The Overnighters: When Ministry Gets Messy (Movie Review)

You and I are a whole lot more alike than we are different. We’re broken. And we’re in this together.– Rev. Jay Reinke, to a homeless worker

Pastor Jay Reinke never meant to start a program for homeless workers in Williston, North Dakota, when the town was flooded by workers seeking to break into the $15/hour oil business. But somehow, his Concordia Lutheran church becomes a lightning rod for both the men who need a place to stay and for changing the psyche of the town. Because doing good work is important, especially for churches, but not everyone is ready to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and care for the sick. Throw in that some of these men are ex-cons seeking employment (and a place to stay) and you have a full recipe for examining how well the church today follows through on the “five-fingered” gospel laid out by Jesus in Matthew 25, brought to life by Jesse Moss’ excellent documentary.

The church isn’t just the periphery- it’s right in the middle of this. There’s the need of the men who desperately seek somewhere to stay, and the need of the parishioners who were already there, who resent the incursion of these strangers and what they represent. [It’s safe to say that fracking itself will raise some eyebrows depending on your political bent, but we have Matt Damon’s Promised Land for that, right?] Is it the physical aspects of the exploration and use of the land, is it the fact that these people are strangers, or is it the expectations of people based on what they see in the news (there is a traveler-perpetrated murder that stirs up concern) that cause the friction? It seems to be all of the above- and having worked with transient populations in and out of the church, the concerns aren’t strange. [Father Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, even lays out the apt scenario where congregants complain about how their church smells.]

The film itself has been nominated for award at Sundance, Miami International, and the Full Frame Film Festival; at Sundance, Moss took home the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement for Intuitive Filmmaking. It’s that good. And quite frankly, it highlights the kind of situations that we face in the world today- and topics that are wildly more widespread than just in North Dakota. How does your church or community handle people who look or act differently? What are the requirements for service or care (or membership)? What are the disqualifications of those for service or care? What is your comfort level for working with others, and what would you do to go outside of it? What does it mean to care for our neighbors- and how are we anything different than the rich young ruler who asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?”

Pastorally, I was incredibly intrigued by the conversations that Reinke had and some of the real-life stories and perspectives  that some of the men, the pastor, and parishioners were willing to share onscreen. Put the homelessness aside: these are people giving reasons why they don’t feel welcome in church, why they don’t believe they’re redeemable or worthy of love! Again, this is heavy-duty, real-world, people-who-need-love kind of stuff, and Moss’ ability to get people to trust him with their stories is phenomenal.

The camera doesn’t blink when it comes to other dissenting views, even if it means that Reinke doesn’t always look great (or worse). Did he kick one guy out of his house to bring in another, just to make a point? Did he slip one guy money and tell another he couldn’t get a floor space because he had a car? Are his motivations for why he does what he does that fuzzy? The answer to all of them is probably “yes” – because humanity works that way. It’s not black and white; it’s complicated. And rarely have I had a documentary move me this way; it instantly rises in my list of movies most deserving of Oscar consideration this year.

If you’re going to see one documentary this year, see this one.

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About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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