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Williston church holds 'last supper' as it ends lodging program

The Rev. Jay Reinke, center, reads a letter on Friday that is posted on the door of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, informing people seeking shelter that the "overnighters" program is over.

WILLISTON -- People seeking shelter at Williston's Concordia Lutheran Church will be greeted with a sign that reads "Overnighters is over."

The church that has housed job-seekers for more than two years ended the program this weekend after city planning and zoning staff said the church needed several fire and building code upgrades for people to sleep there.

Concordia hosted a "last supper" Friday night that was filled with hugs, tears and group photos.

Several men who stayed at Concordia until they found jobs and housing stopped by the church to thank the Rev. Jay Reinke and church members. Reinke estimates about 1,000 people who moved to Williston to seek oil boom jobs slept at the church since May 2011.

Claude Rowe of Maryland was living in his car in November when he heard about Concordia. Rowe stayed at the church for about two weeks before getting an oilfield job that provides housing.

"If it wasn't for this place, I might have gone back to Maryland," Rowe said. "For me, it was a huge blessing."

Joe Rogers, a plumber from California, thanked Concordia for the one night he spent at the church when the timing belt on his vehicle broke during the winter.

Robert Hutchinson of Washington said staying at Concordia gave him a safe place to sleep while he earned enough paychecks to find other housing. Moving into an apartment in Williston can require as much as $6,000 to $7,000 for a security deposit and first and last month's rent.

"People don't have that kind of money," Hutchinson said. "That's why they're here."

Hutchinson, who formerly worked in the mortgage business, came to Williston as he was about to run out of unemployment benefits. He and his wife now have high-paying oilfield jobs.

The leadership of Concordia voted to approve the overnighters program, but not all congregation members supported it, and neighboring residents raised concerns. The city got involved in March after church elders called to ask if it met zoning codes.

City staff inspected the church and determined it would need several upgrades, including fire-protection sprinklers, showers, a designated sleeping room, overnight supervision and resources for job searching and counseling. The church was told in an Aug. 12 letter to discontinue the program in 30 days until the facility could be brought up to code.

About 30 men slept on the floor of the church, and several said they will now sleep in their vehicles because there is no other shelter facility in Williston. Many shared ideas about possible rooms for rent, cheap cars for sale and job leads.

San Afes of Texas said the church gave him more than a place to sleep, it provided him family in Williston.

"It's not just about sleeping. The church is doing something wonderful," Afes said. "It's like the city is breaking the family."