03106_000_014Las Vegas Saints know the other side of their city.
The rest of the world calls it “sin city.” But members of the Church who live there call Las Vegas, Nevada, “home”—and there’s nowhere else most of them would rather be.
Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the United States, is renowned for its casinos and shows, its pornography and prostitution. That side of Las Vegas exists, but not in the lives of an overwhelming number of Church members there; they live in another world, one filled with opportunities for spiritual growth.
The Church has ten stakes in the Las Vegas region—indicating vast growth since the 1920s, when the only branch there met in the second story of the Elks Lodge. Then members came early to meetings to sweep up cigarette butts.
Reed Whipple, a longtime Las Vegas resident who served recently as president of the St. George, Utah, Temple, remembers how Las Vegas used to be. “When I came here in 1924, they were just finishing the first chapel. I contributed twenty or thirty dollars to it and helped finish it. The Church grew and has been growing ever since,” Brother Whipple says.
The growth of the Church in Las Vegas has paralleled the growth of the city itself. Legalization of gambling in 1931 set the stage for a post-World War II population and tourism boom. Nevada placed stringent controls on gambling in 1955, as the industry grew and the city became an entertainment center.
Within the last decade, Las Vegas’ gambling and entertainment industry has further expanded, until now millions of tourists spend several billion dollars a year in the Las Vegas area. As the industry, the city, and the Church have grown, so has the participation of Church members in the community.
“The Church has not gone along with gambling here,” Brother Whipple says. “But since it is here, Church members have tried to keep it under control and above board.” His political and civic involvement started years before Nevada had a state gaming commission. As a member of the Las Vegas City Commission for twenty years, he joined other commissioners in controlling gambling. They investigated applications for gambling permits and sought to keep organized crime out of Las Vegas.
Some members have held high positions in the state government, and many have run for public office. In the November 1978 election, two Church members opposed each other in the race for lieutenant governor. Three more members were elected to the state assembly, with two members already holding office. An additional Church member was elected to the state senate. Two Latter-day Saint district judges were re-elected. Two Church members were elected justices of the peace in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
With that level of involvement from Church members in government, people are surprised to learn that Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County are only ten percent Mormon. Because members of the Church work as private citizens through government channels and community organizations, their influence is felt even where they do not take the lead.
“There’s no conspiracy” among Latter-day Saints who seek public office, says Keith Hayes, a federal district court judge and former state assemblyman. “It’s just a natural outcome of the way people are trained.” When Brother Hayes became a judge, his wife, Karen, decided to seek election to the assembly post he vacated. She ran and won in the largest district in the state. “I saw a need for conservative women to be involved,” she says. In her work on the assembly, Sister Hayes has emphasized family-oriented legislation and has attempted to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The controversial amendment was placed before Nevada voters in a November election referendum. Since most legislators had pledged to vote the way their constituents voted on the amendment, Sister Hayes felt she could influence voters through personal contact and speeches. She, with other men and women who shared her views on the amendment, campaigned door-to-door and debated publicly against its ratification.
In the final weeks before the election, pro-ERA forces staged an effective advertising campaign that concerned many Church members. Polls in the final days showed that the referendum could go either way. So concerned members campaigned as families on Monday, November 6, the day before the election. The family home evening activity for many was to walk throughout Las Vegas residential areas and distribute anti-ERA literature and discuss the amendment with interested citizens. The final statewide vote was two-to-one against the amendment.
The day before the election, priesthood holders contacted citizens and encouraged them to vote. The day of the election, women in the Church reminded voters of the election, offered rides to polling places, and offered babysitting service.
Hundreds of Latter-day Saints in the greater Las Vegas area take stands on political issues—as concerned citizens, not as representatives of the Church or any Church organization. Members of the Church form or participate in community citizens’ groups such as Citizens for Responsible Government, the Conservative Caucus, Citizens’ Quest, and Christian Coalition—in addition to participating in both Republican and Democratic party politics. Both Democrats and Republicans participate in the various citizens’ groups. The groups, of course, are not wholly Mormon—membership includes Catholics, Baptists, and others.
Several years ago, a stake Relief Society president and her counselor in North Las Vegas became concerned about citizens’ awareness of candidates’ positions on controversial issues, including the ERA and legalization of prostitution. They organized neighborhood gatherings where citizens could ask candidates questions. Candidates from the U.S. Senate race and state and local levels participated.
But community participation does not stop with politics. The Las Vegas 1976 Bicentennial celebration was enlivened by an evening of music and speeches at the Las Vegas Convention Center—an event organized by members of the Church. Tens of thousands of persons attended.
Another area of community involvement is the Scout program. Although Brother Whipple and others have been involved in Scout district leadership for years, the Church did not always participate beyond the troop level.
“But my attitude now is that we must be involved,” says Stake President Dennis Simmons of the Las Vegas South Stake. “Scouting is a good bridge between the Church members and the community. It isn’t always easy for LDS people to find a way to associate with nonmembers, but it’s imperative.”
