We have updated our Privacy Policy, effective May 25, 2018, to clarify how we collect and process your personal data. By continuing to use this website, you acknowledge that you have read and agree to the updated Privacy Policy.

Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas

A week with the street preachers of Sin City.

Tara Isabella Burton writes about religion and culture for National Geographic,...

 

It is sunset on the Vegas Strip. The angels are standing in their corsets, their feathered heels. There are so many Zach Galifianakises, with varying degrees of girth, varyingly realistic monkeys on their shoulders. A muscular blond man wears black tie without a shirt. There are two Minions from Despicable Me, waving tiny costume arms at passersby; next to them, the snowman from Frozen bows his head towards his tip jar. There are women in dominatrix leather—you can get your “naughty mugshot” taken, in handcuffs, for a tip—and infinite Elvises: thin Elvis, fat Elvis, Elvis in a wheelchair, Mickey Mouse Elvis, strumming his guitar. A clean-cut twenty-something with a board offers “medical marijuana” tours to people who don’t need medicine. A Hispanic man in his late forties, wearing an orange T-shirt that says GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, passes out flyers for a strip club. People ask him questions. He says he speaks no English.

On the billboards, under the lights, across from the Paris-that-is-not-Paris (the Eiffel Tower, the Opera House, a quarter-size Arc de Triomphe advertising Monumental Sweets), a scrolling banner throws up seemingly unrelated snippets of text:

I USED TO BE A MODEL.

WE ARE ALL TIME TRAVELLERS.

HUSTLE OR BE BROKE

ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?

At the fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel, intermittently neon, the waters oscillate like women’s can-can-ing legs, rising above the few, parched trees dotting the hotel’s grounds. Everybody gathers here to watch the show—every fifteen minutes on Friday and Saturday nights—slurping through the 32-ounce daiquiris it is legal to carry openly. Tonight, the fountain is playing “Hey, Big Spender,” and at least a hundred people are craning their necks to see. They’re taking photographs. They’re tipping the Minions. The waters reach higher and higher, until the crash of them drowns out Shirley Bassey: “We could have a few laughs, laughs I could show you… good time! Would you like to have a… good time?” Everybody applauds.

Then Gary gets on the megaphone.

“Did you enjoy the show?” he asks, in a chewy Long Island accent. “The Bellagio—they gave you a free show. You didn’t earn it.”

Nobody stops. Nobody looks up.

“That’s salvation,” he says. “That’s God’s grace.”

“What the hell?” someone shouts. “Come on.”

The megaphone crackles. Gary gets louder—in his seventies, now, he admits he’s a little deaf—and keeps on going: “You’re proud of Sin City, as though sin had no penalty! Sin separates us from a Holy God.”

He talks about the good news of Christ’s gospel. Then he talks about the bad news: “Unless you come to a relationship in Jesus Christ, you will spend eternity separated from God.” No response. “What if you don’t believe the Bible? Well, that’s the great thing about this country. You can believe the Bible’s not true.”

But that won’t change anything, when the hour comes. It’s like his sign says: REPENT OR PERISH.

“This is it,” Gary says. “We’re in the final stretch of the World Series—this world will pass away, Jesus Christ will come again.”

Then, an afterthought. He nods at the Minions, who are still waving. “Tip the characters.”

He hands over the microphone. A German woman takes it: “Too many of us hear that God is love. But God is an angry God. God is angry with us every day.”

On the corner, a tall, broad man with a white goatee—his height only emphasized by his enormous cowboy hat—looks on in silence. TRUST JESUS, his sign says.

The music at the fountains starts up again, silencing them. Then they do the whole thing over again.

***

Gary Stanfield has been street preaching for six years. He moved to Vegas from Huntington, Long Island, after his wife died and he subsequently remarried. It’s been six years for Wivke Rockne, the German woman; sometimes her husband Roger, a blackjack dealer whose work has taught him the “sinful nature of greed,” joins her to hold the banner before his shifts at the Monte Carlo, where he tries to convert colleagues and gamblers alike as an undercover agent.

Dan Pflumme, who quietly hands out fake hundred-dollar bills with Christian messages printed on one side, has only been doing it for five months, just to get out of the house after his wife’s death, accompanied by his emotional service animal, a seven-year-old Bichon Frise called BJ who yelps at inopportune moments and jumps up and down his leg. They all have their own methods, their own techniques, their own Scriptural reference points, their own tracts, though they share a focus on generalities—God’s wrath, the coming Christ—over dogmatic specifics. They also share the microphone, switching off every ten or fifteen minutes.


All except Jim Webber.

Jim stares out over the crowd, under the brim of his cowboy hat, under his TRUST JESUS sign, saying nothing, passing out no tracts, approaching nobody.

Instead, people approach him.

“Hey, are you with the Phelps church?” It’s a blonde man in his twenties, already drunk, his girlfriend sloping over his arm.

“No.”

“Because if you were, I was gonna have to kick your ass.”

Jim raises his head. He is so calm, so methodical in his speech.

“Why, that’d be nearly as bad as cussing in front of a lady!”

The man staggers back. “I … uh … I wasn’t cussing!”

Jim doesn’t say anything.

“I mean…”

It sinks in. He slinks away. Jim keeps on holding his sign. The Minions keep on waving.

***

Vegas wants us to call it Sin City. Everyone I talk to during my stay—blackjack dealers, preachers, showgirls—makes reference to the phrase, coined in the nineteenth century when Block 16 reinvented itself as a place for gambling and womanizing for local miners. Not one person rolls their eyes or calls it a cliché. Sin is the girls whose photographed breasts festoon the sidewalk, the paper melting into the pavement. Sin is the Eiffel Tower-shaped cocktail you can carry out in the open. Sin is the Heart Attack Grill on Fremont Street, where people over 350 pounds can commit “caloric suicide” for free, and, as a sign outside reminds us: “the founding fathers fought and sacrificed for my right to be just as stupid as I want to be.”

Sin is the seven million dollars a Bellagio blackjack dealer named Al tells me he saw a man lose in a single night, before coming back the next week to do it all over again.

