Las Vegas Bums Me Out

Two years ago, I first ventured to Las Vegas. I’m not big into gambling or … everything else Vegas is notoriously known for, but I was stoked nonetheless to add another notch to my traveling belt.

I mean, it’s Vegas. A magical city where you can walk the streets of Paris, New York, and Venice within a single hour. Incredible shows and shops and food.

Sure, Vegas has its moments. It has an allure, for sure.

But what I mostly found in my first visit to Vegas was a sweltering desert city that shouldn’t really exist, filled with warped faces trapped behind slot machines. A weighty despair that shouldn’t exist all the more.

#RunningTo Las Vegas

#RunningTo DAY 7: Walking Vegas

I had a few hours to kill before venturing northward. Even though I had mostly underwhelming memories of Las Vegas, I figured it’d be silly to pass by. I mean, it’s Vegas.

I saw the fountains at the Bellagio and snapped some touristy pictures up and down the strip. I ate at the Luxor buffet and sufficiently stuffed my gullet. I even played a whole dollar at a slot machine and nearly doubled my funds before the bottom fell out and I lost it all. Cruel, cruel world.

At the end of the day, I wondered what I was doing wandering the streets of Vegas all by myself. What my role or purpose could be here.

#RunningTo DAY 7: Pondering Vegas

Before #RunningTo began, I was hoping to connect with a homeless ministry in Vegas. It felt like the perfect redemption plan for a city that nearly broke my heart two years prior. To give back to a city in desperate need of true love.

When those plans fell through, I wondered what redemption plan might exist for Sin City. Would I simply ooh and ahh at fountains and lights and ridiculously dressed street performers, or would there be something more?

And then I wondered: do I really have to sign up with a homeless ministry to minister to the homeless?

#RunningTo DAY 7: Redeeming Vegas

Walking across the multiple pedestrian bridges lining the strip, you see homeless person after homeless person sitting along the sides. Some play off their situation with humor, eyeing you with smiles and cardboard signs that declare they will use the money for cigarettes or liquor.

But most homeless people just sit there in silence, staring down, hoping they’ll somehow turn visible again.

I clutched a bill in my pocket as I walked the bridge, looking for … someone. I didn’t know how to do this. Picking one person to help among dozens. Wasn’t I basically judging them on their physical appearance?

I turned a corner and saw a woman sitting cross-legged against the railing, two small dogs held on leashes. Eyes turned downward, she clutched a red Solo cup with a couple dollar bills poking out.

I guess she’s the one, I thought. Was it the dogs? I love dogs. Oh gosh, am I only approaching this woman for her cute dogs?

I stepped up to her and extended my hand to her Solo cup and watched her face tilt upward in slow motion.

“Thank you so much,” she said, her eyes meeting mine in disbelief.

“God bless you,” I stuttered with a forced smile, turning down the bridge, knowing the money wouldn’t go much further than a single meal or a carton of cigarettes, if she so chose. I prayed what little it was could sustain her physically and emotionally another day.

For a fleeting moment, Vegas felt redeemed. I felt like I’d made some sort of minute difference.

Not a single minute passed, however, before I saw a young man sitting to my left. His head sunk low, the cardboard sign before him read: “19 years old, homeless, every bit helps.”

My heart dropped. I debated stopping. I wanted to give him some money, too. I wanted to talk with him. To sit shoulder-to-shoulder, wanderer-to-wanderer.

I have limited funds for this crazy trip, I countered.

I can’t give to every homeless person I meet, I reasoned.

I’m gonna be late to this church service I’ve been looking forward to, I stated, looking down at the time.

And yet what is church? That’s one of the big reasons for my trip, is it not? To rediscover the meaning of CHURCH: the place, the people, the all-encompassing meaning and purpose.

Wouldn’t “church” have been me sitting beside a 19-year-old homeless guy, talking with him, buying him a meal, helping him feel like less a shadow and more a tower?

I can’t help everyone, I repeated.

I’m only one person, I repeated.

I’m just me, I repeated.

My heart heavy, I exited the pedestrian bridge and raced back to my car. As I thought back on my day in Vegas, I realized that I did help the woman with the two dogs.

But I didn’t help the 19-year-old with no dogs.

As I left Las Vegas, I couldn’t help feeling once again bummed by this city. Bummed not by the sensual signs or corner-dwellers inviting me to strip clubs and wild parties, but bummed by own brokenness, fears, and limitations.

My helplessness, my weariness, my lonely onward wandering . . .

#RunningTo Central Christian Church

  • Verve Church started in Vegas a few years ago, and I believe they are meeting on the strip. I’ve heard they are making an amazing dent for the kingdom.

    • Hmm, now that you mention Verve, I think I actually heard about it somewhere along the line. Didn’t get to check it out while I was there, though. Still, I realize Central and other local churches are doing amazing things there. Ultimately, every city has its own flavor of brokenness. I guess Vegas’s is just a little more in-your-face than most.

  • Matthew Palfenier

    Yeah, I totally experienced the same thing when I got here. Walking down the Strip was like walking through a sea of dead people. I was astounded by the number of people I saw with grey, lifeless eyes… It literally looked like there was some kind of visible blindness clouding them. They come (or came) to live but there is no life here (or anywhere else) outside of Jesus. As I was wandering around praying it struck me that the homeless are intrinsically woven into the “ritz” and “glamor” of the city’s image. Which disturbed me… and continues to weigh heavily on my heart. But I’m thankful to be here so I can be available. I never anticipated moving to a place like this… but the Lord has given me such a passion for the people, especially the artists here… Yes. I am excited to see what he does here.

    • God can definitely bring light to places of darkness. The deadness and the blindness that I’ve seen in Vegas will only make it all the more magnificent as God’s light breaks through. Could be an awesome story unfolding in the years to come! I pray you too find life there, Matthew. Thanks for finding this post and commenting! Would love to connect with you if I ever find myself wandering back through Sin City.