The principal figure is Jay Reinke, the Lutheran pastor who runs the mission. This is the best, richest depiction of a pastor I've ever seen on video. Pastor Reinke is busy damn near around the clock, housing dozens of men on the church floor each night--and trying to pacify church members, the neighborhood, and town officials each day. He tries to be knowing, loving, and authentic in all his many relationships. And he's relentless in pursuing his ministry. If anyone is truly called by God, it would seem to be Pastor Reinke.
But he's in a horribly sticky situation. Men stream into Williston from around the U.S. and around the world seeking a new start. Some are immigrants from Africa. Many are native born U.S. citizens carrying criminal records. They live rough, and that's the point. Each wants a job, a dirty oil field job, and each has a family somewhere else to whom he wants to send most of his wages. So they sleep in their cars, or in dirty RVs, or on the floor of a church, and they eat meals straight out of a tin can. It's the discipline.
The oil companies welcome these men, if needing their labor can be called welcoming them. The town flatly does not welcome them, dreading the crime and the blight associated with these roughnecks. After a point, under the strain of their unremitting need, the church doesn't welcome them either.
Only Jay Reinke and his family truly love and welcome these men.
Most of the film, while rich in detail, traces a sad story of how that love is not enough. The board of elders of Concordia Lutheran Church threatens Pastor Reinke's job if he doesn't close the shelter, and stanch the bleeding of church members quitting and neighbors complaining. Town government, with its fire codes and parking rules, is a machine for maintaining small-town tidiness, and thus a scourge for roughnecks seeking a new start. The town newspaper, claiming civic duty, publishes the names of men in town who are convicted sex offenders. The list includes one man whom Pastor Reinke has been sheltering in his home, unbeknownst to the church.
After months of Reinke's pleading, in formal meetings and one-on-one appeals, the shelter has to close. The viewer has seen this coming. There are some angry scenes in the final reel, where someone or other turns on Jay Reinke. It seems he has made conflicting promises to various people, not all of which he could keep in the end. As he himself admits, Reinke has trouble saying No--a common trait in ministers. Despite good faith and the best intentions, he has disappointed people, and a few, mainly men from the Overnighters, cut him off abruptly.
The final development, however, is one I didn't see coming, and it gutted me. (Spoilers follow.) A man has been blackmailing Jay Reinke over a sexual encounter between them, and the scandal becomes public. I'm not sure who the blackmailer is, but a good bet is that it's one of the oil field workers he has been ministering to. Jay has spoken of his "brokenness" throughout the story; now it appears that the brokenness is his struggle with same-sex attraction. We thought that Jay had lost his pet project, but at least kept his job and his family. He loses both of those in the end. Just ahead of the closing credits, a caption tells us that Jay is looking for work in the North Dakota oil fields.
I suppose at first I was bothered by this twist. I'd been pleased to see a modern-day working pastor in Flyover America, portrayed in a nuanced, unsentimental, but generally positive way. His being in a gay sex scandal didn't fit in my frame. Leaving aside theoretical questions about documentary film, fiction vs. nonfiction--I wanted Jay Reinke to be exemplary.
Having sat with it for a day and a half, I feel better about it. Ministry is dangerous work, so I've heard. I see that more deeply now. Reinke was out on a limb: working too many hours, neglecting his relationship with his family, lacking a friend outside the church or The Overnighters who could lovingly keep him in check. His apparent strength was wedded to a hidden weakness. His Sisyphean determination left no space for lightness, for joy, for release, at least in licit or "constructive" terms. So an illicit compulsion found release.
Or hell, maybe I have it quite wrong, that last bit. Jay Reinke isn't dead, and God isn't finished with him or anyone else in the film. Reinke may resurface as a Brokeback Prairie preacher, or leader among LGBT Lutherans. I'm sure he repents part of his story, but I hope and believe he embraces part of it.