GONZALES, Texas (AP) — Maybe God knew the price of crude oil would fall so far so fast. Across Texas, drilling rigs would come down. The bust would leave behind disposal wells and empty hotels, ruined roads and men with no place to go.
God was the one, Hollas Hoffman says, who called him out of retirement at the height of the boom, not even two years ago, to take up a new ministry in the oil fields. God sent him to address early morning safety meetings, to hand out his phone number and most of all to lend an ear in times of grief, addiction and loneliness. God told him, hale at the age of 70, to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the transient workers of the Eagle Ford Shale.
And God, as layoffs accelerate, has not given any clear order to stop.
"The telephone calls have increased," Hoffman told the Houston Chronicle. "As they lose their jobs, we get calls. I get calls from people who just want to talk. You can tell they're crying. I get calls from wives, I get calls from men. Marriage breakups are fairly common. We've had suicidal calls. We just try to respond to whatever they call about."
From the border to this small town 75 miles east of San Antonio, across the Permian Basin and up through the Panhandle, fading rural churches once hoped to replenish their pews with the arrival of thousands of roughnecks, tool pushers and middle managers, especially those with families in tow. But while some counted an increase in tithing as members leased their land for petroleum extraction, most of the aged congregations gained little in the way of new membership.
"There's kind of a cultural disconnect between the quote-unquote 'oil trash' and the community, the itinerant versus stationary groups," said Andrew Fiser, an earnest young reverend dispatched to coordinate efforts across South Texas for the United Methodist Church. "We really struggled to find the faith communities and specifically lay people that were able to do that work."
The failure of those efforts came as little surprise to Hoffman, who spent four decades as the pastor of half a dozen churches in small towns across the state. He knew firsthand not just the limitations of the pulpit, but also the power of ministry and the audacity required.
Though his parents were, by his description, "not Christian," Hoffman started attending church at the age of 5, when a Sunday school teacher came to fetch him. At first he was confused by talk of the Lord, which he mistook as a reference to the crock jar of pig fat in his grandmother's kitchen, but before long he was singing in the choir. He accepted his savior at age 13. Years of restlessness as a young man led to the righteous path, which eventually led to his retirement career.
Among his qualifications for the ministry, Hoffman counts a gift for easy conversation and the love of his wife, Nelda, who has a better memory for names and other meaningful details. They married as widow and widower. They live in a neighborhood where the streets are named for saints. They wear matching black shirts depicting a derrick and the name of their ministry, Oil Patch Chapel.
"We felt a real need to go out there and we didn't know exactly why," Hoffman said. "The churches weren't reaching them, so we decided to take the churches to them."
Formally endorsed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, their work has drawn enough financial support to provide an annual budget of $115,000. Across the state, they have recruited about 60 volunteer chaplains, whom they supply with Bibles, business cards, ministry logo shirts and magnetic car signs. Before the industry layoffs began, they commissioned 4-foot by 48-foot banners that say "Welcome Oil Field Workers," in the hopes that civic leaders might hang them across the highways to foster boomtown goodwill.
Though Hoffman seeks permission from drilling bosses to speak at morning safety meetings, the cards he leaves behind are not primarily intended for managers. Many of those men and women live with their families in comfortable corporate housing. Some of them find churches on their own.
His cards are for the laborers. He encourages them to call in moments of desperation, after accidents and explosions, after bar fights and bouts of boredom, after bad news from home and now, more and more, after layoffs.
"People are distressed, and they don't feel like they have any hope," Hoffman said. "We introduce them to Jesus, and that makes a difference in their lives."
Hoffman likes to call his ministry "a series of interruptions."
Nothing happens on a set schedule. The men he serves live in trailers far from their families, overworked and overpaid, spending their wages on beer and gouged rent. It can be hard to save for a rainy day when the monthly cost of a trailer with four other men exceeds $6,000. Fourteen hour shifts leave little time for making contingency plans. And for those who lose their jobs, oil field work comes with no guarantee of severance pay.
