— Go ahead. Snicker.
Leo G. Gay has heard all the jokes.
When fellow Christians find out he’s from Sin City, the wisecracks start.
“I get questions like, ‘Do y’all accept chips in your basket?’” said Gay, minister of the North Las Vegas Church of Christ, about nine miles north of the famous stretch of hotels, casinos and resort properties known as “The Strip.”
The largest Church of Christ in Nevada, the 320-member congregation where Gay preaches hosted the recent 48th annual West Coast Preachers and Leaders Forum. The forum, started in San Francisco in 1964, rotates to a different city each year.
Amid the bright lights of an entertainment capital known for its slot machines, quickie wedding chapels and X-rated nightlife, about 300 Christian brothers and sisters came to study the Bible and focus on the theme “The Kingdom of God.”
“I loved the different styles of preaching that we were able to see and hear,” said Whitney Price, 24, a North Las Vegas member who attended the West Coast forum for the first time.
With a metro-area population of 1.9 million, Las Vegas has only about a dozen Churches of Christ — with a total of less than 2,000 men, women and children in the pews each Sunday.
Price said her home congregation, which regularly knocks doors to share the Gospel with neighbors, keeps her grounded in the faith.
But temptation never seems all that far away.
“The various forms of entertainment can play on people’s minds and make them think it’s right when it’s wrong,” Price said. “There’s gambling at the grocery store. … Everywhere you go, there’s going to be a slot machine or something.”
In fact, many area church members work in the gaming industry, which drew 37 million visitors and produced $8.9 billion in revenue last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Go to the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino on a Tuesday morning, and you’ll find members of the Bright Angel Church of Christ in Las Vegas bowing their heads at a weekly prayer breakfast.
Bright Angel minister and elder J.B. Myers, who holds firm to traditional doctrinal positions on baptism and instrumental music, makes no apologies for frequenting casino buffet lines.
“If you can show me in Scripture that putting a quarter in a slot machine is sinful, then I’ll preach that it’s a sin,” said Myers, who moved to Las Vegas in 1999. “But it’s just as wrong to bind where God has not bound as it is to loose where God has not loosed.
“Gambling is like any other behavior: If it’s out of control, it can be very destructive,” he added, comparing spending money on a Vegas vacation to buying a $6,000 bass boat. “Both of them, your money’s down a rathole. But that’s a matter of judgment.”
A regular Sunday night song leader at the 220-member Bright Angel church works as a card dealer. A few older women in the congregation enjoy playing slot machines.
“I’m not going to come into this community and turn up my nose against these good, working people and say, ‘I’m never going to step foot in a casino,’” said the minister, whose book “Faith and Addiction” addresses gambling and other addictions.
‘AS A CHRISTIAN, YOU’VE GOT A CHOICE TO MAKE’
North Las Vegas church member Mary D. Hughes served as registration chairwoman for the West Coast forum.
In her regular job, Hughes works as an operations manager for the 4,000-room Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“There’s no sin walking in the hotel. It’s what you partake of after you get in the hotel,” she said. “So we have to choose as a child of God. And if you train yourself according to the Word, you do not have to worry. People will respect you.”
Audrey L. King, a North Las Vegas church member, agreed: “When you go in the casino as a Christian, you’ve got a choice to make, if you want to sit down and pull the slot machine or you just want to go in there to the buffets or go to the movies or bowl or whatever. And I made my choice. I don’t even have the urge to do any of those things.”
Speaking at the West Coast forum, Myers dismissed the idea that Christians should stay away from casinos.
“I tell you what, Jesus would go and Paul would go because that’s a place to find lost sinners,” the Bright Angel minister said.
Like Myers, Gay does not take issue with church members working in the gaming industry. Like someone who sweeps the floors at a supermarket that sells alcoholic beverages, they’re simply feeding their families, he said.
But the North Las Vegas minister characterizes gambling itself as a sin.
“The Lord wants us to put our confidence and trust in him,” Gay said. “So if you’re working hard for your money, you’re gonna be less apt to want to go and take a chance and gamble it away.”
SMOKE, SLOT MACHINES … AND SIN
Despite its Sin City nickname, Robert M. Jones sees Las Vegas as no more sinful than any of the 20 other places he lived in the military and as a mechanical engineer.
“It’s just that Las Vegas doesn’t try to hide it,” said Jones, a Bright Angel church elder. “The word ‘blatant’ comes to mind.”
Most of the out-of-state church members — from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and elsewhere — stayed at the Texas Station Gambling Hall and Hotel in North Las Vegas.
“We’re on the other side of that,” Corey Morton, youth minister of the Hagginwood Church of Christ in Sacramento, Calif., said of potential temptations. “We’re slaves to righteousness.
“So anywhere you go … there’s going to be sin,” added Morton, 24. “There’s no Sin City above another. There’s sin. Period. That’s the problem we’re dealing with.”
Billy Curl, minister of the Crenshaw Church of Christ in Los Angeles, said the video poker machines and blackjack tables that he passed on the way to his room did not bother him.
“I’m used to it. It’s amazing because that’s the least tempting part,” said Curl, who attended the 1999 and 2004 West Coast forums hosted by the North Las Vegas church.
“The only thing I don’t like is the smoke that’s in the air.”
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STAYS IN VEGAS?
North Las Vegas church volunteers, led by transportation committee chairwoman Carolyn Washington, provided shuttle vans between the Texas Station hotel and the church building about five minutes away.
Dozens of other members helped with food preparation, banquet decorations, audio/visual technology and other needs.
“I’m doing it for myself because I love the Lord,” member Vernice Williams said of the 15-hour days she spent working in the church kitchen. “I’m trying to put some stars in my crown!”
For five days, preaching, singing and fellowship started early in the morning and lasted until late at night, leaving little time for diversions.
Still, Gay felt compelled to clear up one potential misconception.
“What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas,” the minister said with a chuckle, putting a twist on the city’s popular tourism slogan. “It’ll stick with you for the rest of your life. We ain’t gonna keep the secret!”