The Overnighters: Intriguing, Yet Terrifying Love

BY BRANDON HANSON

Something has reached out and grabbed me, tackled me, and holds me in an iron grip which I can’t seem to escape. I think I have an idea of what it is but there’s so much I still don’t know and understand about it. There’s danger in the unknown. It hasn’t promised to lead and guide me only through safety, but has promised that in the end I will be brought safely through it all. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe love–real, true love–really is enough.

I recently watched The Overnighters, an incredible and moving documentary which has won a dozen awards, and was nominated for over a dozen more. “The Overnighters is an intimate portrait of job-seekers desperately chasing the broken American Dream to the tiny oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota. With the town lacking the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants, a local pastor [Jay Reinke] starts the controversial "overnighters" program, allowing down-and-out workers a place to sleep at the church. His well-meaning project immediately runs into resistance with his community, forcing the clergyman to make a decision which leads to profound consequences that he never imagined.” (c) Drafthouse

If you haven't seen the documentary, I strongly encourage you to do so at your earliest convenience. Wherever you think the story is going as you watch it, you're probably wrong. It's currently available on Netflix as well as many other online retailers.

The Overnighters Official Trailer 1 (2014)

This documentary is intense, riveting, raw, and real. I cannot get over the way it has affected me. I am both intrigued and yet terrified. I think I may have seen with my own eyes (granted, through the lens of Jesse Moss, the director) a portrait of what real grace and love looks like. And that, quite frankly, scares the hell out of me. I’ll be honest. I want nothing to do but run from these kinds of situations. I have a wife and three young children. Our lives are full of problems and struggles already. My daughter was almost hit by a car just the other day. I’m having a hard enough time keeping my children alive and well without a bunch of “unsavory” characters running around town that I have to be worried about, too.

So what would I do if I were in the situation that Reinke and his church were in? What if people were coming up to my door everyday and asking, “Can you help me?” Or what if my church began a program like that? Would I leave? Many people ended up leaving Reinke’s church. Many people also supported the program, though.

At the end of this film I asked myself if I even knew what love was. Reinke sacrificed a lot to love the people whom he was discovering to be his neighbors from all over the world, even though he had never seen them in his community before. In the end, the return on his investment didn’t seem to balance out, though. It seems that he lost more than he gave. He sowed love and the return on it seemed to be a lot of pain. Some of the people he tried to help even turned on him in the end.

This film will challenge you. It will cause you to questions some things.

  • what does real, true love do?
  • what does grace really look like?
  • what is forgiveness?
  • how does the church be the church?

Like me, you may watch this film and think, could I do that? I’ll be honest. I think I know I’m supposed to be and do that, but I’m not sure that I could. I want to be shown that kind of grace and love and forgiveness, but could I really show it myself?

I listened to a recent interview with Jay Reinke that was recorded after the documentary came out. The interview is free to listen to (here, via Virtue in the Wasteland), but even if it cost your last penny, it would be well worth it. Some of the things that Reinke says on the interview still haunt me. I can’t get them out of my head. Here’s one of the things he said that I’ll never forget.

Love is not an investment. Love is a gift.

Think about that. Let that sink in for a moment. Consider the implications of this statement for a second. How many of us approach love this way. Dare I condemn us all and say I don’t think any of us really, truly show this kind of a love–a love that gives without expectation and without condition? Usually, we love because we want something. Perhaps we want something personally. I want someone to love me in return, so I show them “love,” hoping that it will move them to reciprocate my “love.” Or perhaps I am showing someone “love” and “forgiving” them because I hope it will illicit certain behavioral changes in their life. But what about those times we love the person and the person doesn’t love us back (the way we want them to) and doesn’t show any noticeable change in their behavior? Did love fail? Did love just get “ripped-off”? Do we lose out on our investment? Do we have to file for bankruptcy with the local love bank?

Or maybe a completely different line of questioning needs to be looked at. Where does love come from? What is love? The apostle John said, “By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16) That’s all well and good. I like the part about Jesus laying down His life for me. I have a whole lot to gain from that: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, blessings, an alien righteousness that is outside of myself, assurance, hope. But that last part, the part about how I ought to lay down my life for others… that’s the part that starts to scare me. How could I ever love like that? I don’t think I love like that, not consistently, and maybe, not really ever.

