My friend and I spent the last two and half days or so meandering through the inferno that is the Las Vegas strip in early July while our spouses sat in the conference that brought us down there. Big city streets are fascinating to wander in general, but Las Vegas, of course, takes things to a different level entirely. Maybe the heat had fried my neural circuitry, but after about a day or so of wandering, I found that I had lost the ability to be amazed. Floating flower balls in hotel lobbies? Ho hum. Fake replicas of ancient Greece… and Paris… and Venice… and New York? Obviously. Artificial thunderstorms with rainfall in a shopping mall? Yawn. Ok, who wants to impress me next?
But even amidst all the artificiality and sybaritic fervour that is Las Vegas, it is a city whose streets exhibit the same social inequalities as any other big city. The people begging on the street in Vegas might be a bit more creative than in other cities I’ve been in—the cardboard signs contained everything from “I’m just here looking at butts” to “I may look old, but I think I can still be a porn star” to “need weed.”—but poverty is poverty, and it’s always hard to see people who are getting kicked around by life. The contrast between the bright lights and obscene opulence of Vegas and the sight of human beings huddled under cardboard canopies or sprawled out in the few available slivers of shade to escape the heat was jarring, to put it mildly.
But I have discovered that I can be an excellent priest and Levite. I am quite skilled at crossing over to the other side of the road, well-rehearsed excuses in tow. Well, you can’t help all of them… They’d probably just blow it on booze or drugs… How much difference would a few dollars make anyway?… Doesn’t this just perpetuate the problem?… I didn’t even bring any American cash…They have social services for these people who are far better equipped to deal with this than me…
Luckily, I had a Christian with me. My friend and I were walking down Las Vegas Blvd. yesterday afternoon when one person in particular caught my attention. It was a young woman tucked away in the shade, not even terribly visible to most passersby. She had a sign that said, “Six months pregnant, no home, no family, no friends. Please help.” I heaved a ponderously heavy sigh as I pointed her out to my friend, as I kept right on walking. My friend stopped me. “We need to go back,” she said, simply. Yes, right. Of course we do.
My friend strode purposefully back to where the girl was sitting. She leaned over to her and began speaking to her in hushed tones, asking questions, smiling warmly, looking deep into this dear girl’s eyes. I stood slightly off to the side, not wanting to get in the way. The girl looked so tired, so defeated. After a few minutes of conversation, I saw the girl nod enthusiastically, and then grab on to my friends’ hand. And there, in the middle of the heat and the hedonism, they prayed. Together. Heads bowed and tears flowing. Two people from different worlds, each hanging on for dear life—because life is dear, isn’t it?—in their own ways. I just stood there quietly and and reverently stared.
My friend walked down the street to grab some food for this girl. I tentatively sat down beside her. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?” I asked. “Sure,” she said, still wiping the tears from her eyes. I asked her what her name was. “Jamie,” she said. “Where are you from, Jamie? I asked. “How did you end up in a place like this?” She smiled. “I’m from Utah. My parents live in Washington now, but they can’t help me. They can barely make rent. I followed a guy here from Utah, but he started beating me when I was three months pregnant, so I had to get away.” I swallowed hard. “Where will you sleep tonight?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know… there’s shelters… I’ll probably end up there.”
Jamie looked at me and smiled. “You know your friend, she’s a beautiful person,” she said. “Yeah, she sure is,” I replied.
And so are you, I later thought I should have said. So are you, Jamie.
I sat there with Jamie for a few minutes. The street looks so different from ground level. The people look so much bigger. I felt self-conscious and small. And, it was hot. So very hot…
My friend returned with a sandwich and some fruit for Jamie. We said our good byes. I said something lame like, “take care, Jamie.” As if care was a thing equally available for the taking. But I was so glad that I had a Christian with me—someone to look deep into Jamie’s eyes, to pray for her, to touch her, to take her hand, to do the things that words are so often incapable of doing. Someone to show me what love looks like when it migrates out of your head and on to the street.
I thought of an earlier encounter with a couple of loud young men walking down the street with a megaphone and an angry sign listing all the things that God hates, screaming the “love of Jesus” at people. I thought of my friend holding Jamie’s hand, praying, offering food and tears. And I was glad that I had seen somebody preach the gospel of Jesus Christ on Las Vegas Blvd that day.