As about two dozen people finished their buffet lunches in a basement dining room at Tambellini's restaurant in Bridgeville recently, Ron Handley stood and recounted a life story far more dramatic than the modest series of notecards he was holding would suggest.
Mr. Handley recently retired after decades of work in directional drilling for oil, gas, potash and steam. From the Canadian wilderness to the Arabian desert to Japan and Texas, he was a firsthand witness and participant in some of the dramatic breakthroughs in drilling, scooping, steaming and hydraulic fracturing. Such extraction technologies have stoked North America's oil and gas resurgence -- and drawn industry veterans like himself to the booming production fields of southwestern Pennsylvania.
But Mr. Handley's story was more about life direction than drill direction -- a testimony of how the Alberta, Canada, native repeatedly drifted from and returned to his Christian faith, with plenty of wild living and brushes with death in between, before finally making a firm commitment to Jesus Christ.
He seemed to live out the advice of his childhood minister who, seeing him off to college and suspecting what was to come, told him: "Love God, and let 'er rip."
He did, though not necessarily in that order.
"Events happen that bring you back to your faith," he told participants at the monthly meeting of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Oilfield Christian Fellowship, an international organization with roots in Texas that seeks to minister to workers in the sprawling oil and gas industries. " ... I have nothing to do but say thanks to the Lord. That's my story."
It's a story that many of his predominantly male listeners could relate to -- including Pittsburgh-area natives and migrants from the oil-producing Gulf and Plains states.
Each monthly meeting features a testimony from someone like Mr. Handley, telling of their experiences in the industry and their spiritual journeys. The members share prayer requests, and their lunch talk is a mix of fellowship and professional networking, including helping job seekers with industry training find work prospects.
"People know where you are coming from" within the fellowship, said Kyle Stewart of Castle Shannon, who works in business development at Rockwater Energy Solutions in Canonsburg, which provides services in hydraulic fracturing and related areas. "You have the same struggles. This industry isn't necessarily always easy."
The work can involve anything from frequent travel and long-term separation from family to outdoor exposure to extreme conditions.
"The oilfield is certainly 24/7," said Tom Lopus, chaplain of the Pittsburgh chapter of the fellowship and a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. "You're always going to have times you're away from family and friends. It's a unique way to connect with other people."
Mr. Lopus, senior vice president for oil and gas at Pardee Resources Co.'s Greater Pittsburgh office, is a native of Saegertown, Crawford County, in the northwestern corner of the state. He worked 33 years in the industry, much of it in Texas and Oklahoma, and returned to Pennsylvania in 2002. He helped to launch the Pittsburgh chapter in 2006.
"There's a camaraderie built in this group," he said. "We tend to never lose a member."
The national fellowship was formed in 1991 in Texas and expanded to Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota and other sites experiencing the modern drilling boom. It has reached out to remote "man camps" in drilling boom areas with such things as mobile chapels. It has distributed thousands of a special-edition Bible called "God's Word for the Oil Patch," which includes testimonies from industry workers.
The group expanded here amid the local drilling boom.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, 6,339 people were working in the core industries of the Marcellus Shale in the southwestern part of the state last year. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, estimates that about 75 percent of new Marcellus hires are Pennsylvania residents.
"One of our purposes is to encourage everybody through Christ, through this oil business, not only for ourselves but people we come in contact with, give them hope, give them purpose," said Kurt Aucoin, chapter director for the local chapter and directional drilling coordinator for Halliburton's northeastern U.S. operations in Canonsburg. He's a native of Louisiana who relocated here in 2009.
The fellowship reflects the strong evangelical flavor of the Southern states that have long been the base for the oil and gas industry.
"The amazing thing about this industry is the amount of Christianity in it," said Philip Lamb, a Roman Catholic and local native who got involved in the fellowship about two years ago. "It's the Bible Belt coming up here."
But it's an ecumenical group with Catholics, transplanted Southern Baptists and various other types of Protestants.
"It's great for Pittsburgh because it pulls people from all denominations together," said Mr. Lamb, managing partner of PRL International, a Bridgeville-based executive-recruiting firm in the oil and gas industry.
George Schneider -- regional manager for coiled tubing chemicals for Rockwater who recently relocated from Texas -- said he wasn't sure what kind of spiritual atmosphere he would find here. "People speaking openly about their relationship with God, it was just very, very encouraging," he said.
Even with the diversity of denominations represented, there is little dissent within the ranks about the role of fossil fuels overall. Some religious denominations have taken steps toward divesting from such fuels, challenging both specific practices such as hydraulic fracturing and also the general effect of carbon emissions on climate change.
But the Oilfield Bible is unreserved in saluting the "unsung heroes, men and women in the oil industry, who literally help keep billions of us earthlings mobile and healthy" and "give us all a better quality of life."
Mr. Aucoin said he's never heard of fellowship members facing any reservations from their churches over their work.
"You can have that discussion at some levels, but when you consider the professional positions represented here, everyone is like-minded in what we are doing," he said. "But accountability is big in our industry. ... While we are trying to be representatives of Christ, that also means being diligent in our work."
For more information: www.oilfieldchristianfellowship.com.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. Anya Litvak contributed.