The Pastor Who Scandalized His Town

When the Rev. Jay Reinke threw open his church doors to welcome would-be workers to Williston, North Dakota, it was the beginning of a drama that would engulf him and the community.

Jerod Harris/Getty

There are many moments in The Overnighters, an astonishing documentary set amid the North Dakota oil boom that opens Friday at New York’s IFC Center and later this fall in cities nationwide, where the truth seems almost unbearable.

In one such scene, the Rev. Jay Reinke is shown ministering to a desperate Arizona man named Todd, a visitor with a history of drug abuse, alcoholism and aggravated assault—and looks it. He has turned up on Reinke’s doorstep in the 21st century boomtown of Williston.

At this particular moment in the film, Reinke is the pastor of the Concordia Lutheran Church, and—despite the concerns and even objections of his congregation, and the ire of certain citizens of the town—he has offered Army cots, floor space and parking spots to scores of unemployed men like Todd who’ve arrived from places as far away as Iraq, looking for work and shelter.

He throws his arms around Todd, who’s in the midst of confessing his evil ways and adding that he was born only because his mother was raped.

“Can I tell you something? You and I are a whole lot more alike than we are different,” the good reverend announces. “I’m broken. We’re broken. We’re just broken. We’re in this together.”

Little more than a year after documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss captured that fraught encounter, Reinke’s life, along with that of his wife and three kids, has been shattered apart and cobbled together in surprising, painful and possibly hopeful ways.

Reinke lost his pulpit and was drummed out of the conservative Missouri Synod of the Lutheran denomination. He has been hounded by muckraking newspaper reporters—one of whom is shown chasing him down the street and asking accusatory questions like a modern-day Javert.

He has struggled to keep his marriage together after confronting some inconvenient truths about himself. He has just begun to recover from an ordeal he calls “The Scandal,” only recently lifting his eyes from the pavement to greet neighbors as he strolls through downtown Williston. (The revelation of the nature of that “scandal”—no spoilers here—proves the film’s pivotal moment.)

Although he’s finally found another job, Reinke dearly wishes he could earn a living at something other than selling welding equipment and other gear to oilfield companies.

“Oh, man, today’s been a comedy of errors,” Reinke says over the phone after a hard day’s toil. “I was not born to work the pipelines, let me tell you.”

Warning that his cell phone might die at any moment, Reinke adds: “I don’t like working in the pipeline industry. I enjoy working with customers if I feel like I’m serving them well. But I don’t know this industry. When I don’t feel competent I don’t like my job. It’s a very steep learning curve for me. I’m not by nature an industrial kind of guy or a mechanic kind of guy. But it’s getting better for me. I’m really getting to where the process is going okay. It’s just not my passion.”

In a separate phone call, Moss tells me: “Jay can never be a pastor again in that denomination. So he works for a company that provides oilfield supplies. It’s hard for him—a kind of penance. He’s a really smart man. He’s got great gifts. And yet he’s selling latex gloves to oilfield workers.”

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The San Francisco-based Moss—who, with his wife, producer and editor Amanda McBaine, has made documentaries on subjects ranging from a demolition derby driver to a virtuosic con man—was irresistibly drawn to Reinke’s story, and that of the men he tried to assist, as a “Grapes of Wrath made real.”

At the same time that the country as a whole was suffering from a deep economic recession, the exploitation of North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation was setting off an explosion of prosperity and greed that continues to lure thousands of men and a few women who show up uninvited in search of high-paying jobs.

The sparsely-populated prairie state can hardly accommodate the rush; rents are through the roof, and many of the new arrivals, separated from families back home, end up sleeping in their cars, or worse.

Reinke felt called upon by his faith to help—and when Moss read in The Williston Daily Herald about the pastor’s “overnighters” program, he was more than intrigued.

“I flew into Williston through Denver and went right to the church and met Jay,” says Moss. “And immediately, when I set foot in the church, it was electrifying. There were these guys who stepped off the bus or the train that day, had their bedrolls over their shoulders. They were looking for a place to stay. They had left their families. And Jay was shouldering these powerful forces—caught between the migrants and the town, straddling both, and trying to balance them.”

Reinke invited Moss to stay at the church. “I was at first on a cot, and then in a succession of accommodations,” he says. “I was in the ‘snorers room’ for a little while, where they segregated the snorers, and then onto a couch, which was quite luxurious by comparison. The cots were miserable. It smelled like dirty feet and cigarettes. But it was a really incredible place to stay. There was a lot of life force and humanity, and a lot of community. Jay had really created something pretty extraordinary there.”

Reinke and his family quickly welcomed Moss into their lives, and his camera was rolling during some excruciatingly intimate moments—also some comically dangerous ones, as when a young woman pulled a shotgun on Reinke, and tried to beat off Moss with a broom, as the pastor attempted to retrieve a congregant’s parked RV off of someone else’s private property.

In a deftly seamless manner that has already earned The Overnighters several prizes, including the Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Moss and his editors managed to weave subplots of betrayal, vengeance and catastrophe into the mix.

You can’t take your eyes off Reinke. He pops from the screen as a charismatic, occasionally messianic “human prism,” as Moss calls him. He cries easily—sometimes “crocodile tears,” says Moss, who despite his self-professed lack of emotional expressiveness, ended up shedding tears off camera with his star.

Like many a compelling clergyman, Reinke is a natural performer, and it’s difficult to say if the camera loves Reinke more than he loves the camera. “I don’t know anyone who has pure motives,” Reinke admits, “and I don’t trust anyone who says that they do.”

“Jay’s very open and very upfront,” Moss says. “There was not a lot of foreplay.”

“I tend to be more open,” Reinke agrees. “What are we hiding here? There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are no secrets here.” (Actually, there were.)

Working alone with a high-resolution Sony F3 35mm digital camera and operating his own sound equipment, Moss was virtually embedded for 18 months—from April 2012 to September 2013—visiting every couple of weeks from San Francisco and chronicling a series of events that became far more dramatic, unsettling, and heartrending than anyone could have imagined, culminating in a tearful and deeply uncomfortable confessional in a Williston deli between Reinke and his wife, Andrea.

“I didn’t think that was where the conversation was going to go,” Reinke says. “I didn’t intend that scene with my wife in the deli. It was not supposed to be this conversation it ended up as. Uh oh.”

Moss says he thought long and hard about whether to include that conversation—the precise nature of which I’ll leave to viewers of The Overnighters to learn on their own. But Moss says he wouldn’t have used it without the permission of Jay and Andrea.

Reinke tells me that his family is doing fine and he’s determined to stay married. He’s grateful to his wife that she agreed to accompany him to a public screening of the movie at a film festival in Milwaukee this past weekend.

“The scandal was the fact of a pastor who has failed morally,” he says, adding that he’s equally determined to stay in Williston. “I said, if we’re going to start a new chapter, let’s start it here. I didn’t want the last memory to be, ‘Remember that pastor who left? Remember what he did?’ You know what? I’m going to outlive this. I’m just going to keep going. And now we’re building new memories.”

Lloyd Grove is moderating a discussion with Jesse Moss at the IFC Center, following this Sunday’s 2.55pm screening of the documentary