WILLISTON, N.D. — Four singers and a keyboardist warm up in the sanctuary of the Cornerstone Baptist Church at dusk on a crisp Sunday in February. The weekly service draws dozens of African immigrants — mostly from Congo, Rwanda and Burundi — who now live in America’s once-booming oil fields and go to the church to worship and build a community.
After an hour of impassioned hymns, Pastor Emanuel Hitayezu, 29, a refugee born in Congo who went to Williston in 2013 for work and now serves as the minister for the congregation, addressed the assembled.
“I had a vision from God tell me we are a gift for this country,” he said in Swahili, a language common to East and Central Africa. “As we see the train moving the oil, that’s how God called us — to keep moving around preaching the word. As they said in heaven, Hallelujah!”
The story of Williston’s oil boom and rapid urban expansion over the last 10 years illustrates the frustrations of native-born Americans amid the Great Recession and its aftermath. Thousands of jobless from across the country have come to the formerly sleepy farming town to rebuild their fortunes and restart their lives amid a fracking boom that brought unexpected wealth to the isolated, mostly rural state.
But it’s also a story of immigrants — largely from central and eastern Africa — building new lives in a cold and unfamiliar landscape.
They hold jobs and schedules similar to their U.S.-born counterparts and make comparable wages. They also worry about paying rent on time and staying warm in subfreezing winter temperatures. They work to send money home to parents, spouses and children. And now they, too, are coping with a sudden downturn in the price of oil that is cutting the legs from underneath the boom, causing companies and businesses in Williston to dramatically scale back their operations.
Once an oasis of job security, Williston is now a place of promise where optimism is running low.
Big companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger that have invested millions in the Bakken Shale region (in western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan) have laid off tens of thousands of workers worldwide in the past few months, but the companies won’t specify how many layoffs have affected Williston.