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By now most Americans have heard of the controversial practice of “fracking” (or hydraulic fracturing); the process by which pressurized water and chemicals are used to break apart shale to extract trapped oil deposits. You may have also heard of the Bakken oil fields, a large area located throughout the Williston basin region of North Dakota. Thanks to the technological development of fracking, North Dakota is now second to Texas for oil production in the U.S and by 2010 production outstripped pipeline capacities for transporting oil out of the Bakken fields.

While on one hand this has created economic prosperity for oil companies and certain lucky prairie dwelling residents in towns like Williston, (not to mention fomented rumors of the United States maintaining net oil exports and becoming energy independent in the next decade), a sometimes overlooked side of this story involves the environmental risks of fracking and social and economic effects of this relatively new oil boom on near by communities. A number of articles have explored the sex industry’s growth in Williston, where prostitutes fly in on weekends from out of state to make upwards of 2k per night. While that and the stories of increased violence are notable (if not sensationalized), there is an over arching story of struggle and change, often with negative impact, that is rarely explored outside of the communities effected by the Bakken oil boom.

In August 2013, I traveled with 4 friends from my church to Williston North Dakota, a major hub of the Bakken fields. We went to learn more about this promised land of natural resource and plentiful economic opportunity, where its rumored truck drivers can make 100k in less than six months. Our desire was to listen to locals and produce a short film (posted above). What we discovered, in the words of my friend Justin Thomas, was a “broken promised land”. Some have certainly found prosperity as a result of the oil boom. But the citizens we spoke with in Williston, while somewhat hopeful for positive change in the future, almost all told stories of frustration, disappointment and serious community degradation. While officials we interviewed were quick to point to the “growing pains” and “prosperity” in Williston, the struggles that have arisen there (where in 7 years the population has increased by some estimates nearly 6 times its pre-oil boom level) are too great to ignore.

In the midst of this brokenness, the question inevitably arose, “How can the church be the church here”? With input from local public servants, educators, pastors and other residents from religious and nonreligious backgrounds we brainstormed a few ideas, creating a list (below) of needs the church has a unique opportunity to engage in “Boomtown USA”.

Fixed income housing and wellness support – While property values have increased substantially in Williston (spelling big rewards for those willing to sell or rent their properties), those with fixed or limited income have suffered greatly, especially the elderly.  Subsidized resident housing or assistance in other areas of life like discounted vehicle repair, food, or living support for those on fixed income in Williston will go a long way towards allowing the community to survive the impact of the oil boom.

Resources for the homeless – The influx of workers into Williston has created such a high demand for temporary housing that hotel rooms and apartments are rented for greatly inflated prices.  According to Amy Kruger, Executive director of the Williston Convention and Visitor Bureau, Williston has gone from having 607 hotel rooms to 1698 in only the last 2 years. Many of these hotels serve as short-term homes for those in the oil fields. For those who do not find work immediately, homelessness is a very real issue. Local services for the homeless are few. Churches and social centers in the area are not equipped physically, logistically or experientially to handle the spike in homelessness, especially in the midst of frigid North Dakotan winters. Some form of support or partnership with organizations working for positive change for the homeless or those poorly prepared to handle life in Williston is essential. Organizations that are already established in urban contexts elsewhere could help a prairie town like Williston, which has not established reliable networks for dealing with the types of social issues commonly found in urban centers.

Addiction rehabilitation services – Several public servants we spoke with mentioned the need for increased rehabilitation support. Community focused support in this area appears to be a notable need in Williston.

 Man camp community support – Outreach to the living facilities that sprawl throughout the areas surrounding Williston known as “man camps” could be an incredible opportunity for the church to truly be the church in the Bakken fields. These facilities house thousands of workers far away from their social support systems back home, and could likely use some form of caring community. Our research revealed only one small ministry that advertised outreach to these facilities. If outreach could focus on these residents it could make a meaningful impact towards transformation and support.

Child care – There is a lack of available child care in Williston and the surrounding region. A ministry or non-profit providing  day care, a pre-school, or other service could support those on the margins in Williston due to drastic cost of living increases.

Community integration programs –Locals told us that the temporary workers make little meaningful contribution to the community. Two key reasons are clear: 1. Long time residents of the region have seen several smaller oil booms in past decades and are calloused towards new comers (frequent reports of disorderly and careless behavior blamed on oil field workers certainly don’t help to warm relations). 2. Oil field workers are usually temporary and therefore rarely contribute to the community. If programs could be developed that both integrate those working in the oil fields into some aspects of the community and give them an alternative outlet to the destructive forms of recreation that often make headlines in the media, it may serve to relieve tensions in the community and bring about a greater level of health and communication. Something as simple as a sports league catering to those in the oil fields may serve this purpose.

One thing is certain; there is ample need for the church to be the church in Williston and the surrounding regions affected by the oil boom. More is needed than short-term outreach. We need people willing to live and reach out in a holistic way, to dig in and live “in light” of the message of gospel, listening to and attending to the needs of the community on every level.

Do you feel called to serve in this capacity? Do you feel called to support? If so, we would love to know! Contact: justint(at)calvaryfellowship.org