Dewaine Brown, former council commissioner, says that Latter-day Saint young men comprise about one-third of the 3,600 Scouts in the district. Through adult and troop leadership training and through Woodbadge sessions, participation has increased dramatically. Attendance at leadership sessions has grown from fifteen adults attending in 1974 to eighty attending in 1978. Some wards have had a three hundred percent increase in Scout activity with increased participation in leadership training.
Programs such as Scouting and Young Women help keep young members of the Church away from the influence of Las Vegas’ seamier side. But most young people who grow up in Las Vegas and its surrounding communities have little interest in “the Strip,” as the main casino boulevard is known.
“There are places in the city where you just don’t go,” says President Boyad Tanner of the Las Vegas East Stake. “The kids have to be strong.”
For most young persons, “the Strip” soon loses its glitter and glamour, says President Simmons. “By the time kids are old enough, they’ve seen enough of it to see through it. They learn in their homes what it is. We don’t have to consciously counteract the bad influence.”
“To be honest,” said a stake leader, “one of our problems is the number of LDS tourists who come to the city and want their LDS friends or relatives to show them the ‘sights.’ If the ‘sights’ are the good things to be seen around town, we’re most happy to show them off to everyone. If they are sights that undermine our own members, how do you think that makes us feel?”
Beverly Kitterman, a member of the University Ward of the Las Vegas East Stake, grew up in Las Vegas. She says that unfavorable influences in the city make Church members realistic. “You learn that this is the way it is, and we’re not kidding ourselves. We have the same problems as other towns, such as drugs.” The difference, she says, is that they are sometimes more obvious in Las Vegas.
Even with such influences, many members of the Church find Las Vegas to be a place for spiritual rejuvenation. Paul Bonnatt moved to Las Vegas to attend the University of Nevada at Las Vegas while he lived with his grandparents. Attending the university ward (then a branch) got him active in the Church and gave him incentive to go on a mission.
“Members of the Church have a chance to be a strength here,” he says. “You can be an example. People look to you.” And the temptations of “the Strip” are almost nonexistent when people are active in the gospel, he says. “When you’re in the Church, it’s like the temptations are not even there. It’s like the Church is all there is.”
Activity is high among members of the University Ward. About seventy percent of them are converts who joined the Church within the last three or four years. “But what they lack in experience, they more than compensate for in enthusiasm, dedication, and drive,” says their bishop, Ashley Hall. Of twenty-three recent marriages, twenty-one were performed in temples. The ward has between eighty and eighty-five members.
Young people are a strong force in the Church and community. Many student body officers are Latter-day Saints. “Students here don’t take the Church for granted,” says Bishop Hall.
Missionary work is aided by the involvement of students and adults in the community. Missionaries find they do not need to tell nonmembers that they represent the Church—people already know. “The Mormons’ values are evident because of the contrast,” says Elder Robert John Bazyk, an assistant to the mission president who spent more than half of his mission in Las Vegas. “That makes it easier for us to share the gospel.”
Also, many non-Mormon residents of Las Vegas strive for the same quality of life as members. Even in a community that has “an obsession with money,” new converts seem eager to pay tithing, Elder Bazyk says. The mission president, Reed Dayton, concurs: “The people who join the Church become very devoted. We don’t have fence-sitters.”
Nonmembers’ perspective of the Church is influenced by coverage in the Las Vegas news media. The media representatives are generally cooperative and courteous. The Church’s Las Vegas Public Communications Council decided several years ago to help news persons understand the church better. The council raised money to fly some twenty media representatives to northern Utah for one day.
In Provo, they saw Brigham Young University. In Salt Lake City, they toured Welfare Square (“We couldn’t get them out of Welfare Square!” says Boyd Bulloch, council director) and the Genealogical Society Library. One skeptical newsman said they’d never be able to find information on his family. The council members took him up on the challenge and within a few moments had his parents’ and grandparents’ names. A newswoman with the group later wrote the council that she wished she had known an influence like the Church earlier in her life.
Although many members of the Church in Las Vegas are professionals—doctors, attorneys, dentists—the region’s membership includes people from many backgrounds and vocations. Some stakes have numerous physicians; others have numerous schoolteachers. While some stakes grow rapidly, others decline in membership as housing and economic conditions change.
One stake with declining membership, the Las Vegas North Stake, compensates with sacrifice and extra missionary efforts. “It forces us to dig deeply,” says President Theron Swainston. “We are heavily involved in missionary work; we need converts just to keep the number of members stable.”
But the Church’s strong family emphasis draws people. “One of the special challenges of the Church in Las Vegas has to be the tremendous contrast between the Church’s way of life and the community’s way of life,” President Swainston says.
“I’ve been asked many times over the last twenty-three years, ‘How in the world can you ever think of raising a family in Las Vegas? Aren’t you frightened of what it will do to your children?’ My response has been that Las Vegas doesn’t have any monopoly on evil, that we have no sins here that don’t exist in any other community in the world. It’s just that sins here wear finer clothing, use larger buildings, and have larger budgets. Every community has prostitution, immorality, and gambling of one kind or another.”
Brother Hayes agrees that Las Vegas’ contrasting moral climate makes both good and evil more evident. “Las Vegas is a crucible as far as making moral decisions,” he says.
“It is also an ideal laboratory for testing the principle of free agency.”