NEW TOWN Many stories get told in the Bakken region of northwest North Dakota that are not encouraging stories about the problems the oil boom has brought. You've heard them: oil trucks and accidents, road damage, environmental degradation, overuse of water, human trafficking, drugs and crime; stories about people who have lined their own pockets at others' expense and about men and women who came to the area with nothing and end up homeless. That's not this story. This story is different.
The story of New Town United Church of Christ began before the oil boom even started. It is a story of faith, commitment and giving away. It is a story of the spirit of a blended community of people, both Native and non-Native, and their desire to bring God's spiritual community together in a beautiful, new space.
In 2003 the Rev. Lynn Paulson and Mark Skibsrud, a deacon of the church, made arrangements to buy the innards of a 40- by 60-foot steel building.
Work in the New Town United Church of Christ fellowship hall included the installation of air conditioning.
Members of the church board said, "We need a place to meet, a place for the community to come back to church, a place where the elders can get to the dining room and the restrooms, a place where children can play and young people can gather." They added, "The old sanctuary, which was built in 1953, is beautiful for worship, but in a Native community, we need to be able to have celebrations for families and places to hold elder meetings and weekday church school for the kids."
The church board ordered the pieces of the building at a cost of $15,000. For seven years the building pieces sat outside at Wolf's Trading Post near the New Town church. Grass grew over the red steel beams and between the steel panels and the boxes of bolts fell apart.
Paulson left New Town and no one was willing to fill his position at the church. Church attendance dwindled to a very few maybe five people.
New Town United Church of Christ will celebrate its completed community center on Sept. 22. A worship service will be held at 10 a.m. A dedication service and potluck meal will follow.
In 2008, the Rev. Marilyn Levine arrived to serve the congregation in New Town and the people of Memorial Congregational Church in Parshall. Phyllis Hand, the board moderator in New Town, told Levine about the steel building lying in Wolf's yard. "If we just dig the foundation, the families will come back," Hand said. "You'll see."
For three more years Levine worked with the board to strengthen the congregation and then the board decided it was time to start "getting serious." They planned fundraisers like rummage sales, bake sales and pancake breakfasts to add to the "building fund." Levine sent out letters asking people to give donations. Only two people responded. Slowly the building fund grew to about $20,000 from offerings alone.
Then the church began its fund drive.
Levine preached a sermon called "Consecration." It was about tithing. She told the people, "Pledge 10 percent of something. Consecrate that part of your life to God. It doesn't matter what it is. Just decide on which thing and see what happens." Her text was from the Hebrew Bible, Malachi 3:10: "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," said the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."
Levine encouraged churchgoers to "Give as our giveaway God has given you. Test God with your 10 percent. This is the only time in the Bible when God says that. If you do, we can pay for this building."
The people took her seriously. They consecrated. They gave. The $20,000 grew to $35,000 and then $65,000 at which time the board sent out requests for bids to build the steel building.
"Let's just get it up, and then we can finish ourselves," the church board thought.
The church received only one bid back in 2011 from SL Construction out of California. No one but SL thought this tiny congregation really meant it when they said, "Build it!"
Over the next two years while the Mendoza Brothers put up the building church members gave more than $250,000 out of their own pockets for the church and its project. They are still giving from their consecrated income. They gave without ever signing pledge cards, telling the pastor "what they could do." They gave with no other "asks" from the pastor or any fundraising committee. They gave from their income and from their overtime and from their oil residuals (yes!). None of the money came from outside mission grants, oil company donations, or donations from the tribe. And what a surprise God blessed the consecrated parts of their lives. God increased their increase.
SL Construction kept on building. Finally, the board agreed to have SL finish the inside of the building, too, including a beautiful tile floor, fully equipped restrooms and a kitchen with appliances, granite countertops and wooden cabinetry. It has a large meeting room with air conditioning (donated by one family), a great kitchen, two restrooms with accessible stalls and showers, a laundry room, under-the-floor "green" heating and a breezeway to connect the old building to the new one.
Average attendance is still only 20-25 people, all of whom are consecrators. The congregation is spiritually alive, loving and compassionate. It is small, but mighty. They are now raising funds for a bigger parking lot.
It takes faith, without a doubt. But it also takes actual financial commitment and follow-through. These people have given of themselves "till it hurts," as they say. God helped them to do that.