I was 18 the first time I flew to Las Vegas. Just out of high school with no direction at all except the guiding light that time in my life—God. So, it wasn’t very hard for my best friend Scott to draw me away from tiny Niles, MI. I remember scanning the radiant land beneath me from the plane, and the burst of hot air, like a punch in the face, as I left the airport. I went there to do charity with the organization Youth with a Mission (YWAM). I had no food, about $200, and a tin can suitcase of clothing; I was ready for anything. But as anyone who’s lived in Vegas long enough can attest, the neon lights that grip the eyes of so many, only distract from the dark side of the city.
Before you could work with YWAM you had to attend a Discipleship Training School. It was divided into two parts: three months of lecture, and two months overseas humanitarian work. Leaving me three months to collect $3,000 to pay for everything. That doesn’t sound too bad in theory, but this organization didn’t allow you work. It was them or nothing. We were all encouraged that God wouldn’t let us down “The money always comes in,” we were told, and days before I left the country, it did. A week later I found myself in Myanmar, then Thailand. The differences between the two neighbors are staggering, like jumping from the year 1900 to 2000 as you cross the border. We taught English, consoled prostitutes, fed the hungry, and traveled from church to church, teaching. It was like a dream, living the stories I’d only read about in ancient texts. Those five months changed my life.
I immediately returned to work with the staff. It didn’t take long to figure out there simply wasn’t much to do. We worked with the kids from our apartment complex in an after school program, folded newsletters, but mostly we just wasted time on the internet, and tried desperately to raise money for food and rent. I spent my duration there living off no more than $400 a month. People were relatively quick to give if you were going on a trip, but not so much for food, general well-being, or bills, so we spent more time trying to find donors than actually contributing in any way. It was a shame because there were almost endless men and women, homeless and hungry, with an array of addictions. There was never a shortage of need, only money.
Our priorities were wrong, there was no leadership, gaping holes in our mission—problems everyone was aware of, but deliberately ignoring. We could barely manage rent and utilities, but our director insisted on wasting $1,500 on professional blueprints for his four acre “dream base.” Most of the staff killed time on the internet, or called their supporters to ask for money. I was told numerous times to quit smoking because it might mislead others, while one of our staff members was such a drunk, when he couldn’t get a beer bottle open, he just broke off the top and drank the remains (including glass), without so much as a peep from leadership. Another member used all his volunteer time starting his clothing company “Stand”. Meanwhile my best friend and I were stuck with all the grunt work, living off scraps, in a pretty bad neighborhood to boot.
I was working late on a particularly broiling summer night, when I heard sirens just outside the window. I wrapped up my work, and locked up the building. As I turned to head home my eyes adjusted to blinding spotlight that engulfed my face from across the parking lot. The helicopter overhead framed me in a white circle as twenty or so officers adjusted their scopes to the center of my forehead. I was paralyzed with a feeling: the lights that drew me here like a moth now filled me with the same kind of feeling you get just before a car hits you. Eventually someone waved me forward, and I ran home.
The news later that night broke down the situation, another Vegas maniac on the loose. It was common in our neighborhood. If it wasn’t gunfire, it was SWAT, or gangs. If you’re asking yourself what could keep a small group of lame, impossibly white, bible thumpers from getting shot in this neighborhood? As I said, we took care of their kids, and when the temperature dropped to a cool 90 degrees we’d play soccer too. We kept our heads down, didn’t start trouble, and everyone was decent enough to return the favor. But one thing was clear, my stay in Vegas was rapidly coming to an end, but not before the crème de la crème of my stay.
For Christmas I managed to raise just enough money to take Grey Hound to the bottom of Texas to visit my parents. Getting there was easy enough: a bit of mild nausea, nothing to problematic. It was going back to Vegas when the fun really started. Just an hour out of The Valley and our bus engine choked, sputtering to its terribly ill-timed demise. The driver informed us another bus would arrive after three boring hours. The breakdown threw the entire schedule off, so it took a half-day longer to reach the city. We arrived at midnight, when I learned Greyhound had lost all my luggage—roughly a grand worth of Christmas presents. And there I was in the middle of Las Vegas with no money, no cell phone, just an overstuffed ocean blue backpack that screamed “STEAL ME”.
As I was about to snoop out a cozy park bench to crash on, I saw a police officer patrolling the station. I told him my situation and he leveled with me saying, “You know I’m not supposed to do this for people? How close do you live?” I squeaked out the location, and he pointed the way to his car. I was saved. Soon I’d put this whole trip behind me. Not five minutes on the road and a red Corvette ripped out in front of us. The officer’s hand reached over and typed on his computer, “Unbelievable. It’s stolen.” He said, eyebrows pulled taut, “I’m so sorry, you have to get out.” With that he left me on the side of the highway. This is it, I thought, I look lost, I stick out like an inflatable air dancer; someone’s going to kill me.
As I walked, multiple men stopped, rolled down their windows and whistled at me. I just kept walking, repeating my dismal thought mantra. After a while I found a gas station, and asked the addicts there, playing video Slots, for money. Not a single one turned away from the machine. Their eyes eternally frozen to the rotating columns standing between them and fortune. The station attendant heard me and called me over, “What’s wrong, you lost?” he asked, “Do you need a cab?” I explained the extent of my desperation, and he gave me a card with the station address, and another for a Taxi. Then he reached into his pocket, and handed me a couple of quarters. The taxi got me home but I owed $42. I opened my wallet, revealing my poverty to the driver. He pulled out his wallet and said, “Looks like I owe you change.” handing me two dollars, “Get yourself some coffee in the morning. Have a good night.”
The sole gem in a Pewter city whose good deed carried me a few more months before I left for home. No longer would I be lured by dreamy lights, like Siren’s songs. People go to Vegas for many reasons (mainly booze, women, and roulette), but outside “the strip”, it’s poverty, violence, and addiction just like every other major city. For the sake of not being overly negative, there are wonderful treasures tucked everywhere like the cab driver, countless people working hard to make Vegas a better place to live, or party. The worst thing about my stay was that the people who I thought were there to stop those things were just as consumed by them, if not more so. I just couldn’t stand they hypocrisy anymore, certainly everyone has room for error, but one must call to question a long succession of them. The realization that I was surrounded by people who didn’t really care, joined with poverty and the weekly manic alert was too much for me. That radiant desert city opened my eyes, but it didn’t dissolve my passion for humanitarianism I just took some time to quietly rebuilt my strength in not-so-terrible Niles.