Through charitable donations, Hoffman tries to provide a sort of token safety net. Other than referrals to financial counseling, he can offer little more than a casserole and perhaps a small grocery store gift card.
But the most important contribution he and his wife make to troubled workers is "their love," said Rebecca Salmon, whose husband broke his neck driving an oil field truck. "They share their love with you."
Reaching those workers, especially in times of distress, presents an enduring challenge. One of his volunteer chaplains, Stan Hays, a pipeline construction supervisor, struggled for years to spread a gospel message in the oil fields before signing on with Hoffman.
"The guys I call 'hard-core criminals,' out of prison, struggling in their lives, they don't want to hear it from me," Hays said. "They think I'm fake."
Hoffman takes a gentle approach. His advanced age, he says, helps put men at ease. His choice of the title "chaplain" suggests he does not intend to cajole anyone into church attendance.
At a construction site for a disposal facility outside town the other day, Hoffman struck up a conversation with Alan Gao, 31, an operations coordinator for the oil field waste management firm Trisun Energy. They talked about the price of crude. Hoffman said he was planning to attend a speech by the chairman of the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil industry. Maybe, he suggested, he could return with some insights about business conditions.
After the small talk ran out, Hoffman made a pitch for his ministry.
"When we try to help your workers, or you, we never interfere with their work schedule," he said. "If you have somebody that's in distress, they're probably not going to be as good a worker. So please feel free to call on us. We have people that can be there in 20 minutes if you have a wreck or an explosion."
Hoffman was not the first to hear a calling to the oil fields. After the discovery of hydrocarbons around Crane County in 1926, a real estate developer named O.C. Kinnison invited a preacher to bring some perspective to the descending mobs. In the 1940s, an oil speculator named Rupert Ricker held tent revival meetings in Big Spring.
Nearly a quarter century ago, the Oilfield Christian Fellowship of Houston started printing scriptures customized with petroleum industry testimonials.
But the latest boom descended on a vastly altered state, where oil field operations take their orders from corporate towers in the populous urban triangle of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Many established churches in the far-flung oil fields were already struggling.
"The first thought was, 'Let's offer them coffee and muffins,'" said Valli Blair, pastor of Three Rivers United Methodist Church. "But that isn't what they need. They need AA. They need to know about their health. They need to know how to support their family in their absence."
In Carrizo Springs, where Pastor Vanessa LeVine took office last summer at the United Methodist Church, there has been talk of using the windfall from industry royalty checks to hire a paid outreach director. As oil production companies order more layoffs and transfers, though, she can hardly see the point.
"We have one family with two beautiful children," she said. "The wife was going to help with the Christmas pageant. No sooner did she sign up than did her husband get put on alert that he might have to move to West Texas at any time."
For the ministry of Hollas and Nelda Hoffman, though, rebuilding congregations ranks as a secondary concern at best.
One day a couple of weeks ago, Hoffman returned to the home of the trucker who had broken his neck, John Salmon, known around the fleet yard as Stretch. He was still in a neck brace, but he was up walking around, shooing the chickens in his yard and the dogs in his living room.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Hoffman asked about surgery schedules. Salmon said little; his wife and his mother and the other women in the house did most of the talking. A date in the spring was mentioned, though all present agreed that his recovery was in the hands of God.
"We're going to have a prayer with you, if that's OK, and then we're going to get down the road," Hoffman said. The women bowed their heads. Salmon could not, but he closed his eyes. "Father," Hoffman prayed, "thank you for your healing hand. We ask that you be with us as we go out and minister to others. We thank you for healing John. In Jesus' name, Amen."
"Amen," said everybody.
Then Hoffman got on down the road. Over chicken fried steaks in the dining room of the local auction barn, he chatted up the communal table and offered a prayer. Then he drove out through fields of pumpjacks and grazing cattle, down rutted dirt roads past empty well pad sites and rows of abandoned mobile home hookups. He kept his phone close, and when it rang he felt compelled to answer the call.