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By Caroline Downs
Pastor John Syvertson, who serves the Lutheran churches in Kenmare and Bowbells, has spent plenty of hours riding Amtrak back and forth to Minneapolis, and he keeps having the same experience over and over.
“Every time I sit in the dining car on that train, there’s somebody there who’s working in the oilfield,” he said, “and they tell me their story. In four years of riding, I’ve heard a lot of stories.”
Pastor John said the men generally end their stories with a question about bringing their families out to live in western North Dakota. “I think that’s a big key,” he said. “The communities here have so much to offer, and the folks coming in have so much to offer, too.”
Even as Kenmare is facing transition among the churches’ pastors, with Pastor John soon to leave Nazareth Lutheran and Bethlehem Lutheran churches for a new position in Spencer, Iowa, and the Church of the Nazarene seeking a pastor since July 2012, the expectations and demands on local churches seem to grow.
“There are so many people around and so few places where people can worship,” said Pastor John Fetterhoff, Faith Baptist Church in Kenmare.
He said 13 or 14 new families have attended services at Faith Baptist since January, most in town because of positions in the oilfield. “And those are just the people who filled out the visitors card,” he said. “There is such a need up here for a lot of help.”
The needs stack up. “One of the biggest things is that when people get here for a job, the money’s good, but housing [availability] is atrocious,” said Pastor John. “And even with the money being made in town, there are still pockets of poverty.”
He went on to express his concern for senior citizens. “They’ve been here and watched the economy get stronger, but the prices for everything get really high,” he said, “and now we watch some of them struggle.”
Father Joseph Chipson of St. Agnes and St. Anthony’s Catholic churches in Kenmare and Donnybrook has seen similar trends in his parishes. “We have new people working in the oilfield who attend every Sunday,” he said.
He meets with a pastors council for the Bismarck Diocese that discusses issues and needs in the regions. “We have a concern about housing and accommodations for these people,” he said, “and there are so many Mexicans who don’t know English. They speak Spanish mostly and find it difficult up here.”
Beth O’Neill, an active member of the Kenmare Church of the Nazarene, notices the needs of young mothers, some single, in the area. “We have a few new families with children in our church,” she said. “They just aren’t the oilfield workers, and they don’t know where to go for help.”
Her sister-in-law Joanne O’Neill hears from community members about the need for a visitation program originating from the church.
Pastor John is concerned about the adults and the youth in Kenmare and Bowbells. He cited a youth fellowship program thriving in Bowbells under leaders Mark and Kiara Crosby and would like to see something similar happen in Kenmare among teens of all church denominations. “How can we work together to do that?” he asked.
He continued, “And then, of course, there are the adults. How do we keep our town vital?”
Pastor Kathy Hammond, who serves the Des Lacs Valley Parish of the United Methodist Church, considers the needs of the area in light of the recent emphasis on western North Dakota as a mission field. “Wherever [my husband and I] go, people new to the community are anxious to share their stories,” she said. “They want to be a part of the communities here and we need to find ways to make that happen.”
She expressed admiration for the new Oil Wives group starting in Kenmare and continued, “We need places for social gatherings. We need to look at how that might apply toward fellowship, and that might not be pew fellowship but ways of bringing the community together.”
For Pastor Kathy, the solutions may be found beyond the church walls in laundromats, car washes and even family-style restaurants open year-round in Kenmare, Bowbells and Donnybrook.
“These may not be ‘church’ things, but maybe we need to look at the things that make our communities a better place to live,” she said. “We love our home community, but sometimes we don’t look at it objectively. We don’t look at what might make this place more comfortable and inviting for others.”
Responses vary from
busy activity schedules
to simple conversations
The pastors and other church leaders agree the churches can work toward fulfilling these needs, but some changes might be necessary. “The effectiveness of the church in the community varies,” said Pastor Fetterhoff. “We blow hot, we blow cold. When the community looks at us, if all they see is a mirror image why would they want what we have? Grumpy Christians are poor advertising.”
Some of the pastors envision a return to the significance of the church in people’s everyday lives. “When I grew up, the church was a community center filled with activity seven days a week,” said Pastor John. “When you lose that base, you’ve lost something huge that people don’t always recognize. I would love to see something like that happen.”
Father Joseph harbored a concern for Christians who have given church participation a lower priority in their lives. “I would like to see them come back,” he said. “Not only to the Catholic church but going to their own churches as well. We do have people who are church-oriented, who make it a point to come to church. Some of them work unselfishly for the church.”
Nazareth Lutheran Church council president Sharlet Jensen considered that church’s connections to the Little Learners Preschool and Kenmare Food Pantry as ways of extending into the community, even though neither operation is specifically related to the church.
“I’d like to see the church as a whole get more active in the community,” Jensen said, listing men’s and women’s groups as possible types of outreach, along with continued development of the children’s church school program and working on more community-oriented programs with the rural Kenmare churches of the United as One Lutheran Parish.
She continued, “We need more members to help, but our church does have a willingness to help out with family and community needs.”
Pastor John wanted to see a stronger emphasis from the church on the concept of family needs. “That means family in our homes, family in our churches and family in our communities,” he said.
The United Methodist congregations in Kenmare, Donnybrook and Bowbells each have specific strengths Pastor Kathy would like to extend throughout the communities. “In the Kenmare church, they’re such a strong support to one another,” she said, “and what a wonderful job they’ve done in caring for one another.”
She described the Donnybrook congregation as fun and self-sufficient, focused on the children who are a growing part of the church there, and she noted the ecumenical feeling in Bowbells when holding services with other churches in the community. “I like that we do that together as a community,” she said, adding that the facility in Bowbells offered the versatility to host children’s church school and community activities such as the blood drives.
She returned to the theme of the churches’ presence in the communities. “What can we be doing to improve the community life of families?” she asked. “Very few of Jesus’ miracles happened in the synagogue or the temple. Most took place out where the people were together.”
To that end, she dreams of creating welcoming space in the churches far beyond Sunday morning worship, perhaps offering television or computer capabilities along with open, safe indoor areas where small children can play.
“The role of our parish here is to be the presence of Christ in the communities where we live and have a mission concern for the world in which we live,” she said. “I want to see us include new folks in the community to the point we want to use their gifts and their talents. You know, they don’t just come here out of a vacuum.”
She suggested current church members could take steps toward those goals simply by introducing themselves to their next-door neighbors, given the influx of new residents in town.
Father Chipson also believed necessary changes can begin with simple dialogue. “When Mass is over, go and meet the people and share the joy with them,” he said. “Stay and share in the conversation.”
Pastor John revisited the experiences of his rail journeys. “This falls back to those train conversations,” he said. “The lifestyle here is a lot different than what many of [those newcomers] are used to, and they’re craving that.”
Schedules for worship services and other programs at the five churches in Kenmare, the rural Lutheran churches in the United As One Lutheran Parish, and other churches in the area are published each week in The Kenmare News, along with contact numbers and websites for additional information.