St. John writes again, just a chapter later in the same epistle, “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) St. Paul writes, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

John and Paul have some great insight into love and it comes, not from memorizing a bunch of Scripture about love, or following a bunch of steps to loving their neighbors, but from having received love firsthand. Paul was a persecutor of the Church before He became the greatest of the apostles, and was personally called by the Lord Jesus Christ and taught His gospel directly in a moment where he was actively persecuting Christ’s Church. Then there’s John. He is often referred to as the the disciple whom Jesus loved.

When St. John says, “Beloved, let us love one another,” he’s not leaving us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. He’s not saying, “Conjure up that loving goodness within yourselves and just make it happen! Come on, get with the program, people!” Immediately after he says, “love one another,” he adds, “for love is from God…” (1 John 4:7) St. John plainly states, “God is love.” (8) He is the source of all love.

The reason John could write these things, or anything, about love is because he had first been shown love. Love–real love–had been poured into him until he was so full of a love that wasn’t his to begin with, that was from outside of himself, that it began to flow over and out of him to others, even to us in his writing.

What is love? Apparently love is who God is. It’s what He has been and is doing. It is no better demonstrated for us than it was in Christ dying–without expectation, without condition–simply laying down His life for us. This love intrigues me to no end. It draws me in. I’m cautiously curious about this kind of love. I’m like a little kid, timidly poking my head out from under the covers, hoping against hope that Santa is bringing presents instead of coal, but knowing that I don’t deserve good gifts. So I secretly hope for good gifts, but I expect the lumps of coal.

Could a love like God’s really be for me? And do I really want this kind of love in my life? After all, this love isn’t tame, calm, or safe… but wild, fierce, and even a little more than dangerous. This love threatens to take over my nice, peaceful, comfortable life and make my life its own. It threatens to love me unconditionally and move me to love others unconditionally. I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of love. I’m terrified of that kind of love.

Maybe love–real, true love–really is enough.

But I’m also tired of what usually passes for love. I’m weary of the cheap, disposable, artificial, manufactured love, sold by dime-a-dozen vending machines on every corner. I’m tired of a new weekly obsession, infatuation that jumps easily from one subject to the next, and love that leaves you with a mountain of debt and obligation. That’s the kind of love anyone can offer and everyone is pushing. If that’s what love is, I’m done. I’m out. I don’t want any part of it anymore. But, if love like what I saw in The Overnighters, like I read and hear about from God’s Word, is what love really is, I can’t help myself but sit here with anticipation, hoping that kind of love is for someone even like me. Because for someone like me, only sacrificial love will do. I’m a villain, and I know it. No use pretending otherwise. Could God, could anyone love a villain?

I went to church last Sunday. I approached the table where Christ’s body and blood were laid out before me. I took, ate, and saw that the Lord was good. God is there for you and for me, waiting to give good gifts to bad boys and girls who don’t deserve it. And while I know I desperately need and want that, I’m also terrified. That scares me. God isn’t playing a game here. This is for real. There’s no backing out, no plan B if it all goes to pot. I know I can’t earn it or deserve it or show that I’m worthy of it, though I were to live a thousand lifetimes. But it’s all I’ve got. My only hope is that kind of love. And it both draws me in and makes me want to run for cover. I’m trembling here, waiting, knowing it’s too good to be true. And then the bruised, gashed, and pierced arms of a God, who calls me “brother,” reach out for me. God wraps me up in His love and I am lost in these strong arms from all my lostness and wandering.

My only hope is that kind of love. And it both draws me in and makes me want to run for cover.

I am at the same time intrigued and terrified by this God and His love. I have never felt more vulnerable and in danger, because I am consumed and even controlled by a love that says, “It’s okay to lose everything, betting your last chip on an unlovable person because everything you need is secure in Christ.” And at the same time, I am the most dangerous type of person who has ever lived: a person who has nothing to lose, but everything to give, as strong arms hold me fast to my last breath and beyond. This God may not promise temporal safety in all things, but eternally, I know He is working things out for my good. As the classic line in reference to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia character, the lion and Christ-figure, Aslan, goes, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Jesus isn’t a tame lion, but He’s good, and that goodness is for you.

Despite everything within me that at times is screaming, “Run! This isn’t safe. This is dangerous. Run for your life,” I can’t help but think, “No, this isn’t safe, especially for someone like me. But it is good, even if I am not.”

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38-39