Pastor Dave Earley prays the way you and I scroll through Facebook news feeds, the way we watch TV, the way we breathe. All day, nonstop. He spent a year asking God where he should start a church. He visited a few cities, but none seemed right. Then, on Day 364, God woke him up in the middle of the night and said, “Google Las Vegas.” So he did. He saw a lost city, a broken city, a city that needed to be saved.
Pastor Dave, as his congregants call him, used to teach Church Planning at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia, school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because he’s the guy who outed Tinky Winky the Teletubby and blamed 9/11 on gay people, “abortionists,” pagans and the ACLU. Pastor Dave, by comparison, isn’t overtly political. “Liberty is a big school,” he says. “We’re all trying to follow the Bible the best we know how.”
Last year Pastor Dave recruited 18 Liberty University alums and moved to Las Vegas. The group prayed for 40 days, seven hours a day. They cut costs by living together and raised financial support beforehand, so they could pray full-time. They prayed for the city and for the sinners who live in it. They prayed that they could turn Sin City into Grace City.
I’m standing outside UNLV’s Franklin J. Koch Auditorium. Winter break ended two days ago, and this morning Grace City is recruiting new members. The crew has a booth across from Kaplan Test Prep, next to 5-hour Energy. The Grace City booth has free coffee, but it’s hard to compete with free energy.
Plan A was to use the coffee to lure students into the tent, then pitch them on the church. Plan B is to hand out fliers. But Plan B is proving tricky, too. The call girl card distributors on the Strip have it easy; tourists are clueless and looking for someone to tell them what to do. Returning college students are busy. They have to find classrooms, buy books and change schedules. The last thing they’re thinking about is Christ.
So Grace City gets creative. A Grace girl tells a passerby, “I like your skirt.” A Grace guy majestically bows before an on-the-go girl, which stops her in her tracks. He chats her up, and then associate pastor Sam Frye joins the conversation, putting his arm around the original pitchman. Pickup Artist 101: After you move in on a set, your wingman drops by and offers body contact as social proof. The girl eventually enters the tent and drinks the coffee. Sam shares his story.
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“I was living in Lynchburg, Virginia, finishing my masters at Liberty, and then I was working at Olive Garden. I didn’t know what God had in store for my life. When I was 25, I prayed that God would show me a path by the time I turned 30—that he would take me to the city where I was supposed to invest my life.”
“And when did Pastor Dave tell you about the Vegas church?” I ask.
“When I was 29.”
“What’d you see when you got here?”
“A lot of sadness,” Sam says.
I was expecting him to say, “The Bellagio fountains.”
“I saw a lot of homeless people—the look on their faces, the emptiness, the drug addictions, the alcohol addictions, the isolation, the loneliness. Vegas is a transient place, so people get stuck in depression, and that leads to the addictions. People need to fill that void.”
“And that’s where Grace City comes in …”
“Right. We believe that Jesus is the way—the only way. A lot of people think there are other ways to fill the void and other ways to God and other ways to Heaven. We want to let them know that the only true fulfillment is in Christ.”
But do they want to listen? I’m guessing no. Sure, every major American city has a sizable Christian population, but no other city has so proudly branded itself on anti-Christian values. Our mayor gave the President a gambling chip. Our former mayor pitched Bombay Sapphire gin to fourth graders and freelanced as a Playboy photographer. People don’t come to Vegas to get saved; they “wind up” here, working in casinos, gambling, bartending, drinking, sinning. Does anybody in this town want to hear about Jesus?
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m at Grace City “church.” Grace City doesn’t have an actual facility yet, so they meet at a school, but this weekend the school isn’t available, so they’re meeting at Desert Bloom Park.
There’s a guy walking three pit bulls, a group of kids playing keep-away with a bowler hat and about 150 people watching Pastor Dave preach. Students, homeless 20-somethings, babies, the elderly, a tattooed couple in lawn chairs, a guy in rainbow suspenders—they’re all listening in.
Pastor Dave wears jeans, a Grace City T-shirt and sunglasses. The sun is behind him, and every now and then it pokes through the clouds, punctuating whatever point he happens to be making.
“Jesus knows what it is to suffer emotional anguish. He knows what pain is all about. He was beaten, whipped—they basically whipped him raw, took the skin off his back, put stakes in his hands and feet. He suffered. Jesus Christ suffered physically, mentally and emotionally. All of your sin and my sin was dumped on Jesus Christ. But God took the worst event in human history … and he turned it into the best event in human history.”
Pastor Dave leads the group in a prayer: “Dear God, I believe in you. I admit that I have sinned. I admit that I do not deserve eternal life. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. I believe he didn’t sin. I believe that he can give me eternal life. Dear God, right now I ask you to save me. Be my Lord, I want to be saved.” Little by little, the guitarists by his side grow louder. A girl sings, “I may be weak, but your spirit’s strong in me,” and just then the sun peeks out. It’s quite a moment. Then, it’s time for burgers and dogs.
I meet Jeremiah near the grills. He plays guitar on the bridge between Cosmo and Aria, and he’s got one hand. He says he banks $15 an hour as a street performer, and over the summer he can pull in $65 an hour. Problem is, last summer he spent everything on drugs.
“I had a bad pot addiction,” he tells me. “Everything was going to pot. I wouldn’t even go out unless I needed money for pot.”
Around that time, Jeremiah and his fiancée broke up. She still attends Grace City church, but the breakup wasn’t easy. “I was thinking about killing myself if she dumped me,” Jeremiah says. “I started telling people I was going to do it—that I’d run out into traffic. And I did. I ran out onto Cambridge with this car coming at me. I did it in front of her, I mean.”