“Sin,” a witch tells a young boy in Terry Pratchett’s novel Carpe Jugulum, “is when you treat people as things.”

In Vegas, there is nothing that is not a thing. Every body is a commodity: the women selling themselves—the cards they hand out make clear that they take MasterCard and Visa, rarely American Express—or using themselves to sell other things, the naked women on the sides of trucks who cover their breasts with machine guns inviting you to SHOOT LIVE ROUNDS. Everything is taken half-seriously, and only half. By one of the escort catalogues, a man turns to his wife with a fraction of a grin.

“Can we get a hooker tonight, please?”

“It’s your money, honey,” she says.

She is smiling. He is smiling.

***

On my way to the Strip one morning, my driver is a man named Ricky who spent thirty years in door-to-door sales until the Internet “changed everything.” He gives me lessons in salesmanship. “You only have thirty seconds to make a pitch,” he says. “Whatever the product, you have to make them think they need it. Each person, you have to learn to mimic them. If they’re abrupt, you have to be abrupt. If they’re open, you have to be open.”

For the preachers, Sin City’s greatest sin can be used for the saving of souls.

According to Ricky, you have to make it clear they need the product—weed-killer, say—without insulting them: “You have to say, you’re doing such a great job with those cypresses, but I couldn’t help noticing a couple leaves are wilting.” Being vulnerable, he says, is often a great sales tactic. Personal stories create the illusion of connection.

“Opening their wallets,” says Ricky. “That’s what I call it.”

But these techniques aren’t limited to the commercial. For Gary, and the rest of the preachers, Sin City’s greatest sin can be used for the saving of souls.

Gary, with Jim’s help, has tricked out his truck so that it reads, in enormous black letters, Jesus’s words: “WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?” Smaller decals add: “God Sees…what happens in Vegas,” “I Don’t Trust the Liberal Media,” and, “Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

Sure, it’s advertising: more the provenance, in Vegas, of casinos than churches. But it’s for a good cause. “When you see golden arches, nobody has to say anything—we all know that means McDonald’s,” says Gary. “If the corporate world uses this method, why shouldn’t Christians?”

But nobody can close a sale like Jim Webber.

Jim Webber has been doing street ministry for almost fifty years. Sometimes, usually on college campuses, he preaches, or starts debates with passersby about the nature of God’s love. On the strip, where he has less time to make an impression, he prefers to let his sign do the talking. TRUST JESUS is pithy, he says. It’s also multi-purpose—important when dealing with a diverse audience. It exhorts the ungodly to accept Jesus Christ while making sure the Christians remember him. It’s like a Coca-Cola advertisement, he says: you can never know exactly what will go through a person’s mind when he sees it, but you know it’ll evoke some sort of emotion. Maybe someone will think of their grandmother saying, “I’ll pray for you,” or of a Christian colleague at work. It’s just one spoke on the wheel, he says—he pronounces it hwheel—who knows where the next spoke might come from?

Jim, who owns and manages property across the country, has spent his savings, and most of his free time, on advertising for Jesus. He makes T-shirts, buttons, and banners for all the street preachers, free of charge, from his Vegas home, drawing on his experience as a young man in a commercial print shop. (Dan’s banner and Gary’s T-shirt both bear Jim’s slick hand-arranged lettering.) He serves as the nexus of what he calls the Vegas street preacher “subculture” (“there’s a fifty-cent word you might use”): patriarch, supporter, and enforcer—he often has to lecture the younger, more overzealous preachers, who turn up to the Strip late, on the Christian importance of keeping one’s word.


On the Strip, Jim is implacable. He keeps a bag full of the theological books he’s written and printed through the self-publishing platform CreateSpace, which he gives for free to interested passersby. He has better luck getting people’s attention, he says, when Gary and the others aren’t out preaching—he admits “it puts people on edge.” But even tonight, people stop to talk to Jim: a Cajun man named EJ Domingue Jr., in town for a business convention, who fist-bumps Jim and proffers a self-authored religious pamphlet of his own (he’s an architectural photographer, not a street preacher, but Domingue just keeps them on hand to pass out when the Holy Spirit moves him); a Southern couple from Georgia who want to know if he can direct them to a ministry for unsaved sex workers; a man with a thick West African accent who wants Jim to know “I belong to Jesus.”

Then there are the Pharisees, the ones of little faith.

A drunk Australian, his 32-ounce glass already empty, stops Gary to ask if he can use the microphone for a while.

“Free speech, man!” he insists, when Gary refuses. “Come on, free speech!”

“Let me ask you a question,” Gary says. “Who is Jesus Christ?”

“The man!” the Australian shouts. “Just telling the truth,” he adds lamely, when Gary pulls the microphone away. “I just wanna tell the truth.”

“Everybody’s a theologian out here,” Gary grumbles, as the Australian shuffles away.

Free speech, after all, is what allows Jim and Gary to carry out their work. Until 2005, casino hotels such as the Bellagio treated the Strip outside their doorstep as their de facto property and street preaching was banned, the prohibition enforced by byzantine Clark County—Vegas’s home county—restrictions on the size of a banner a person could carry. Jim was arrested under such restrictions in 2005.

It was then that Jim found an unlikely ally: the American Civil Liberties Union, not historically a friend to the religious right. In the 2006 Webber vs. Clark County Case, the ACLU supported Jim’s cause as a First Amendment issue; the case was settled two years later in Jim’s favor. Street preachers have been allowed to remain on the strip, unmolested, ever since.

After all, Jim says, what could be more fundamentally American than free speech?

“I don’t mean to speak pridefully,” he disclaims (and will continue to disclaim over the five days I spend with him), but it was his own rhetorical prowess that convinced Clark County to ease up the restrictions on street preaching.

Over lunch at the fluorescent-lit Red Rock casino—he always used to come here with his late co-preacher Pastor Kim, who loved the ten-station buffet—Jim regales me with tales of his success. Clark County wanted to settle with him, he says, and spent the deposition asking if he’d take money in lieu of policy change.

