress for the congregation.
Guderjohn, a former deputy sheriff, said he was strongly against letting people stay overnight until he started getting to know them.
“The vast majority of them are simply people trying to make it work,” he said.
Last week, Reinke hosted Bible studies for the overnighters and as many as 40 people attended and were actively engaged in the discussion. Some who have stayed at the church have become church members or are taking classes to become members. Reinke has baptized two of the overnighters.
“One guy said ‘Pastor, there’s no way I’m leaving this church. This has been so helpful, what I’m learning here,’ ” Reinke said. “That to me just gets me going. And it’s worth all the effort that it takes.”
But for congregation members who haven’t had the opportunity to get to know the men, it can make some in the small church feel uncomfortable to have 10 to 12 unfamiliar men sitting in the back pew on Sunday mornings, Reinke said.
He tries to have the men introduce themselves, which often breaks down some of the tension.
Some of Concordia’s neighbors have raised concerns about the overnight guests, who now fill both the front and rear parking lots of the church every night.
Reinke is trying to respond to neighbor concerns, including adding a portable toilet to the rear parking lot. He also is asking those who stay in the lot to arrive no earlier than 8 p.m. and to socialize behind the church, rather than in front or on the street.
“When there’s groups of men standing around, people get nervous,” Reinke said. “They just do.”
Most nights, Reinke is at the church at 9 p.m. when it opens to the guests and he often does devotions with them. Reinke returns at 6:45 a.m. each day to walk through the church and wake the guests up by singing “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.”
“And they like it,” said Reinke, who has led the church for 19 years.” If I don’t show up they’ll say, ‘Pastor we missed your song this morning.’ ”
The hours get long for Reinke, but what keeps him going is hearing stories from guys about being able to send money home to their families and paying off mortgages.
“Despite the frustrations, I am the recipient of so many blessings because of these people,” Reinke said. “Yeah, there are burdens, and yes there are difficulties, and yes you’ve got to say no sometimes. So what? It’s worth it. It is worth it.”
To see a photo gallery of Concordia Lutheran Church, visit www.inforum.com/event/photogallery/id/2319/