Saturday, April 26
WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — At the end of another backbreaking shift, North Dakota oil workers shuffle back to their barracks and line up in the cafeteria to refuel with plates of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and cake, trudging past flyers advertising a weekly non-denominational religious service.
The grizzled men ignore the invitation from Bakken Man Camp Ministries, but the missionaries are undeterred. In a room down the hall, they sing hymns, watch a recorded television sermon and pray for the drilling crews who live in these prefabricated quarters far from their homes and families.
When the oil and gas boom took off, tens of thousands of workers flocked here for jobs. Missionaries soon followed. Many of them now say the work is every bit as challenging as seeking converts in Africa or Asia — because of the roughnecks' transient lifestyles, their exhausting round-the-clock shifts and the fact that many work camps won't let them in.
"If the apostle Paul were alive today, he would either be in Williston or on his way to Williston," said Will Page of Cornerstone First Baptist Church, in the town that is the capital of the state's oil boom. "There is an opportunity here to share the Gospel that you do not see in other places."
Most workers are here short-term, hoping a few months or a year of hard work will yield enough money to start a family or buy a house somewhere else. The just-passing-through feel is both an opportunity and a hindrance to those trying to spread the word.
"People are more receptive to the message when they're going through changes in their lives," Page said. "It's just human nature."
But, said Sacramento, Calif., native Mike Skor, lead pastor at Williston's New Hope Church, "we don't have a lot of time to build that relationship."
Jim Konsor first came here two years ago as part of that transient society when a friend found him a job digging scoria, a pumice-like rock used to build roads and drilling pads. Living in a trailer in Watford City, an hour's drive south of Williston, he made a daily trek to the town's water tower to catch a cellphone signal to call his wife.
That's how Konsor saw the other side of the boom: People who had moved to the oil patch hoping for a new start, only to find themselves dragged deeper into hardship in a boom economy where big paychecks can be swallowed fast by the high cost of living, like apartments that run $2,000 a month.
Today, he and his wife, Kathie, head the Bakken Oil Rush Ministry, named after the formation that lies beneath northwestern North Dakota. The group's logo, emblazoned on a 29-foot camper they use to distribute clothes, blankets and household items to the disadvantaged, takes the traditional Methodist cross and flame and warps it into a fire intended to resemble the gas flares that burn across oil country.
Like missionaries on overseas assignments, the teams spreading the word in North Dakota must adapt to their surroundings.
"We're trying to learn the culture of the oil field and the chaos of the work schedule," Konsor said.
The long shifts required of oil workers mean that holding services or other events at traditional times, such as Sunday morning, won't work for many roughnecks.
"They're out on a rig. They're driving a truck. They're doing something else on Sunday morning," Page said.
Page's church holds Thursday night services for oil workers, some of whom show up in their overalls straight from the field. Members of Skor's church hold informal early morning meetings at restaurants, where men can discuss fatherhood, the long separation from wives or girlfriends and, of course, religion.
Another obstacle is the isolated nature of the camps. Most of them prohibit visitors, including church groups and missionaries. For those, Skor's church relies on congregation members who live in the camps or work in the oil fields to act as "missionaries on the spot."
John David, a 19-year-old member of Page's church, sought to do that when he recently went straight from a service to evangelize at Walmart. David, who moved from Texas to leave behind some drug problems and get a new start with a water-transport company in the oil patch, walked the aisles offering to pray for people.
Some shoppers ignored him or shot hostile looks. One who listened was Nathan Quailes, 30, who left family in Delaware to work in the oil patch. When David asked whether Quailes had anyone he could pray for, it touched a nerve.
"He might actually say something that's pretty significant where I can learn something, so once I saw that everything was fine, I didn't have a problem talking to him and listening to him," Quailes said.
Skor's church is trying other tactics, too, including building a coffee shop on its premises and a new worship area that will double as a theater — both bids to lure people with entertainment options in a town that doesn't have a lot of them.
"It's going to have the best sound and light in town," Skor said.