“I kind of go into this dumb routine—Gee man, I’d really have to think about that…”

Jim is partial, I come to learn, to the dumb routine, as a means of disarming those he sees as his intellectual enemies, accustomed to expecting someone who’s not “academically playing with all the cards.” Such a perception, he says, can work in his favor.

“I went through this about three times with them and then I said: Well, let me put it to you this way. My grandfather fought World War I. My father fought in World War II. The essence of these wars had to do with protecting our nation as a nation, which centers around the constitution of the United States. We had tens of thousands of people, young men, that died, shed their blood, to preserve the rights we have in the United States of America.” He speaks smoothly, clearly, his precise cadence punctuated only by the occasional malapropism or aberration of syntax: preserverence for preservation, paramont for paramount, asphyxiated for fixated.

“And so now you ask me, ‘what kind of a financial settlement…?’ ‘What value?’ I guess I’d have to ask, what value are those lives that were shed to preserve the right of freedom of speech and freedom of religion and the constitution of the United States of America? What value should we place upon those rights and in the enforcement of those rights against the people who want to undermine those rights and throw me in the back of a squad car for exercising those rights?”

He finishes with a bellow. His cowboy hat trembles on his head.

“That pretty much ended it,” he says. Then: “I did a much better job then than what you saw just now.”

Not bad, he says, for a self-educated man, who by his own account had serious learning difficulties, and couldn’t read until he started practicing with a Bible on tape after his conversion in his early twenties.

“It’s called slow motion,” Jim says, when I ask him about the process of teaching himself theology, “with the desire within you to represent God in the correct manner.” The key is persistence. “For instance, if I met a doctor, I’d say, how many years did you go to college to become a doctor? They may say seven years. So you studied your field for seven years? I studied one subject for fifty years.”

Jim doesn’t claim to know everything, of course, calling himself a “utilitarian” in his approach. His only interest is in learning just enough theology to respond to the questions and concerns of would-be converts: “I have no desire to learn things that I’m not able to pass on in a practical way to other human beings. Learning for the sake of learning—I have no desire to do that. So when it comes to the things that real people out there in the world need, those are the things that I specialize in and those are the things I’ve taken the time to understand.”

He tells the story of a learned acquaintance of his who was preparing to do additional graduate study. “And I said, ‘Lemme ask you a question: once you’ve gone through that whole course and you graduate and you’ve got that diploma, how many people are you going to be able to talk to about this subject matter?’” The answer? Not many. “And I said, ‘Why take the time, then? Why don’t you spend your time down handing down tracts on the street trying to reach people for Christ, rather than getting another degree under your belt, so that you can feel like you’re kind of a mucky muck within Christianity?’ People—they’re living, they’re dying, and they’re either going to heaven or hell! Those are the issues!”

Besides, Jim thinks bigger than being just another “mucky muck.” He’s developed his own theology—which he accepts some churches might see as “heretical”—based on his independent reading of the Bible, which he expands on in each of his books, with sections on his thoughts ranging from the end times to the depravity of man.

“The reference I have is to the theology books that you’ve read, the other higher learning books that you’ve read within Christianity,” he says, referring to early Church fathers and major theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, “and these guys, those are what I’m comparing myself to. Not a pastor at a local church. Not even necessarily a professor at the local bible school. That’s not the benchmark. The benchmark is these scholars. I know how smart these guys are. And I don’t ascertain to that. I don’t ascertain to learning all the things that they’ve learned.”

Still, Jim says, he keeps trying. His mission is too important not to.

“I believe in the extreme emergency, so to speak—the importance of a person either spending eternity in heaven or hell. If there’s a heaven and if there’s a hell, if it be true,” he says, then there is no excuse for not sharing the good news of the gospel as widely as possible; those who fail to save their brethren from the fires of hell deserve to be there too.

And if Jim fails, it will not be for lack of trying. “We’re not shoving it down everybody’s throat … but everybody knows who we are and what we’re doing. It’s a warning. If in fact there’s a judgment, if in fact they end up in hell, God will say to them: there was my man, he was available for you, you had questions, he spent his life studying these things to be able to give you the answer and he was prepared—but you thought he was a kook! You thought he was a nut! You kind of treated him intellectually in the same way as people treated Jesus!” He stops himself and turns to me. “You see kinda the thinking?”

One day, Jim says, everybody will understand the good news of Jesus Christ. “They’re going to see all as they should see.”


It is difficult, walking down the Strip on a Saturday afternoon, to imagine the coming of such a day. The streets are littered with the detritus of the night before, cards advertising the services of Ashley, Dana, Layla: sensual rubdowns, no hidden fees, discreet billing, forty-seven-dollar specials. Darth Vader counts singles in front of the Bally Hotel. Fat Elvis takes off his shoes in the street, scratching his feet through a filthy sock. On the walkway in front of Caesar’s Palace, stinking of urine, a man with dyed and faded orange hair sleeps in a corner. The homeless sit with their donation buckets alongside the Minions, the snowmen, Jack Sparrow himself.

At the shrine of the four-faced Brahma, near Caesar’s Palace, someone stops long enough to kneel.

“Dude, this is a good picture.”

He clasps his hands. His friend takes a photo. They get up and walk on by.

***

Over coffee at a diner, Jim gets up from his table to compliment a decorated veteran—his medals from Vietnam and Korea pinned to his baseball cap—and to tell his wife how proud she must be to be married to such a brave man. She titters with delight; the old man beams.

“See what I did there?” Jim says afterwards. “I manipulated the conversation. That guy is gonna feel so good all day long.” If he’d started by talking about Jesus, he says, they wouldn’t give him the time of day. But now “they’d sit down and listen to me for thirty, forty-five minutes. It all has to do with technique.”

Jim has plenty of such techniques. He has a $12,000 high-end printing device in his Vegas home to make sure his merchandise is made with the best quality materials—“better tools, better product.” He makes T-shirts and caps with TRUST JESUS on them, and buttons for the kids. (“Kids like buttons,” he explains, because it means they can witness in a more non-threatening way.) He uses tent-poles to hold up the banners because they’re more efficient to take up and down than wooden poles.

