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Missionaries find big challenges in US oil fields

April 26, 2014

WILLISTON, North Dakota (AP) — When the oil and gas boom took off in North Dakota, tens of thousands of workers flocked to the remote U.S. state for jobs. Missionaries soon followed. Many say the work is every bit as challenging as seeking converts in Africa or Asia, because of the workers’ 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.

Said 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 when a friend found him a job digging scoria, a pumice-like rock used to build roads and drilling pads. Living in a trailer, 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 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.

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. 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.

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