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On Father Brian Gross’s second day in Watford City, he drove from his church to the Outlaws Bar & Grill downtown. It was late on a Friday afternoon in June 2012, and the place was thronging with roughnecks and geologists, engineers and construction hands, the whole range of men who had headed to a corner of North Dakota for the fracking boom. Father Gross took a moment in the parking lot just to count license plates; he lost track after 32 states. The next afternoon, the young priest drove to the local country club, which was sort of a grand name for another bar and grill, which happened to adjoin a golf course. Father Gross noticed the barmaid noticing him, her eyes widening at this stranger in a clerical collar.

“I’d like a Budweiser,” he said. “And I’d like you to show me where the Catholics are.”

He was asking a question that was both wry and profound, for Father Gross had just taken the first pulpit of his priestly career in what had to be one of the most challenging settings in America for propounding and sustaining faith.

From the hilltop fairway of the golf course, Father Gross could see the feverish remaking of the landscape. On the terrain once given over to soybeans, corn and cattle there now rose rigs, warehouses, apartments, strip malls and workers’ barracks. Plumes of dust rose from the newly cut roads as eighteen-wheelers roared along them. Watford City was in the process of doubling its population from 1,400 to nearly 3,000 within a decade.

The scene inside and outside Outlaws, meanwhile, hinted at another aspect of the boom. With a 20-to-1 ratio of men to women, with pockets full from good-paying jobs, the frackers of Watford City were not exactly strangers to indulgence. Outlaws represented the legitimate end of consumption, as sophisticated a nightspot as Watford City had, but the spectrum ran all the way to prostitution, pornography and crystal meth.

“You see what it is, and I understand that I’m only one person,” Father Gross, who is now 36, said during an interview late last year. “There’s a desire, certainly, to help people foster a relationship with God, and to help them understand that relationship is the beginning of the ordered life that people want.

“From the religious perspective,” he continued, “I’ve kind of broken it down to different groups. There’s the single guy in his 20s who’s eyeball-deep in student loans and wants a bit of adventure. There are the guys in their 40s and 50s away from their families. They want to be good guys, but they’re constantly tempted. The alcohol, the drugs. What’s their relationship with their wife like? They feel like the cards are stacked against them, and they’re so in need of affirmation. There are the Mexicans who come here, maybe legal, maybe not. They might show up in the middle of winter without a coat or a place to stay. And from their culture, they’re looking at you as the representative of Christ.”

This particular representative had never envisioned such a role for himself. Brian Gross grew up in Bismarck the son of a nurse and an audio-visual technician at a local college. He attended public school—the future priest’s high school mascot was, of all things, a demon—and reflexively attended church on Sunday with the conviction that it “doesn’t affect your life that much.” Through most of his college years at North Dakota State in Fargo, he fell out of even that desultory churchgoing habit, watching “The Simpsons” on television while his observant roommate went to Sunday-night Mass.

Yet some remnant of belief nagged at him. He started to say a private prayer once a week: “God, how are You doing? God, do You exist? God, here I am.” At the age of 23, he went to confession for the first time in 15 years. Walking out of church that day, he asked himself, “Am I going to be a Catholic or not?” The answers came with surprisingly rapidity—giving up drinking for Lent, meeting the priest at the Newman Center on campus, going to a live-in weekend at a seminary, hearing the call.

“I want to help people realize that a relationship with Christ isn’t some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, nuns-with-crossed-hands cute thing. When it’s 10 degrees out and the wind is howling, Jesus is a man who gets what you do,” said Father Gross.

Even so, his vision of the priesthood had much more to do with North Dakota in its rural past than in its fast-growing present. “When I was in the seminary, this wasn’t on the radar screen,” Father Gross said of his flock in the fracking belt. “When I was ordained, this wasn’t on the radar screen. I thought maybe I’d be a high school teacher. Or I’d be in a typical North Dakota parish with traditional North Dakota families. You go hunting, you meet people at the coffee shop. It’d be the familiar small-town stuff. But everything’s changing at warp speed.”

Epiphany Catholic Church, to which he was assigned, was going to have to similarly change or fall into irrelevancy. When Father Gross arrived, replacing a predecessor who had been there for 24 years, the parish membership numbered barely 90, even though Epiphany was the only Catholic church for 20 miles in any direction. So Father Gross, rather than waiting for the already faithful to come to him, made a point of seeking out the wavering and the wayward. He baptized three-year-old children whose parents had never taken them to church and joined the 70th birthday party for a longtime resident who wasn’t even Catholic. He drove the twisty gravel roads that ended in patches of mobile homes or sometimes bare storage lockers that were rented out as living spaces.