While some other preachers have less “professional” gear—signs made with black marker, screen-printed T-shirts with religious messages on them—it’s important, he says, to make the “best possible representation of the gospel to the world.”

Equally important is the choice of venue.

Jim’s fond of what he calls “hot tub ministry”: going to a local spa or health club, where he has a “captivated audience” in a pool, and using the intimate setting to engage strangers in a conversation about Christ.

“If you get into a hot tub, they’re there for a reason—they don’t want to leave. And so by attempting to get a conversation going and then being able to ask the right questions, you will be able to witness to them.”

It’s all about getting inside people’s heads, he says. He always starts his witness with one simple question: “Tell me about your personal philosophy of life.”

“You know the one subject most people in the world like to talk about more than anything?” he asks. “Themselves. And you know the one thing in this world that we live in that most people have little or no time for? Listening to other people. So people have a desire to talk about themselves, but they don’t have an outlet in which to do that. We’re into our computers, television, ball game, our family responsibilities. We’re not into listening to a person’s opinion.”

That’s where Jim comes in. His listens to the people he witnesses to. He picks up on their cues. He gets them talking about themselves. And then he starts to challenge their beliefs.

Often he’ll go into his dumb routine. He puts on a drawl thicker than usual: “I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but … you said you try to be a good person. And that has always kind of struck me, because I’ve heard people say it, and oftentimes they’re so different. How do you define a good person? Because let’s face it, between me and you, some people think it’s good to open a door for a little old lady, and another person thinks it’s good to invite you for dinner when they’ve got a person they’re boiling in oil for dinner that night!” All the while, “there’s not one word that comes out of their mouth that I’m not paying attention to.”

Inevitably, he says, people try to defend moral relativism. That’s when he tricks them—do they defend child molesters, too? At that point, they insist on moral absolutes, but are unable to defend why. That’s when God comes in.

“It’s honest and simple,” Jim says. “I don’t trick them. No trickery going on, no manipulation going on.”


But he’s not above a little reverse psychology. Pointing out a car with a small, almost imperceptible cross on the bumper, Jim explains how he’d exhort the owner to be more zealous in his evangelism. “If I pulled up and that guy was getting out of a truck, I would get up without letting him know I’m a Christian at all, and I would just make the biggest thing out of the cross that you could imagine. Man, this is a testimony. Man, you gotta—in Sin City—to put that on your vehicle? I bet when God looks down on this city and he sees you and that truck…” He gets lost in his reverie. “Here you’ve got this big old guy picking up his six-pack of beer, and he’s got his wife there, and he’s got this 12-year-old kid that’s got this little Christian T-shirt on or something, and I just stop them! And this guy’s gotta listen to my whole praise over his son or his daughter or his wife because of this Christian Mickey Mouse—nothing bold like mine, something you’ve got to squint to even see it’s a Christian message. But I make it as beacons in the sky! And I say, ‘you gotta be proud to be married to a guy as gutsy as this guy.’ Nobody’s ever made such a big deal out of it before.”

They’ll feel heard, he says. They’ll feel valued. They’ll feel that their contribution means something. “And this is called exhorting our brothers in the Lord.”

One night, Jim tells me a story about the time he visited the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois, while on a mission trip: distributing his self-published autobiography for free from the back of his van to impoverished trailer-park churches, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. A friend pulled some strings, told Graham’s staff about his mission, got him a private invitation.

“They take me from the bottom all the way to the top, and they say, ‘Very few people have seen what you’re about to see,’ and they take me into Billy Graham’s office, and they take me in and show me Billy Graham’s boardroom! And here I am, I am dressed in jeans, just like I am, and I got these security people around me and a public relations person around me, and all these people see me go right on by ’round them with an escort. And these people have to wonder,who in the heck is that guy? They’re waiting in line and they have to buy tickets! And I’m escorted in there!”

I start to ask if he felt uncomfortable at the wealth on display, at the slickness of the operation, after so many nights sleeping penniless on the road. Jim cuts me off.

“And as I meditated on that experience, I thought to myself: that’s probably how it’s going to be in heaven. You’re going to have all these saints there. And then you’re going to have this guy honored with the crown and whatever, and they’re going to say, who in the heck is that?”

***

Sunday morning, Gary Stanfield takes me to church.

Shadow Hill Baptist Church, for all its posters that urge the congregation to PRAY FOR DOWNTOWN VEGAS, is as slick as the casinos I have left behind. HeBrews coffee shop (the website boasts “20 specialty flavors!”) serves parishioners; an electronic board counts down the seconds to each service. Behind the Christian rock band, a wall of neon boxes glimmers; the colors change during the singing, darkening every time we enter a minor key. Lyrics are provided on two enormous video screens, like celestial karaoke; when the pastor, Michael Rochelle, begins to preach, he is reflected, redoubled, enormous, on two video screens, which intermittently serve to illustrate what he’s talking about. When he warns of the dangers of Tarot cards, a deck appears onscreen; when he cautions against crystal-gazing, we see a menacing-looking woman in folkloric Roma garb. Rochelle’s sermon helps us fill in the blanks in our paper program: we learn that those isolated words—WASTE, SPEND, INVEST—that cryptically follow the lesson in our handout refer not to money, but time: Invest in your relationship with God, Rochelle says, and you’ll store up your spiritual treasures for heaven. It’s financial wisdom, applied to the everlasting.

“It’s funny,” whispers Dolores, Gary’s wife, who grew up Catholic in Puerto Rico. “The one thing I found really hard about converting from Catholicism was about the New Jerusalem”—a prosperity gospel-associated notion of God’s reign-to-come manifested literally, here on Earth. She had been accustomed to thinking of it as a spiritual place, not a literal, geographic fulfillment of Christ’s coming reign, as Shadow Hill sees it. “I don’t want streets of gold,” she murmurs. “I don’t want a crown on my head.”

Gary and Dolores take me to Sunday school with them. Miss Joy Wallace, a fifty-something woman with crisply feathered red hair, preaches the lesson, drawn from the book of Acts, about membership requirements in the church.

