This winter the invasion has begun. The motels are full indefinitely. Buildings have quickly and mysteriously been bought up. Hundreds of trucks from 10 different states roll around town. They found oil in Harper County.
Natural Gas to be specific. At first it was a rumble of a rumor, but sometime this winter it really became official as several oil companies began to set up shop here in town. There has been all kinds of speculation as to what this will mean for our community. Some of it is pretty wild (quadrupling the population of the county within five years) and some of it is worth thoughtfully considering (how can the churches reach out to this new group of people).
While I’ve had a couple of passing conversations about this changing dynamic, I have yet to say something in my official pastoral role. Perhaps this is an attempt to begin to articulate what I’d like to say.
The place that I want to start is with the Bible. Specifically with an understanding of Biblical Shalom that I will shamelessly steal from Marion Bontrager and Michelle Hershberger. Essentially the idea is that God created the world to be in a particular harmony, order, or relationship. This right relationship we call Shalom. These right relationships can be described in four ways: being in right relationship between each of us and God, us and other people, us and ourselves, and us and the earth. Sin, then, is when these relationships get broken, which is something that can happen both on an individual level and on a larger systemic scale.
As I reflect on the impact of the oil boom I can see that there are some benefits to be had. The biggest of which is that Harper County has been on an economic and population decline for about 40 years, and yes, we can definitely use the income and jobs. But this is only a surface benefit. The questions I have are much bigger and much deeper. Most of the large scale questions that I have can be framed in Marion and Michelle’s understanding of Shalom and what it means to break those relationships.
Between each of us and others – There are two main areas of concern for me here; 1) housing costs and 2) unequal income distribution.
1) Harper County just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the influx of people that we are beginning to experience. As a result, landlords can begin to raise the cost of rent quite drastically because they know that the higher price will be paid by someone, usually by the oil company. I have already heard several stories, however, of landlords who have tripled someones rent, sometimes with less than a months notice. Here’s the difficulty of sin: landlords are struggling too, and it seems pretty reasonable that if you could get a higher rent, you would charge a higher rent. It’s an obvious choice. The problem is that when a whole society does this, large populations of poor people who have been life long residents of Harper County are being pushed out on to the street for the sake of oil field workers who may not be here a year from now. As individuals, it’s hard to fault a landlord, but as a whole, it’s definitely sin.
2) Yes, there is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Harper County because of the leasing contracts with the oil companies. And yes, some of that money has begun to trickle down into some specific parts of the economy. However, it is very important to note that this influx of money is not shared equally. If you own land, you stand to make a tremendous amount of money. However, the number of people who own land in the county is relatively small in comparison to the overall population. This kind of massive inequality will, and already as begun to, breed resentment, hatred and injustice between neighbors. Again, this is a difficult situation because I know many landowners do genuinely want to do the right thing, but what that is isn’t exactly clear. Nevertheless, as a whole society, this is going to cause some problems.
Between each of us and the earth – I have jokingly said that yes, I think we need the economic boost in our county, but I also don’t want my water to light on fire. Water is scarce enough already around here. The damage that the hydraulic fracturing process does is irreparable and highly taxing on our already limited natural resources. This is a major concern for me, and yes, I put the damage done to the earth in the category of Sin, not just politics.
Between each of us and ourselves – Money brings a lot of things with it, most of them aren’t particularly good. I worry about what the greed and envy will do to each of us. I worry about whether our hearts will be turned to stone or moved to compassion as the economic landscape changes. Whether we are only peripherally connected to this change in our community or a direct recipient of it, it is going to change us. The question is how.
Between each of us and God – Economics is always spiritual. On on hand, these changes will affect our own personal spirituality, but they will also impact us as a church. The impact on our church is coming. Even in my own mind I’ve begun to think about new possibilities for additional programing or staff or buildings, all of which could be made possible because of the oil money floating around. The question for me is yes, but at what cost? Are we being bought off? How will in change our church? There’s at least one church in our area who was almost completely destroyed because they found oil under church land. While I don’t know the answer, I feel like we need to ask the question whether or not our ideas for the future of the church are actually the leading of God or are they are something else.
I think that the most concerning thing about how our county has reacted to this industry moving into town is that there has been (or it feels like) little to no critical reflection on the deeper impacts on our community, our relationships and our faith. The most telling example of this to me was an article in a local paper last fall that was talking about the economic growth in our county. They outlined two major industries moving into the county. One was the oil companies and the other was the large wind farm going in on the west side of the county. In the article the only discussion was that of jobs and economic opportunities. There was no reflection about the environmental or social impact of either of them, let alone the idea that they are two opposing industries in the energy industry.
I’m aware that right now I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to start to identify some of the issues. Now if I can just figure out how to start the conversation in church and in the community.