“The car stopped.”
After that, things took a turn for the better. Jeremiah’s car broke down, and he got a ride home from Pastor Dave’s son, Andrew. Along the way, Jeremiah told Andrew about his addiction, and then, together, they smashed Jeremiah’s bongs and flushed his pot. He says he hasn’t smoked since. He prays instead.
Pastor Dave says, “God uses my son Andrew for people on the edge, people who are gay, addicted, homeless, suffering with mental things—they’re drawn to him. Even though he’s a pastor’s son, he’s not like a pastor’s son; he has, like, 30 tattoos. Andrew doesn’t try to recruit these people; God brings them to him. They’re homeless or they’re couch surfers or they’re addicted … and now they’re free.”
Later, I revisit that statement. “You group gay people with addicts there ...”
“I’m just referring to people who have at one time or another been viewed as being on the fringes of mainstream society. In the Bible Belt there are many traditional families with a husband and wife and three kids. Here there are more addicts, more street people and more people with what used to be called alternative lifestyles.”
And are the people with alternative lifestyles welcome in the church?
“We do have several gay people who attend our Sunday worship services and Bible studies.”
Pastor Dave still works part-time, as an online adjunct professor, but I sense that he mostly sees himself—and Andrew, too—as a liberator of lost souls. And that, Pastor Dave would surely say, is why God sent him to Vegas: lots of lost souls here.
“People don’t come here to go to church; they come here to gamble,” he says. “It’s a sad city. The suicide rate is high—three times the national average. The divorce rate is high; the addiction rate is high. People are isolated in this town. A lot don’t have families. They’re looking for a family.”
After the service, a woman approaches Pastor Dave. She asks him to pray for her, keeping the reason vague. After an awkward beat, she seems ready to leave, but instead she lingers, as if she wants Pastor Dave to follow up. When he does it turns out she’s just been diagnosed with cancer.
Pastor Dave calls his wife over, and the two of them stand on either side of the woman. They put their hands around her. They pray.
If she approached me, I wouldn’t know where to begin. And, sure, it’s easy to be skeptical about prayer making a difference (and it’s easy to cite the John Templeton Foundation study that found prayer actually harms those in recovery). But it’s also easy to see that this woman approached Pastor Dave looking for help, and after the prayer, she felt a little bit better. Every parishioner who showed up Sunday morning seemed to.
Andrew lives behind the Boulevard Mall. When I visit his apartment on a Thursday night, it’s packed with, as Pastor Dave puts it, “people on the edge.” Unshaven faces, cross tattoos, shoes with missing toes. Some people are going through white trash bags filled with donated clothes.
A woman named Cara tells me she’s wearing an entirely new outfit: red peace sign shirt, black Capri pants, beanie hat. Cara says she used to be a singer with Nevada Opera Theatre, until she was hit by a drunk driver. Broken neck, broken back. She had to wear a medical “halo,” a metal ring anchored by four pins driven into your skull. She lived on her mom’s couch for six years, sinking into depression.
But Cara recovered and met Jeremiah, the one-armed guitarist, who told her about the church. She’s doing better now, she says.
I meet Julio Alfonzo Amador Sanchez. Jr., who was stabbed in the chest after beating up a guy who called him a “bitch.” Julio stuck his fingers into his chest to keep his lung from collapsing and walked three blocks to get help. He credits his recovery to God.
Julio, Cara, Andrew and the rest of the Grace City gang eat chicken prepared by three trained chefs who work at Aria, Cosmo and Wynn. All three are atheists, and I ask one, Arturo, whether Grace City pressures him to convert.
“They know I prefer not to be hassled, so instead they pray for me. I just smile and thank them. Regardless of whether there’s a God or whether he hears their prayers, I understand that their prayers come from the heart, and there’s only good intentions behind them.”
One of the other atheist chefs calls out, “Raise your hand if you haven’t gotten food yet!” Jeremiah holds up his stump.
Andrew gathers everyone in a circle. He encourages us to “reject the evil spirits out of the room, by all praying at the same time.” Then he counts—1, 2, 3—and boom! Wall of sound. Pastor Dave, to my left, prays casually. Jeremiah prays angrily. A guy in the corner prays like a televangelist. Cara prays with her hand on her husband.
Then we go around the circle reading gospel verses and explaining what they mean to us. One man was taken by the line, “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” and says, “I had two opportunities last night where I could have gave people a hug instead of punching them.” Another man says a verse made him feel like he was back at home with his dead mom.
It’s moving stuff, but truth be told, I’m getting bored and eyeing the door. “Thanks for staying,” Andrew says when the session is over. It’s as if he’s seen into my soul.
All but two of the original 18 Liberty alums are still in Las Vegas, and the church has added four more people now working as interns. Over the summer, a couple more students from Christian schools across the U.S. will join Grace City, too.
“Our next steps,” Pastor Dave says, “are, one, change the spiritual atmosphere in the city by growing and expanding our house of prayer and, two, train an army of passionate, radical young leaders who want to serve this city with the love of God.”
And the endgame?
“We want to see Sin City transformed into Grace City. We want to see thousands of young people come into the kingdom of God and experience the goodness of a personal relationship with Jesus. We want to see people flying into Vegas from all over the world in order to encounter God.”
That sounds unlikely to me. Vegas’ “Sin City” brand is as strong as ever, but Pastor Dave is right about Vegas being home to sad, lonely people. And he’s right when he says they need help. Whether they need Christ to fill the void or just friendship and support is up for debate, but there’s no debating that Grace City offers all three.