By Abe Levy
San Antonio Express-News
POTEET — Adam Garcia arrives early to job sites, staying in his truck and saying a prayer for the workday ahead.
Before he sets out to clear right of way for pipelines, he asks for crew safety but also opportunities to spread his Christian faith across the Eagle Ford Shale region.
Occasionally, his peers pull Garcia aside, asking him to pray or to give spiritual advice, trying to cope with personal troubles aggravated by 12-hour-plus workdays far from home.
“These guys are lonely,” he said of the oil field workers drilling across the Eagle Ford’s wide arc of 20 counties in South-Central Texas. “These guys sometimes get into a lot of drinking, and they start feeling some of the impact. I’ll talk to them and say, ‘I kind of lived your life.’”
Garcia’s baptism at Hosanna Baptist Church in Poteet three years ago marked the end of his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Now, he’s the ideal oil patch evangelist, an insider who speaks the industry’s language and has access to highly secured areas.
South Texas: Eagle Ford Shale boom helping poorest Texas counties
Dozens of churches are becoming interested in this kind of mission because they sit atop the Eagle Ford, a rock formation surrendering oil and gas to new technology. The boom had a $61 billion impact last year and supplied 116,000 jobs, according to a recent study by the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Pastors are brainstorming ways to appeal to the new arrivals in once-quiet towns accustomed to fixed, tight-knit relationships, helped by a flood of paperback Bibles produced and distributed by a national ministry with ties to the industry.
It’s not easy. The erratic, round-the-clock schedules of oil field labor typically can’t accommodate the traditional Sunday morning service, and churches’ family-oriented approaches don’t necessarily resonate with the blue-collar, hardened culture of the roughnecks.
Still, some churches are discovering the industrial communities sprouting nearby have faith-friendly elements. Some crews start shifts off with prayer, revealing a foxhole mentality of seeking God’s favor while working together in hazardous, remote places.
That was the case on a recent morning at a boarding facility in Carrizo Springs called Wotel One, where a few dozen Halliburton workers bowed their heads for a prayer in a cafeteria before heading for their job site.
An assistant crew leader, who’s also a preacher back home, asked for divine protection.
“Danger’s always around the corner, so you just gotta pray,” observed Bryon Young, 27, a rig hand from Shreveport. “Plenty of people lost their lives out there on location. We deal with chemicals and incidents happen all the time. Just from experience, I’ve been on jobs when we didn’t pray, and the job didn’t go right.”
Give, and receive
Faith groups have been studying the Eagle Ford impact. The Dallas-based Baptist General Convention of Texas has published evangelistic tracts and conducted strategy meetings to resource the estimated 450 Baptist churches in the region, some of which have coordinated in recent months to welcome workers with community barbecues.
A few Baptist churches have distributed bags with cookies, toiletries and literature in RV parks and “man camps,” the quickly constructed, rapidly proliferating boarding units. Volunteers will hang the bags on doorknobs, mindful the men are sleeping, or engage in brief conversation with workers relaxing outside.
Many churches yearn for a full-time missionary to reach this population, said Fred Ater, a BGCT strategist.
“Before, the approach was that if you’re a Christian, this is a good church to join,” Ater said. “Now, it’s coming up with ways to help people who don’t know Christ to be interested. That’s quite a change.”
Economic boon: Eagle Ford Shale provided $61 billion boost to South Texas
The outreach to workers — and the mere fact that they’re in town — can benefit churches in several ways.
In Cuero, church leaders report a significant increase in congregational giving, with members sharing the oil economy’s unexpected local windfall. Grace Episcopal Church there reports a yearly budget of $100,000, more than the $80,000 it had three years ago, when it had saved enough to hire a full-time pastor, the Rev. Eric Fenton. That ended 13 years of sharing a minister with eight other rural churches.
Grace Episcopal used to organize the town’s July 4th festival as a fundraiser. This year, the proceeds will go to charities instead.
“God has blessed us with this income,” said Fenton, whose congregation grew from 28 to 40 in average attendance in the past two years. “It’s up to us to use it for his glory.”
Pastor Jonathan Hewett of First Baptist Church in Carrizo Springs has asked a handful of landlords about leading a weekly prayer service at their man camps. At least three are willing partners so far.