“Have you ever joined an organization?” asks Miss Joy. “Why?”

“Because they were like me!” a woman calls from the audience.

Membership requirements, Miss Joy says, are a positive thing. Everyone is welcome, of course, “nobody is interviewed. But we talk to you about your beliefs.” Otherwise, she says, you could believe in the Church of Bacon—the Vegas-based atheistic, satirical “church” founded by comedian-magicians Penn and Teller—and still be welcome in the congregation.

“In an era where the church is going the other way to appeal to the people,” Miss Joy says, to nods from the crowd, “it’s important to remember the church is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Sure, things have changed—with a trill she imagines how her grandmother would have reacted to the sight of her wearing pants in God’s house—but “some recipes you’ve got to hand down.”

She begins to talk about upcoming Shadow Hill events: Lord’s Suppers, potluck dinners, outreach program for all the “unchurched children” they’ve taken under their wing in the neighborhood (“there’s a little boy whose name I can never remember,” she chatters, although someone in the audience reminds her it’s Javier).

Gary raises his hand with a question. Miss Joy flinches.

“But,” his nasal Long Island accent is so much more noticeable here, where the voices are so careful and so light. “There are so many non-essentials … I mean, the essentials are few: salvation by grace alone, Scripture being inspired, Jesus …”

Miss Joy cuts him off so quickly I realize she’s done it before.

“We agree,” she says. Her smile is tight. “Let’s pray.”


I meet Gary outside HeBrews, over coffee.

“Miss Joy,” he sighs. “She tolerates me—and that’s it. I mean, I’m sure she loves me, but she tolerates me. The thing about Joy is, she focuses on the non-essentials.” She shut him down when he floated the possibility of understanding Genesis 1—the first Biblical creation narrative, where God makes the world in seven days—as anything but literal. And while he is extremely against what he calls “homosexual marriage,” he knows of a transgender student in his daughter’s church group that he feels ought to be made welcome. Salvation, Jesus—those, Gary says, are the things that should count, not politics or practice. “We join the one true church,” he says. “Then we join an organization with different labels.”

Such a stance, I learn, means that street preachers such as Gary are often at odds with their church communities—their theologies seen as idiosyncratic, even anarchic.

Returning to the Strip after my morning at Shadow Hill, the chaos of the street becomes more absolute. In the absence of those four church walls, of the music tinkling in easy harmony over the sound system, to make eye contact, to call out at the mass of bodies passing us feels all the more transgressive.

Jim reappears, his sign in tow tonight. He is wearing a different cowboy hat this time, black rather than beige. He is not surprised to hear of my experience at Shadow Hill; he has stopped going to church long since. “When he broke with Catholicism,” Jim tells me, “Martin Luther took a lot of the baggage along with him. Every church has its pope.”

No worship community can ever be free of what he despises: rules and hierarchies that interfere with what he believes to be a purer relationship with God, informed by the Scriptures alone. “Look at the New Testament,” Jim says, “We see a pattern of multiple players in the meetings that are participating as the Spirit moves them. Not one kinda dictator and orchestrator of the whole meeting.” His Christianity is freer than that. But so, he argues, is it more intellectually truthful.

Jim became disillusioned with the evangelical churches he went to, which he says were far from receptive to the intellectual inquiry he thinks of as necessary to Christian evangelical witness: only by understanding atheists’ most common objections to faith can anyone successfully convert them.

On this, Jim and the various churches he’s attended don’t see eye to eye. “The minute you’ve raised your hand and asked a question about something these people were saying you’d be looked at as a troublemaker. These guys are not prepared!” Though he tells me he tries to conduct himself “as a gentleman,” he admits that back when he went to church, he was more often than not like Gary, staying after the sermon to challenge the pastor’s interpretation of Scripture.

Besides, says Jim, the truest form of worship he can imagine is to be outside what he dismissively calls the “four walls” of the church. “This is a form of worship, you see? The proclamation of the gospel in the public forum is a form of worship, and I think it’s a more truer worship than what we see exhibited in churches today.”

In his more unguarded moments, Jim condemns institutions such as Shadow Hill as hypocritical, their Christianity too safe, too palatable, for the kind of real lifelong risk he sees Christianity as demanding. “If I went into Gary’s church this morning, stepped up at the pulpit, and said, ‘May I see the hands of everyone here this morning that wants to be like Jesus?’, what do you think would happen? All the hands would go up. Then I’d say, ‘Well, how many of you would like to go out tonight to the Bellagio with me and reach people for Christ like Jesus did? In the highways and the by-ways and talk about the gospel message…’”

He raises his hands.

“You see? You might have four people that would show up. That’s the bottom line, you know? You probably couldn’t fill a car with the people that showed up.”

Is it any wonder, Jim asks me, that the homosexuals, the tree-huggers, the “spotted owl people,” are taking over America? They have, at least, the courage of their convictions—the willingness to take real risks and fight for what they believe in. “Let’s say this: if the average Christians in any city in America, or all the cities in America, were to become the activists that homosexuals are, our nation would change.”

We’re interrupted by a shout from Gary.

“That’s pornography!”

A gay couple have shoved one of the Strip’s sex worker’s cards into Gary’s face.

“Are you proud of yourself? Did your mother raise you that way?” Gary cries lamely.

“That’s just the way she raised me,” one of them rolls his eyes. “Hallemalujah.”

They leave Gary spluttering.

I catch up with the couple farther down the strip. They roll their eyes when I ask them about what happened back there. “I mean, it’s Vegas,” one says. “They’re ridiculous. They’re here for the same reason everybody else is here: they like attention. It’s all just entertainment. It’s all part of the show.”

He considers. “If they believe what they’re saying, though, they picked the best place.”

A Jewish veteran named Clifton stops to ask a question about the Bible. Someone makes the sign of the devil and hisses. Two Italian-Americans from California, wearing red T-shirts of naked women, cry out: “I am Lucifer! Jesus’s mother was a whore!”

