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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Revival Among the Rigs

People are discovering more than oil in North Dakota’s boomtowns

By Ian Richardson
Sept. 8, 2013

The recent oil-drilling boom has brought a spirit of opportunity to North Dakota. As oil companies have increased drilling in the rich reservoirs of the Bakken formation in the northwest portion of the state, the demand for workers has increased rapidly, both in the oil fields and in the growing service industry.

Now second only to Texas in oil production, North Dakota boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. As people have moved to the state in search of jobs, the populations of cities such as Williston, Dickinson and Watford City are growing by leaps and bounds.

But in the midst of this spirit of opportunity also lies a spirit of brokenness.

In Williston, the side effects of the boom are an everyday reality. Citizens frequently find themselves in traffic jams. Long lines form at understaffed businesses. Rent and homelessness are high as the housing industry fights to catch up with demand. Workers with cash to spare flock to bars and strip clubs on weekends. The police force struggles to keep up with crime.

“People are just coming needy,” says Chris Walstad, pastor of Life Church Assembly of God in Williston. “They are coming in on the trains and the buses, walking down Main Street with their backpacks, holding onto some kind of dream — hoping for something new to happen here.”

But Walstad says people are also receptive to the gospel. He and other pastors agree there is more than an economic revival going on in oil country — there is a spiritual one too.

“It’s sincerely a fun time to do ministry right now,” Walstad says.

Life Church Assembly has grown rapidly in recent years, along with the number of people accepting Jesus as Savior. Lives are being transformed. Families are being restored.

Brian and Andrea Hanson are examples of such change. They moved to Williston from Grand Marais, Minn., in 2008 as Brian hoped a job in the oil industry would help his family make ends meet.

“Neither of us had gone to church since we were young, and neither of us was living for God at that time,” Andrea says. “When we moved to Williston, we had no idea what was in store for us.”

The couple soon came to Life Church Assembly, though Brian’s rigorous work schedule and the family’s frequent visits to Minnesota kept the couple from attending regularly.

Then, in January 2009, tragedy struck.

Brian’s father died of a massive heart attack. In the midst of their grief, the Hansons relied on the support of their Williston church family.

“Losing John was a major tragedy for Brian,” Andrea says. “Had it not been for the prayers and support from the church, it would have been much worse. We were all greatly impacted by this loss, but God got us through it.”

In 2010, the couple began working with children and youth in the church. The next year, Brian left his job in the oil field and started building cabinets, a job that allowed him to spend more time with his family, the church and the youth ministry. Though the family had less money, Andrea says God has provided.

In January, all three of the Hansons’ young children were dedicated at Life Church Assembly.

“Coming to Williston has certainly gotten our heads above water, even though we never expected God to be what did it,” Andrea says. “We are truly not the people who left Grand Marais five years ago, and we will never be the same. God has brought us here to do His work.”

The oil boom also has brought an increasingly diverse population to North Dakota, allowing for many unprecedented ministry opportunities.

Jim Hessler, pastor of River of Life Church International (AG) in Dickinson, says when members of the congregation learned of the potential increase in the city’s population, they prayed together about how God wanted them to reach the newcomers.

The answer to their prayers has proven surprising, as people of a variety of ethnicities have moved to Dickinson to work in the oil industry. The church now holds two additional services in other languages for the growing number of Latinos and Africans in the congregation. The church is living up to the word International in its name — an addition made in 2008 originally to represent its dedication to supporting missions.

“When we changed that name five years ago, all we had were Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and Ukranians,” Hessler says. “God had some different things in mind.”

Liliana Rodriguez leads River of Life’s rapidly growing Latino congregation. While she says God is doing some amazing things in the lives of those she pastors, she has her own testimony of how God brought her to Dickinson.

Rodriguez and her husband, David, had been co-pastors in Texas. Beginning early in 2010, Rodriguez says she had been having visions of “mountains and white people” during her prayer times, but had no idea what they meant.

David, who had been searching the Internet for jobs, soon received an offer to work in Dickinson with an oil production company, but he declined. The same company soon contacted him again.

With the visions in mind, Liliana believed this job offer that kept pursuing David must be from God. The two discussed it, and David accepted the job after the third offer.

Despite the local housing shortage, the family secured an apartment in Dickinson. David moved first and returned a month later to bring the family to North Dakota over the summer.

The first week Liliana Rodriguez attended River of Life Church, she noticed that, despite knowing little English, she could understand the entire service. She soon felt she needed to stay in North Dakota.

Liliana and another Hispanic woman began holding a Bible study in Spanish in the Rodriguez home. The group quickly grew from two to 12, and Hessler invited the group to begin having services in the church building on Sunday afternoons. Today, the Hispanic congregation is 80 strong.

Liliana Rodriguez says most who come to the services have never been exposed to the gospel before, and for them it is “something new, something beautiful.”

She says she has seen burnt hands healed, dependency on medicine vanish, and travelers realize God brought them far from home not just to find oil, but to find Him as well. 

“Oil fills my wallet, but Jesus fills my heart,” Rodriguez says. “The majority of the people come to North Dakota for money because they know there’s a lot of opportunities for employment. But only God can fill your life. Only God can fill your heart.”

As the populations of boomtowns such as Williston and Dickinson continue to grow, lives continue to be changed. And while oil money may fill wallets, newcomers are finding it takes Jesus to fill their hearts.

IAN RICHARDSON is an Evangel University (Springfield, Mo.) junior majoring in English. He served as a summer intern with the Pentecostal Evangel.


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