Hewett, an outgoing preacher who became senior pastor a few months ago, has urged his flock to embrace the workers — even if they don’t ever become members.
“It’s very easy for the typical small-town church to not have anything to do with this and say, ‘That camp stuff is outside of town,’” he said. “But you have to say that God called the church to reach the world and if God drops the world in your lap, you have to reach them.”
It requires innovation and odd hours. The church plans to pass out fliers at 4 a.m. at the gate of Double C Resort, an upscale man camp, to catch trucks full of workers driving in after a graveyard shift. Hewett also is proposing a prayer service as late as 8:30 p.m., to allow day shift workers to attend.
Double C’s owner, Jeff Myers, envisioned his outdoor tiki bar as a good setting for the services. Yet, after publicizing it twice, no one from the residences showed up. Hewett chalks it up to the challenge of adapting to their schedules.
“We will need to bring some people and do LOTS more publicity,” he wrote on Facebook afterward. “Learning as we go.”
Still, the camp’s restaurant often attracts workers for impromptu Sunday Bible studies. Myers plans a chapel to go with a fishing lake and more housing units.
“Everybody’s human and needs the Lord,” he said. “We want to make it a big part of this community.”
Trailer life: Life is lonely in Eagle Ford ‘trailerhood’
Myers sees this as a way recognize God’s favor on him. His hunting-lodge business was declining when he leased his mineral rights a couple years ago and contracted for construction of a pipeline. The Double C will fill a lucrative niche, he believes.
Two members of a fracking crew, men who toil 14 days on and five days off, sipped cold beer recently at its patio. Told of the upcoming prayer service, they nodded, agreeing it would help.
One of them, Nathan Shaw, 30, is from Oklahoma. Time away from his wife and their first child, born Dec. 27, has been rough, he said.
“Everybody needs something,” Shaw said. “You can’t get that over the phone. And you don’t necessarily want to go to your crew with your inner feelings in the oil field.”
Face to face
On Wednesday night, a couple of dozen men and women sang hymns in the fellowship hall of Hosanna Baptist. Eight were from the oil field.
Clay Montgomery, an electrician who hooks up temporary buildings on oil rig sites, was a first-time guest. The woman next to him was the church member who’d invited him. He had just returned to live with family in Castroville after a devastating year in Utah, he said, penniless and his marriage gone.
At 28, he’s trying to rebuild financially, emotionally and spiritually.
“I could see myself going to this church,” he said afterward. “Church makes life easier and you do a lot better. You always come out of church smiling.”
Leading the music was Tommy Garza, a staff evangelist. Several times a week, he breakfasts with oil field workers staying at the local Holiday Inn. Then he visits a nearby hospital’s emergency room, encountering injured men stressed about potential loss of income for their families.
Garza brings coloring books for their children, who can arrive unexpectedly and have nothing to occupy their wait.
At first, he showed up in his Sunday best. Now he arrives in jeans, “looking like oil,” he said.
“We’ve never gotten an oil field man with a check in his hand who comes to church,” Garza said. “As long as they have money, they think they’re OK. We want to meet them in jail or in an emergency room. We want to catch them when they need us.”
He has run out of copies of “God’s Word for the Oil Patch,” the Oilfield Christian Fellowship’s Bible, which contains testimonies of faith from rig hands and company executives.
The national, Houston-based ministry last month established a San Antonio chapter, attracting a mostly white-collar crowd to inspirational luncheons. Members raise money for the Bibles, carry them into the field and supply them to churches.
The chapter here is headed by Peter Bommer, vice president of engineering for Abraxas Petroleum Corp., who takes cartons of the Bibles to his work sites. Before each new shift, he ends a talk about safety and logistics with a personal recounting of his conversion from atheism.
“I take them wherever I go,” Bommer said. “It’s putting something in their hands that can change their lives.”
Tilden Baptist Church has blanketed eating establishments with 1,500 of the Bibles, about twice the town’s population. And attendance there is up — it can seem overwhelming for a church that can hold only 60 people, said Pastor Jim Furgerson. It and a Catholic parish are the only two churches in McMullen County.
“It’s not easy,” Furgerson said. “But it’s a great opportunity to make a difference.”