On the strip, reactions to the preachers range from the supportive to the bemused. People are less indifferent than I’d expected—once drunk, even the atheists stop to engage with Gary, with Jim. They attempt to debate. They heckle. They cry out “hallelujah.” A long-haired blond man with a mangy dog and unfocused eyes argues that Jesus came to “help us open our chakras, you know?” A Jewish veteran named Clifton stops to ask a question about the Bible. Someone makes the sign of the devil and hisses. Two Italian-Americans from California, wearing red T-shirts of naked women, cry out: “I am Lucifer! Jesus’s mother was a whore!”

It’s only when I see them up close that I notice their crosses.

“I’m Catholic,” one, named Adrian, slurs in a voice hoarse with cigarette smoke. He has a rum and coke, half-drunk, in his hand. “I wear this shirt so I can get more ladies.” He’s here to spend money—he’s gone through “fifteen grand” this year alone, and as far as he’s concerned, God’s fine with that, too. He hates the preachers. “A lot of tourists come here from other worlds—”

“—from other countries,” his companion butts in.

“From other countries, and when they come here to spend money in the U.S., and they see these guys lecturing some fucking bullshit—I’m all-in about God, but to speak it out like that? It’s bullshit. If you believe your thing, do it at church! Tourists are gonna feel disrespected!”

His companion has started taunting the street preachers again. Adrian decides to stop him this time, then to start hugging the preachers, just because he can.

“Goodnight, brothers,” Adrian puts his hand on his heart. He blows them a kiss as they stumble away.

***

Off the strip, without alcohol to dull the edges of transgression, the act of preaching feels even more volatile. On Monday morning, Jim takes me to the local social security office, where a hundred-strong line of people waits for the doors to open to collect their welfare checks. This is another one of Jim’s “captivated audiences.” Perfect for an extended preaching session.

And that’s just what John Terefe is doing.

If you died with your sins that’s where you’re going to end up, in hellfire, where the fire is not quenched and the worms never die.

He’s been doing it for an hour, through a megaphone, to an audience that is primarily black and Hispanic, with a few women, with their children, in hijabs. Nobody is drinking. Nobody is smiling. Most stand, bleary-eyed, staring straight ahead.

Then somebody loses it.

“Fucking chump!”

He rushes over to John and starts to shout in his face. John ignores him and goes on quoting Scripture:

The righteous requirement of the law… walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, and this eternal life is in Jesus Christ. Whoever has the Son has life. But whoever does not have the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God remains upon him.

Nearby, an elderly woman who refuses to identify herself (“it doesn’t matter what my name is”) is irritable. “If I had a gun,” she tells me, “I’d shoot him.”

He’s infringing on her rights, she says. “Everybody should have a choice, and I don’t want to hear him! I believe in God too, but I don’t want to hear that.” She, like everyone else in this line, is exhausted, here queuing an hour before the office opens to be sure to be seen. “Everybody’s on edge,” she says. “He gabbers your head all up before you go in and you can’t think straight … you wanna go in there and think about what you have to do and your head’s all gambled up with this mush.” She needs to change an address on her form—she tried to do it online, but it didn’t work, and this is the only time the office is open.

“They don’t care,” her companion says. “They don’t care if we live or die.”

Jim looks on proudly. “I made that sign for him,” he says of John. “And here he is with this sign, with this shirt! See the tone of his voice? He is not antagonistic. He is giving information.”

I point out that a few people in the line disagree. Jim scoffs. “We have to hear stuff we don’t wanna hear every day. They don’t have any problem imposing on us, music blaring, infringing on my rights.”

America’s a free country. Sometimes, the tables have to be turned.

We meet John for breakfast at a strip mall diner named Jammy’s, between a Vape City and a payday loan center.

Without his megaphone, John, barely twenty-four, is almost cripplingly shy, deferential to Jim and to me alike.

John is Ethiopian, born and raised Greek Orthodox. He’s been in America since he was twelve. Two weeks ago, he says, his parents, unwilling to accept that their son had left behind their Orthodox traditions, kicked him out. Now he does odd jobs around his local church for ten hours a week and lives in one of the city’s numerous and notorious “weeklies,” somewhere between a motel and a slum.

“It’s amazing,” Jim sighs, “how God consistently uses the imperfect to minister His perfection.”

Over the signature Jammy’s cornflake-encrusted steak, John tells me he was saved by YouTube. He was doing his math homework with the help of a video tutorial when he came across the testimony of Mary Kay Baxter, a Pentecostal minister who claims to have spoken to God directly, and to have seen visions of both heaven and hell. John was vaguely aware of a hell in his Orthodox tradition, he says, “but not like this.” Baxter’s words of fire, of brimstone, terrified and overwhelmed him. “I’d never heard anyone talk about seeing Jesus with their own eyes. I felt very convicted, you know? That I was on my way to hell.”

He’s no longer in college. Instead, he spends his days at the social security office and his nights on the Strip, preaching God’s word. His parents no longer speak to him.

But it’s all worth it, he says. He’s been saved.

It is striking, as I listen to John’s story of his conversion, what uncanny similarities his narrative shares with those of the other preachers I talk to.

Every Christian who has been born again—from John, converted on YouTube, to John’s street-preaching colleague Claude Simmons, who was born again when he saw John’s signs outside the Bally Hotel six months ago, to Miranda Dowlby, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” under posters of bare-assed women out on Fremont Street—uses the same language, always eliding the moment of experience. There is the recognition of sin, now told at such a distance, and the grace that follows repentance.

But that pivot, the moment in between, is always left unsaid.

“I was just overwhelmed,” says Claude.

“I just knew,” says Miranda.

“I felt very convicted,” says John (the term, which denotes both convincing and conviction, is common in evangelical circles). Nobody has any more detail. You know when you know. You’re just born again. That’s it.

Sometimes, they disassociate from the person they were before that salvific grace. “I was sexually abused,” Miranda, a college student at a California Bible school, tells me within minutes of us meeting on the street. She’s come to Sin City for the weekend to save as many souls as she can, and speaks with an intensity so manic and wears a smile so beatific I wonder if she’s even aware of what she’s saying. “I didn’t have a dad. I was so broken.” Her smile gets wider. “But then I—praise the Lord—visited a Bible school,” the church being the only place that could take care of her while her grandmother, who raised her, was at work, “and they told me, Jesus wants to be your dad.

