She said, “Maybe someone could come and do a pastor’s conference”. On the annual evaluation a year ago I asked a missionary who works with tiny churches in Nevada and California, how we might be able to help her. A conference was her answer. I twisted Pastor Charlie’s arm and next thing we landed in Las Vegas. Nevada is an arguably foreign land made up of desert, mining claims, rugged individuals (most of whom are armed says Sheriff Duane), tiny churches, and endless opportunities for ministry in communities plagued by broken homes, drug abuse, and teen pregnancies.
Larisa picked us up at the airport and headed north to Beatty. We skated across more than a hundred miles of desolate landscape–barely inhabited, but more stunning than bleak. As night fell, I wondered what happens when your car breaks down out here? That night and the next morning, we met with local church leaders to listen to them, pray for, and encourage them. One pastor’s wife
said, “You came from Pennsylvania just to pray for us!” Over the next few days, that would be our itinerary: travel one or two hundred miles, meet with a pastor or other church leader–or maybe help with a kids’ club, then move on.
The scenery was breathtaking. Combine the desert vistas and the mountains that bracketed them, with drifting tumbleweeds, burros braying in the streets, wild mustangs silhouetted against the horizon, and honest-to-goodness mining claims, it checked off almost every one of my wild west stereotypes. Then there was the day we lunched in Death Valley, when coyotes walked within 8′ looking for handouts at about the same time an F-18 streaked overhead. Not a typical lunch.
Barren desert separates towns by a hundred miles or more. Not only is the nearest Wal-Mart a couple of hours’ drive, but medical care may be a flight away with transport costing tens of thousands of dollars. The town of Tonopah recently lost its paid ambulance service–after the only local doctor fleeced the town and fled with the clinic’s money. This town of 2500 now has no doctor, no clinic, and although there is still an ambulance, it depends on volunteers who have other full-time jobs.
In Larisa’s field most pastors also have fulltime jobs outside of the church because churches are too small to pay their salaries. So Larisa helps local churches impact their communities–essentially as an unpaid staff person, by reaching out to area children and teens. She travels hundreds of miles across two states every week to lead kids’ Bible clubs or youth groups. Over Christmas she organizes countless Birthday parties for Jesus. In the summer, she does 7 weeks of VBS, running 5 different sites each day. Then, there’s a week of youth camp.
The pastors we resourced on Friday drove 100-300 miles from their tiny churches where 10-35 people may gather to worship on a Sunday–the largest, 75. They seemed a bit wary, unsure if they could trust these two dudes from the east. We taught on preparing sermons, leading a church with an elder team, and finding your identity in Christ, and gave each man 3 books.
Saturday was the men’s conference where Charlie taught more on identity (surprise, surprise :)), and I taught on meeting alone with God. The pastors from the day before had also returned, and it seemed by now that they did trust us. It was confirmed later when we learned they asked Larisa if we could return next year.
Can you guess what “The Shady Lady” or “Angel’s Ladies” are? Brothels are legal in Nevada but the ones we saw were eyesores. I thought where such an enterprise was endorsed and regulated, that the premises would look elegant and inviting. Not so. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Satan’s lame attempts to in some way imitate God’s good gift, not only falls short–but looks bad doing so. Larisa told us a tragic story of what life is like for girls at these places.
On Sunday we traveled 120 miles from Larisa’s home in Big Pine, CA to a silver mining town in Nevada where Keith to preached. After lunch with Pastor Jim and several others from the church, we headed south for Las Vegas. Tomorrow we’d go home.
On Monday morning before our flight Larisa drove us down the Vegas strip where we saw the Mandalay Bay hotel where sniper Stephen Paddock holed up to gun down over 600 people at a concert in October. Interestingly enough, in the aftermath Las Vegas leaders quietly decided that for now they’re going to shelve the 14 year-old Vegas marketing catch phrase (What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). Such libertine sentiments don’t seem compatible with a chilling event that either ended or dra
stically altered the lives of so many.
Nevada is a magnet to people looking for wide-open spaces, and for play that’s forbidden elsewhere (gambling and prostitution). But it’s also just “home” to a lot of ordinary people who are sinners like us and need Jesus like we do. And where someone like Larisa Craig and her collection of little churches are ministering in hard places. I was humbled by her and people like Pastor Jim (no, another Jim!) who is probably going to sell his home in Tahoe so he and his wife can keep ministering in their remote community despite maybe only seeing $20 in the offering next Sunday.
Small towns, small churches, but big people taking on big challenges. I love them, their faithfulness, their faith. I did not come back quite the same. Thank you Larisa.