Monday, February 23, 2015

Movie Review: The Overnighters

Ministry is messy.

The above sentence could be a spoken in a sigh given from a wise mentor to young clergy. The elder explains to the eager apprentice-shepherds that caring for a flock, while meaningful and transformative, can also take its toll. You're never really prepared, and often feel like you're caught up in some sort of battle that has been waging since the beginning of time (because, in fact, you are), equipped with a few spiritual tools and spurred forward by a profound hope that, with God's help and providence, you can actually make a difference in others' lives and hearts.

Ministry is messy, especially pastoral ministry. There are few films that capture the mess as honestly as The Overnighters, a weighty and complex documentary that captures a real-life drama which feels pulled directly from a John Steinbeck novel. Filmmaker Jesse Moss follows Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, a modest and kind man serving a smallish flock in North Dakota. The small town has been the grail of many down-and-out men coming from all over the country hoping to find work in the oil fields. It's a present-day oil boom town, a sort of gold rush mentality that is a strikingly American ideal--head out west to find some work, make some money, and rebuild a life. The reverend Reinke wants to offer them a roof over their head and a meal to eat, supporting them as they look for a job. He's being a good neighbor and putting Matthew 25:34-40 into practice. Sounds pretty Jesus-y, right?

Remember: ministry is messy. Reinke's methods are strongly questioned by the people in the town, and particularly some members of his own parish. Using the church property as a sort of half-way house has brought to light some fears--some legitimate--into the minds of the community. With the presence of these rough-around-the-edges workers, crime in the community has gone up, and the murder of a woman has the town on edge about "the overnighters." Reinke isn't unaware of these fears, though he does encourage his church and neighbors to overcome fear with love and compassion. Reinke seems quite calm and friendly in the face of opposition, and practices hospitality with a generosity rarely seen. This is the Gospel in action, the willingness to sacrifice time, energy, money, and social standing for the sake of the other.

As the story unfolds, Reinke's compassion for the incoming workers might overwhelm his sense of judgment, and we begin to see the pastor falter. People turn on him due to feeling alienated and neglected, mostly by his overly busy ministry lifestyle. He begins to doubt his own calling and mission, wondering if he's even being effective (a struggle every pastor can empathize with). His interactions--or lack thereof--with a prying local reporter are questionable at best, and one wonders how his family really feels about his self-imposed ministry obligations. When he welcomes a convicted sex offender into his home in order to skirt some of the local laws, we have to wonder, does Gospel hospitality also allow for healthy boundaries? This act of unlawful cordiality, as well as a few unforeseen revelations and decisions, will lead to a provocative climax that leaves no one in the film unscathed. Moss, to his credit, creates a balanced documentary, villainizing no one and presenting the complexity of the situation in all its disarray. Ministry is messy, after all.

As a pastor, I haven't seen many films which address the weightiness of pastoral work like The Overnighters. It's a film every pastor in America should watch and discuss, both with fellow pastors and with their spouses (Reinke's wife is perhaps the most victimized and wounded of all the broken people in this documentary). Themes of justice, mercy, systemic and personal morality, and the American dream are all on display. Reinke is both admirable and deplorable, often neglecting his family and personal health for the sake of helping a down-and-out man trying to make his way in the world. There are moments of deep joy and life transformation. There are other moments of significant pain, deep heart wounds that will take significant time and grace to heal. The Overnighters is ultimately about integrity, being honest about oneself in both public ministry and private relationships, the willingness to share about one's brokenness without succumbing to it. To have integrity to one's missions, values, identity, and personal sins is a struggle every pastor must endure. Reinke acknowledges this in a conversation with a drug addict: "We’re more alike than we are different. I’m broken. You’re broken. We’re all broken." Ministry is messy. By bringing our sins into the light, we are both exposed and healed, mess and all.

The Overnighters is currently streaming on Netflix in the US. It was my favorite documentary of 2014.

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