Tuesday, October 17, 2017

We go to Church before a Tragedy

sign for Sought Church in the Arts District of Las Vegas
Sought Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
When you visit a new church every week, you get a lot of swag. I mean, not Oscar-bag-with-a-pendant-from-Tiffany’s level swag, but swag nonetheless. As visitors, we’ve been given lots of pens (with which we take notes during sermons), a fair deal of coffee mugs and water bottles, candy (4” by 10” chocolate bars are the true “fun size”), even t-shirts with church logos. We’ve received DVDs and CDs of sermons that made for good listening at times and fine coasters at others times. We’ve been given good and lame books. But I think the best greeting gift we’ve received was at Sought Church in Las Vegas.

We were asked to fill out a visitors card with whatever information we were “comfortable in giving.” We wrote what we always write, our names and our e-mail (DeanandMindygotochurch@gmail.com . We got out of the habit of putting down our address last year when we didn’t have an address); and then the pastor making the announcement said that  turning in our card got us this great gift: $5 would be given in our names to Caridad, a Las Vegas ministry to the homeless.

We’d spent part of the day before with our friend Kathleen giving cookie to the homeless (Cookies and Hope) and helping a little with a dinner and worship service for the homeless. It was nice to think that gift might go to people we met the day before.

We’d been looking for place to worship the Sunday morning we were in Las Vegas (actually, we were looking for a second place to worship, since we’d gone to Guardian Angel Cathedral earlier that morning). We liked some of the things we read on Sought Church’s website. “With Sought Church, you don’t have to dress up. We’re not concerned with who you voted for in the last election. And, please, don’t feel the need to pretend about anything. Everyone is welcome here -- to share your story, your questions, your doubts, or struggles -- because all of it is valued. You won’t find canned answers, but you will find genuine conversations. From there, we’ll seek together.”

Sought Church is in the Arts District of Las Vegas, a short walk from the motel where we were staying. The Arts District has galleries and theaters, many in converted warehouse space, containing more subtle art than most of what’s found in the Strip. The church rents space in a small theater, setting up every Sunday for 10:00 am worship. Jake Musselman, the pastor, said they’ve come to love the neighborhood and the unique opportunities for ministry it offers.

There was a guest speaker that morning; Stephen Feith, a pastor friend of Jake’s from Madison, Wisconsin. He talked about the challenge of pastoring in that city, the home of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where of the sixty attempted church plants since the year 2000, only two are still going. But their church has prospered.

Stephen joked, “Jake said I get twenty minutes to speak. Usually I have thirty-three, so I’ll have to speed up.” (He still went over.) After the sermon, there was time to pray; people were encouraged to pray silently.

Because Jake and the leadership of the church promised an hour-long worship service, they didn’t serve communion (which they would normally do). But after the service, they set a ten minute timer and encouraged people to talk to each other. People were encouraged to talk to someone they’d never talked to before, which was easy for us, of course.

During that time, I talked with Pastor Jake. He’s a Nevada native, but he’s not from Las Vegas originally. He’s been in the city for three years now and thinks the best is yet to come. Besides the worship time, the church meets in small groups in homes, and they also meet in homes for supper clubs. They plan to rent a laundromat soon so they can host a free day there for the community.

That morning of worship was about twelve hours before the shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, we’ve received several emails from Jake with great words of encouragement for the congregation. The city already was a place of unique challenges for ministry, but Sought Church seems ready, with God’s grace, for those challenges.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

We Go to Church on Saturday Night

Salvation Army Chapel, Las Vegas, Nevada
We certainly weren’t needed to help serve the food. There appeared to be a couple of families with parents and children prepared to serve tortillas along with meat, veggies, and salsa.

Our friend Kathleen had asked if we wanted to go to the dinner with her. She usually gets a team of friends together to serve dinner outside one of the chapels at the Lied Social Services campus of the Salvation Army on the third Saturday night of each month, but this was the fourth Saturday. Another team was serving for the evening, so initially, anyway, we just observed.

The dinners are served outside the chapel, which is surrounded by Salvation Army apartment buildings and other facilities for those in need. The dinner isn’t just for apartment dwellers, though. It’s for anyone who’s hungry. A long line of people were already waiting when we arrived shortly before the 6:00 pm dinner was served.

Estimating how much dinner to prepare can be a challenge -- after all, nobody RSVPs for the weekly event. Guest volume can be affected by anything from weather to when assistance checks arrive. Kathleen said that on her first night of preparing the meal, she greatly underestimated the number of people coming; even though everyone got something, some people still left hungry. She determined to never let that happen again, and she hasn’t

Over a hundred guests were served the night we visited, and they all seemed to enjoy the dinner. (I overheard a man trying to give pointers on how to fold a tortilla to another diner, and she protested, “I know how to fold a taco! I’ve got plenty of Mexicans in my family!”) There were also plenty of desserts (donated by a local grocer).

Shortly after dinner began, a loud argument began between a man and a woman in the line. Ron, who administers the ministry, quickly calmed the unrest. After getting food, the young, slender woman involved came over to tell Kathleen her story.

She asked Kathleen for a place to stay and money. Kathleen suggested the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, but the woman gave an elaborate story of why that wouldn’t work for her. Kathleen couldn’t give the help the woman wanted, but hoped they’d begun a relationship that might lead to something later.

I asked about the woman’s story, and Kathleen said, “She was lying. I know, because when I was in her place, I was a liar.” She knows from experience that alcoholics and drug users lie. But lives can change.

As diners entered, they were invited to stop by a table full of neatly folded clothes, including a number of coats. Ron urged people to pick out clothes, “Winter is coming! You’ll be needing those jackets!” By the time dinner was done, all of the clothes were gone.

There was another chance for people to get clothes if they needed them -- during the meal, Ron announced, “We have new socks available for everyone who stays for tonight’s worship service!”  Some ministries require people to attend a worship service before the meal is served, but this ministry didn’t operate that way. Still, the offer of new, clean socks was generally a powerful incentive to attend the evening service.

Only twenty-two people stayed for the worship service; most people left immediately after eating. Though there was a preacher for the service, the usual worship team couldn’t make it, so we sang an acapella version of the first verse of “Amazing Grace”.

The speaker that evening, Tae Chu, opened with a golfing joke, then spoke about the Lord’s Prayer, then the story of Joseph from Genesis. He concluded with another joke about a symphony conductor.  Ron came forward and gave short Gospel presentation after Tae finished.

When Ron finished, a woman raised her hand, “Ron, I think you should preach like that when people are here. You should stand on a box while people are waiting in line for food.” Ron chuckled, but not a chuckle that seemed to commit to the idea.

While helping with clean-up, I talked to another volunteer named Mike who told me he had had a gambling addiction, but God had saved him. That is why he wanted to help people dealing with other problems. He hoped his story would help others.

I suppose I should make it clear that though this meal and the worship service were on Salvation Army grounds, it wasn’t a Salvation Army ministry, just a group of people trying to help others. Not a work of a church but rather the work of The Church.

Service Length: 1 hour
Sermon Length: 35 minutes
Our Rough Count: 22
Snacks: meal served before worship service
Musicians: none
Songs:“Amazing Grace”
Distance to Church: 3 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none