He set up a men’s group and invigorated Christian education for children. In all those settings, he offered the common touch.

“You want to sit down and talk about sports? I can do that,” Father Gross said. “You want to tell me what you do on your rig? I’m authentically interested. I want to know who you are. And I want to help people realize that a relationship with Christ isn’t some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, nuns-with-crossed-hands cute thing. When it’s 10 degrees out and the wind is howling, Jesus is a man who gets what you do,” said Father Gross. want to help people realize that a relationship with Christ isn’t some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, nuns-with-crossed-hands cute thing. When it’s 10 degrees out and the wind is howling, Jesus is a man who gets what you do. He even understands you use the F-word a lot.”

Luke Taylor was among those who took positive notice. At 29, he is the fourth generation of his family to live in Watford City. His, however, is the generation that saw everything familiar be radically transformed. Within a matter of years, Taylor went from delivering fertilizer to farmers to owning a fleet of 50 water trucks that serve fracking operations.

“All I know is we were pretty excited when Father Brian came to town,” he said. “We were looking for a spark with all the activity going on. He’s dealing with all the challenges as we all are—housing shortages, lack of services and infrastructure, dangerous roadways. And he deals with it with all his energy and enthusiasm.” Shawn and Stephanie Ray depended on those traits during the winter of 2013. Driven out of Florida by the recession, they had followed rumors of high-paying work to Watford City. There, Shawn found himself going from job to job and trying to build a house by hand as his wife and two young daughters lived in a camper so flimsy it had to be insulated with bunched-up blankets. Wondering if he should give up, Shawn Ray approached Father Gross.

“Our faith would falter,” Ray recalled. “You really question yourself when it’s 10-below and you’re out there putting in windows and living in a camper. What are we doing? Why are we doing this? And Father Gross was always available to us. He would understand exactly what we’re going through. He’ d always say, ‘There’s something going on here. You’re part of something big. And when you’re part of something big, you’re gonna come under some attacks.’ He’d remind us that fear isn’t from God. God doesn’t push. God doesn’t rush. God is just there waiting for you.”

For Anthony Loyola, who had come to Watford City so he could pay off $27,000 in college loans, Father Gross addressed both practical and spiritual obstacles. When Loyola was between jobs and unable even to rent a parking space for his van—the boomtown price is $500 a month—the priest let him keep it in the rectory’s lot for free. And when Loyola was working alongside hard drinkers and avid philanderers and prostitutes’ johns, he unburdened himself to Father Gross. “Guys would figure out I’m more religious and start kind of mocking me,” Loyola recalled. “But Father Brian reminded me that in the same room where people are mocking you, there are at least five people who agree with you and don’t feel able to say so.”

Thanks in no small measure to Father Gross, Anthony Loyola and the Ray family have persevered, building the stable lives that Watford City will need to endure the highs and the inevitable lows of hydraulic fracturing’s Gold Rush. They all have become regular communicants at Epiphany, part of a congregation that now exceeds 200. Lately, Father Gross has had his eye on a parcel of land a mile outside of town. There he hopes to build a new church and a Catholic school.

The priest might have had such rootedness in mind one afternoon last December when he was teaching a confirmation class to about a dozen 9th and 10th graders. “Our life isn’t just a random set of experiences that happen to us,” he gently told them. “There’s an order that makes sense. God is the one who brings that order. You just have to allow Him to.”

 

About Samuel G. Freedman

360 Review’s first feature article, “Of Rigs & Steeples,” was written by Samuel G. Freedman, the religion columnist at the New York Times, the author of seven critically acclaimed books and a Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Freedman’s first book, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School (Harper Perennial, 1991) was a finalist for the 1990 National Book Award, The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond (Simon & Schuster, 1996) was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church won the 1993 Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. Four of Freedman’s books have been listed among The New York Times’ Notable Books of the Year.

Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry won the National Jewish Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2001 and made the Publishers Weekly Religion Best-Sellers list. As a result of the book, Freedman was named one of the “Forward Fifty” most important American Jews in the year 2000 by the Jewish weekly newspaper The Forward.

Freedman’s most recent book, Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Change the Course of Civil Rights (Simon & Schuster, 2013), “graphically captures the grim terror of Jim Crow worlds in the South that defined the lives of Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson during their coaching careers at Florida A&M and Grambling. With his beautiful prose style, Sam Freedman frames black history and the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of football. Breaking the Line reads like a novel and offers the reader a deep understanding of how football and black history intersect.” (William Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues)

As well, Freedman is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He started a book writing seminar in the mid-1990s that has produced 75 published books to date—including The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem (University of California Press, 2008) by Patrick J. McCloskey, the editor-in-chief of 360 Review.