I took this photo, grainy and somewhat blurred, on my first visit to Las Vegas — about 25 years ago. It’s hard to believe. We were up in the hills around the city near the Mormon Regional Tabernacle. Jeff Powell, my friend and college minister was planting a church in Las Vegas, and this spot was on the intro tour for our spring break college group. He took us there because it was a good view of the city – the old strip and the “new strip” strung out like a shining jeweled necklace in the middle of that city with so many lights. I was there on a mission trip. To give and serve. But, the city and the people – the lights – captured me.
A few months later I came back to Vegas to live for the summer — the first of two I spent in Sin City. That first summer, my friend, Rea, and I would sometimes go to the same spot atop that hill, under the statue of the Angel Moroni, and look out. Just every now and then, to take in that sea of lights again from a distance. And the audacity of that little string of decadent excitement shining brighter than the rest. We went, really, to look at the sea of people. In a place where there were literally as many lights as people. Probably more. And remind ourselves of what we were really seeing.
One light, one soul.
The real challenge, we decided in those trips to the Temple parking lot, was reaching the lights. Touching each light. Each soul. To see the light and the soul it represented. To really see it. And to value that soul no matter what nationality or language or background or lifestyle. To reach out and touch the lights with a true message of peace and love. A message you mean, no matter what. A message lived out in conversations. In knowing hopes and dreams and struggles and sins. The love of a true and unrelenting God that sees and values and woos every living thing in that darkness. So strong was the pull, that Rea painted a sweatshirt for me when I left that summer. An abstract depiction of this view, and the reminder…”reaching the lights.” A goal and admonition pushing me way beyond Clark County, Nevada with all its diverse and complicated landscape.
I walked away from that challenging place with new eyes that summer. Different eyes. Back to humid Mississippi, and the sidewalks of the Mississippi State University campus, and the familiar surroundings of my home, but I was changed. Changed by having spent time away from the South. Changed by the transient resort culture where roots were almost a luxury. Where the night shift could blur normal days and nights into a 24/7 season of need. That summer opened my view on so many things… social issues, race, red mountains, desert, no rain. The dryness. My thoughts and vision on architecture and community development, on places with no antebellum buildings. And faith. In a place where church isn’t so ingrained in culture. Where I believed it was more authentic. More real. More surprising at times. More tested, perhaps. My views of changing the world. Accepting the world. Embracing the world. In seeing and experiencing a place so different from what I knew, I had the chance to see myself differently.
Back in that first summer in Vegas, when we took visiting friends to all the tourist-y spots, we would jokingly ask, “who changes the lights when a bulb goes out?” All those lights lighting up the night until you couldn’t decide if it was even still night time, or if day had slipped in. Glowing like some beacon, seen from airplanes and neighborhoods and even the temple across the valley. One light, one soul. “What happens when one goes out?” And we tried our best to find even one light bulb not burning bright on that strip.
Some bulbs aren’t burning tonight. In the tragedy of today, it’s clear. We’re so broken. We’re so utterly broken. So in need of that unrelenting love. And the champions and warriors who wield it. With abandon. We’re so in need of reaching. Across aisles. Across streets. Across centuries. To build and repair. To strip away and build again. Dozens of lights. Souls. In a few moments, cracked and shattered and snuffed out. And it falls to those that remain to shine even brighter.