Claude Simmons, too, tells me a story of homelessness, of leaving behind his biological family at sixteen to re-enter the foster care system. “I don’t know why,” he says, with that same smile. Like Miranda, he speaks so quickly, interspersing his own account with passages from the Bible. “It must have been God’s plan.”

He has two children: one from a previous relationship, one with his current wife. He was homeless twice, but when he talks about it, he might as well be describing the life of a stranger. “I was a person who smoked a lot of marijuana,” he says, but then he was saved, and that was it. “By God’s grace that same day I got convicted of my sins, I had a joint actually on me and half a pack of cigarettes, and the same day, I threw them all out. Right here. I knew that the Holy Spirit would not allow me to. That very day, I didn’t think about it any more, like, by God’s grace! I didn’t ponder and then stop. I just stopped. It was miraculous—I didn’t think twice.”

For John, for Miranda, for Claude, salvation is a caesura in their lives. Their existence now is too full of joy for them to remember the broken people they were, the family they’ve lost.

“It’s having someone love you unconditionally,” Miranda says. She closes her eyes and takes in the moment. “Just … unconditional love.”

“Like the Bible says,” Claude tells me, “the heart is most deceitful. I wouldn’t be satisfied. I’d want more, more, be looking for more, more, more satisfaction.”

Now he’s satisfied at last. He doesn’t care for money, or drugs, or sex. The Lord provides. Just the other day, he tells me, $800 mysteriously appeared in his wife’s bank account. “We have no idea where it came from,” he says, although it’s happened two or three times.

“God’s grace. God’s grace.”

That moment of redemption, Jim tells me, is so important, it almost doesn’t matter how you get there. As we leave Jammy’s, Jim admits that he doesn’t believe a word of Mary Kay Baxter’s testimony. He thinks she’s a charlatan, a fraud, like so many would-be faith healers using God to make a buck or two, “phony as a seven-dollar bill.”

But it doesn’t matter, Jim says. John found God. Everything else is irrelevant.

“It’s amazing,” Jim sighs, “how God consistently uses the imperfect to minister His perfection.”

I think of that phrase several times over my stay in Vegas. I think of it when I watch John Terefe and Claude Simmons on the Strips, celebrating their salvation even when people spit in their faces. I think of it when Gary gets in a fight with someone who tells him his megaphone is too loud and nobody can hear, and he calls out in response, desperately, “It’s the message you can’t hear,” until Jim discreetly instructs him to turn down the volume.

I think of it when I see Wivke Rockne get in an altercation with a pair in their twenties: a blond guy with dreadlocks wearing chains, a girl with a neon raver hat.

“Does everybody deserve to go to heaven?” Wivke is asking.

The blond with the dreadlocks is in her face. “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. Isaiah 45.”

She starts to counter; he cuts her off.

“Judge not that ye may not be judged. Matthew 7.”

Wivke counters with John 14: Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through him.

“Fucking Bible thumpers!” the girl is shouting. Her hands are shaking. Every part of her is shaking.

I ask her what she’s doing here.

“I was on Dr. Phil,” she says. Her words are scattered. Everything comes out at once. “I’m a domestic violence survivor. I lost my four kids,” she tells me, and her childless aunt seized custody. “My daughter, I felt her kick inside me—is this the Christianly thing to do? But God counts every tear that falls from a mother’s face. God counts every tear.”


She’s come to Vegas in search of a new start. She met Blake, with the dreadlocks, back in Denver; he’s her “Care Bear” now. He takes care of her.

She tells me she wants to tell me her story.

I take down her name.

“Rachel,” she says. Her hands are still shaking. “Like in the Bible.”

I meet Rachel and Blake at a café in the Cancun Resort, on the South Strip, near a strip of “weeklies” so dangerous my driver insists on waiting in the parking lot for two hours, unpaid, to ensure he gets me home safe.

By then, I’ve substantiated parts of Rachel’s story. She’s Rachel DeAnn Tessean. In 2004, when she was 16 and pregnant for the first time, she appeared on Dr. Phil, after her mother, citing concerns about the virtue of her younger daughters, placed her in a home for unwed mothers two days after she admitted her pregnancy. She gave that daughter up for adoption at her family’s behest.

A decade later, and Rachel’s lost custody of her three younger children—products of an abusive marriage—to her aunt. She’s been in and out of halfway houses and rehab centers; she’s done “modeling, stripping, porn.” She’s been a “moneybag” to drug dealers she’s dated—abused by rival gang members as retaliation when they came up short on money. She has seizures, sometimes—a result of repeated head trauma.

Seeing the preachers’ signs on the Strip set her off. “Las Vegas, it’s like the boob of the world—everybody’s like a vampire just sucking on it, you know? All the evil that can go on here. And people go back to their homes in different states—they probably go back to church. It’s called hypocrisy.” Her relatives were religious Christians, after all, and look at how they treated her. “All Bible-thumpers and Baptists and Evangelists, and they got their thing going on and they all got their six figures in their bank account, and their cars and their houses, and they go to church every Sunday.”

Through all this, Rachel believes God has brought her here. She prayed for a miracle back in Denver and she met Blake.

“I call him Care Bear, no one else calls him Care Bear but me, ’cause he’s the biggest teddy bear. But you know what, my teddy bear isn’t just something I cuddle, he actually cares. Unlike…” Her voice tightens. “And that’s something about Christianity: People have to actually care. You can’t just say you’re a good person. You have to actually feel the emotion. You can’t just do good things and then think that’s going to make you look better. “

She grabs Blake’s hand and squeezes it.

Blake nods.

He’s on a mission, too. Back in North Carolina, Blake was a recreational cannabis user, occasionally experimenting with hallucinogens in search of a higher consciousness—that “unconditional happiness toward where I can love everybody.” What Christians called in Greek agape.

Two months ago, he had a diethyltryptamine-induced religious vision, and now believes God wants him to go to California.

