WILLISTON — Each time someone new arrives at Concordia Lutheran Church looking for a place to stay, the Rev. Jay Reinke has the same reaction: “Oh Lord, not another one.”
The small Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Williston has 30 to 40 job-seekers sleeping inside the church on a typical night, with dozens more who stay in their vehicles in the church parking lot.
The practice started in May 2011 after a man from Idaho told Reinke he was going to give up and go home. Reinke invited him to sleep on the floor of the church.
After that, a second man stayed, and the numbers gradually grew. A total of 450 people — primarily men — have slept inside the church while they searched for work and housing, along with an unknown number who have called the parking lot home.
New arrivals to Williston are often unprepared for the city’s severe housing shortage driven by the influx of people looking for oil jobs. Those in need of housing quickly hear about Concordia through word of mouth.
When they arrive, Reinke gives them the same message:
“I’ll say, ‘I need to tell you that you are a gift. You’re a gift to us. You’re a gift to Williston. Welcome,’” Reinke said. “Sometimes men have just started to cry. They have been so alone, they’ve just really suffered. And they haven’t felt welcomed.”
The number of guests sleeping on cots or on the church floor peaked at 54 in one night. Reinke aims to keep it in the 30s, but sometimes it’s tough.
Last week, the church already had more than 40 people registered, but then a pregnant woman who was two weeks from her due date arrived with nowhere to sleep but her car.
“How do you say no to a pregnant woman?” Reinke asked.
Reinke often gets creative rather than turn people away. Last week, the church library where women sleep was full, so Reinke brought his family’s Chevy Lumina to the church parking lot and let two women sleep inside. In other cases, he has allowed people to sleep inside his 15-passenger van.
Guests are allowed access to the building no earlier than 9 p.m. unless they’re part of a Bible study. Doors lock at 11 p.m., and everyone needs to be out of the building and parking lots by 8 a.m. They also take turns doing chores each morning.
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