Films depict real, raw role of clergy interacting with community
Filmmaker Jesse Moss didn't grow up going to church.
And he didn't notice the role the local pastors or priests played in the northern California college town where he was raised.
But when he wanted to tell a story about how the oil boom was straining the resources and emotions of a small North Dakota town, Moss was drawn to a Lutheran minister upsetting the community by doing his pastoral duty — providing a bed and a meal to an invasion of strangers looking for work.
"This story was so huge. The film needed a container and the pastor was in the pinch-point of these huge forces," Moss said. "I think what church provided was framework to have moral conversations about choices."
Faith is a familiar theme in film, whether they are documentaries or dramas, but the role of a pastor or priest has often been reduced to stereotypes of a self-righteous prude or a corrupt megalomaniac, said Kutter Callaway, who teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
In the past three years, however, Callaway has seen a shift among independent filmmakers to present a more accurate, well-developed character in religious leaders who struggle to fulfill their spiritual roles. That's the case at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where Moss' "Overnighters" is among a few films that portray the inner-conflicts of religious leaders as they reach out to others.
Moss' documentary tells a "Grapes of Wrath" story about thousands of people from around the world descending on the tiny town of Williston, N.D., to find work in the nearby oil fields, which have been unlocked by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," technology.
While researching the idea, Moss came across a column Pastor Jay Reinke had written in the local newspaper asking residents to welcome the newcomers.
"Pastor Jay was saying let’s not fear the outsiders, but welcome them and that just stood out to me, so I called him," Moss said.
Reinke invited Moss to visit the Concordia Lutheran Church, which had opened its doors and parking lot to people who needed a place to sleep and a meal at night while they hunted for jobs in the day.
Moss describes how the church started a program called the Overnighters to help men who had come to town, desperate for work, who had no place to stay.
But despite Reinke's good intentions, tensions start to boil over among residents and the congregation over transformation of their church and town.
"It was increasingly clear (Reinke) was having trouble containing this force that was the Overnighters program because the influx of people coming to find work never abated," Moss said. "It felt like a pressure cooker and the relentless flood of people caused a gradual erosion of any support he felt was in his congregation or in the community."
Two oil workers had been accused of the murder of a local school teacher before Moss arrived in April 2012 and a few months later the local newspaper identified sex offenders staying at the church and in Reinke's home.
Callaway, who served as a pastor in Colorado Springs, Colo., said it's not uncommon for a congregation or members of a community to push back when reaching out to others poses risks to themselves or their families.
"These are real, pragmatic problems that come up and the answer is not as easy as saying, 'What would Jesus do?" Callaway said.
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