Blake grew up wealthy, the grandson of a town mayor with millions in the bank; he received a house, bought and paid for, for his eighteenth birthday. He was sexually abused throughout his childhood, bounced around from relative to relative, and claims to have been, at the nadir of his depression, a full 800 pounds.

Then a woman at the nursing home at which he was temping spoke in tongues, and everything changed.

“I can’t understand anything she’s saying, I just know she’s talking. She goes around to me, and she’s like, Blake. And all of a sudden I hear everything she’s saying. Blake, I was saving the best for you, because God has something special for you.

Then he understood everything.

She had three prophecies for him: That he would find somebody that truly loved him; that he would lead thousands of people in the name of God; and that he would die before the fall of Babylon.

“By the third prophecy, I could never question God’s existence ever again. The baptism of the Holy Spirit. It’s whenever the idea of God comes upon you and you could never question God’s existence ever again.”

He lost weight—he’s stout, now, but nowhere near obese. He began experimenting with hallucinogens. He began experiencing those paroxysms of love that led him to his vision of California.

It strikes me that it is the first time, since I have arrived in Vegas, that somebody has given me an account of faith that actually details the moment everything changes. It is the first time somebody has told me what finding God is really like.

This God is not the God of Shadow Hill Baptist Church. It is not Jim Webber’s God, either. Together, Rachel and Blake have assumed their own religion—cobbled from passages of Scripture, from their visions, from prophecies and drugs. God has brought them to each other in their brokenness, they say. They have suffered; with each other, they are no longer suffering, at least for a while. Soon, they tell me, they’re heading to Slab City, California, a famous off-grid anarchic desert campsite known as the “last free place” on earth.

“Freaks of nature,” Rachel starts to grin. “All people of all walks of life, rich poor, middle class from all over the world—that have dreads, and don’t have dreads, or are Indian or native or not. Black or white, men or women; it doesn’t matter. There’s not going to be one fight. There’s not going to be anybody starving, or anybody saying, where’d you come from, or why are you here? Why don’t you get your kids back, Rachel?

She has her Care Bear now, she says. He’s more of a brother to her than her real family ever was.

And she has her faith. Not in her mother’s God, not in any God in any religion she’s familiar with, but in the God she came to know in darkness.

“I mean—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been by the railroad tracks, by myself, in army boots, like crying. Not even crying, screaming at the top of my lungs. Like, really God? Like really? And the only thing I could think of was to thank Him, and I thanked Him again: that I did not have my children with me, that my children could not see me screaming for them at a railroad. I’ve prayed, I’ve never lost faith, I’ve been put in bad situations, but I always was like, okay, I’ll figure it out somehow, some way. This is what God had to teach me: how to love when I have nothing to love at all. Or no one to love at all.”

Rachel and Blake are both crying.

“At least I don’t have to go on the Dr. Phil show again to talk about what I need to talk about,” she says, softly, to Blake. “I found you.”

It is sunset on the Vegas strip. A drunk, homeless woman gives the street preachers the finger. An Elvis passes by on a motorized wheelchair. The Minions are putting on their plush, cartoon heads. The snowman from Frozen is putting out his tip jar. The angels wrap coats around their feathers, their lingerie.

God consistently uses the imperfect to minister his perfection.

I’ve asked Rachel and Blake to write me, to let me know they’ve made it to Slab City safely.

Gary is setting up his megaphone.

Jim is already standing, so still with his sign. He is still wearing his cowboy hat.

Tonight we will be like Christ, again. We will preach in the highways and the byways. We will preach to the unbeliever. We will preach to the sex worker, to the mother who weeps in heaven because her children are no more. We will preach the good news in the city of sin.

Jim stands there with his sign, a few hours more.

“Couldn’t agree with you more!” Someone grabs Jim’s hand, envelops it in a handshake. “Hey, pray for this guy I met…he’s from Miami. He said he was a Jew—what was his name? Kippin? He’s going to hell.” He gives a little laugh. “If Jesus comes today he’s going to hell.”

Once he finds out I’m a journalist, he gives me his full name at once. “Todd Harris.” He tells me he admires what Jim is doing. “He’s not, like, yelling, for one thing. It’s like, chill, chill, man. You don’t have to put it in people’s face. Jesus, he met you right where you were at!” He tells me he’s in town for work: he’s starting a “relational routing center”—a kind of bespoke rehab service—called Total Life Change. “We wanna help people help themselves. Meeting them right where they’re at.” He leans straight into my recorder. “Total Life Change. Todd Harris. Just starting this business—it’s going to go!”

Then he vanishes into the night, which is so bright with neon it might as well be dawn.

Jim and I stand alone, among the crowds. He is meditative, still.

“You know, there is nothing, in my opinion, that is more satisfying than dealing with human beings and what is going on in their lives. And people are very complicated, you know.” Sometimes it’s not even about converting them. Sometimes you just talk to somebody, you learn their story, you gain their respect. You touch them, in some way, and then maybe they remember you, when they least expect it, and maybe then they find something that looks like grace. “And that’s the object of what we’re looking for.”

“Hey, Big Spender,” is starting up again. The water show is beginning. The crowds gather. Someone is taking a selfie, making sure to get Jim’s TRUST JESUS sign in the background.

“Here, in this city,” says Jim, “this city that personifies itself as Sin City, in the midst of that hub, what greater honor, what greater privilege could I ask for in this life than to be a beacon of light in this darkness?”

Down the Strip, Gary is fiddling with his banner.

We could have a few laughs, laughs I could show you a … good time! Would you like to have a … good time?

The fountain show crashes to its climax once more. Everybody applauds.

Gary gets on his megaphone.

“Did you enjoy the show?’”

Next

‘Worshipping This Crazy Female Energy Eruption’: An Interview with Sarah Barmak
The author of Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality on scientific ignorance, the sexualized…

Previous

‘I’m That Friend Who’s Seriously Fucking Heavy in Person’: An Interview with Heather Havrilesky
The author of Ask Polly and How to Be A Person in the World on non-joiner instincts, leading with feelings and crawling…