LAS VEGAS, NV — A Sunday morning service at Hope Church usually averages around 3,100 in attendance. Tomorrow that number could rise considerably as the church plant from First Baptist Church of Woodstock seeks to provide a sense of sanity following last week’s worst mass shooting in the nation’s history.
“The question I intend to address in my sermon is the one being most frequently asked these days: ‘Where is God is the midst of such a tragedy?’” says Pastor Vance Pitman.
Unfortunately, it’s a question that is being asked on a more regular basis as the nation experiences one mass shooting after another. Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Las Vegas all seemingly run together as one.
“The natural tendency of our humanness is to question God and run from God when He says that we should actually do just the opposite,” Pitman says as he drives across the hurting city on a Saturday afternoon.
It has been a hectic week for the Alabama native, a North American Mission Board church planter, and member of one of three families sent out by First Baptist Church of Woodstock in 2000 to minister in what many refer to as Sin City. But Pitman is a strong defender of the city that is filled with working families like any other metropolitan area, people who who rarely visit the Strip that gives the city its tarnished image.
It’s those hurting families as well as the tourists who, stunned after the tragedy, who are flocking to the city’s churches to seek spiritual direction and understanding.
‘Rather than running from God we should be running to God’
“Rather than running from God we should be running to God, as the Psalmist says so clearly in Psalms 46:1. That is where we read ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,’” he explains.
That is the message he has been repeating throughout the week as he has been given various platforms to share his faith. As he drives across town to an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, he reflects on how the city’s own message has changed since late on Sunday night, Oct. 1, when 59 people, including the shooter, were killed and more than 500 injured at a music concert on the Strip.
Pitman calls out the various billboards and casino marquees that had been drawing attention to their gambling options on that Sunday morning but now are broadcasting a more somber message … pointing people to God.
“Pray for Las Vegas … Pray For Our City … Pray for The Survivors …”
One after another they send a totally different message, uniting in a strange, temporary way with the churches whose message is more typically buried beneath the glaring lights of the Strip.
“All of the hotels are putting these prayer requests up,” he observes as his car heads down the Strip, passing the sprawling Mandalay Resort and Casino just about seven miles from Hope Church.
Pitman knew nothing of the extent of the shooting when he went to bed on Sunday night. The first shots were fired from the casino’s 32nd floor around 10 p.m. and the initial news reports were sketchy.
It wasn’t until the next morning when he awoke – on his birthday – that his phone was filled with what he thought were an unusual number of birthday wishes.
‘I could not believe what I saw and heard’
“Pastors were calling and telling me they were praying for me in the midst of the tragedy and I had no idea what they were referring to. I turned on the news and could not believe what I saw and heard,” he explains.
That news threw the church into a hyper ministry mode which continues to this day. On Monday, it opened its doors as a safe place for those who wanted to come and pray for those who had died and others who were still in surgery. Some just wanted to talk and try to understand the night of tears.
Hope Church’s staff of 15 pastors was dispatched to the sanctuary as well as across town as grief counselors, working closely with local government.
“Sunday night and Monday were the darkest days in our city’s history but I have never been prouder to call Las Vegas my home. The way this city has rallied has been incredible. We are largely a city of transients, but this has brought all of us together as a unified community,” he says with a sense of pride.
On Monday night the church hosted a prayer meeting attended by hundreds with many coming to faith. One young man, Pitman related, had never been to church but said he had never felt that sense of calm that he experienced that evening. Staff members counseled with him and he accepted Christ.
Fortunately, the church did not have any members who were injured at the shooting. It continues to offer counseling and has also been encouraging its members to donate blood, even though some of those clinics have reported 8-hour waits. Hope Church is now working with the Red Cross to try to have a mobile blood unit on site to take the pressure off of the hospitals.
The church has established a fund to minister to families of the victims as they work to put their lives back together. Surgical bills alone are expected to cost millions of dollars.
Request for Georgia Baptists: Pray for Las Vegas
The word Pitman wants to send to Georgia Baptists is simple: pray for Las Vegas now and in the coming weeks.
• “Pray for law enforcement, first responders, the medical community as they deal with and heal from what they experienced that night. Those who were not trained in combat medicine were not prepared for the bloodshed which they encountered.
• “Pray for and give to the Victim’s Funds. One-hundred percent of funds we receive at Hope Church go fully to help those who are dealing firsthand with the tragedy.
• “Pray for God to continue to work among the people of Las Vegas so they will run to Him as their refuge and strength, their ever-present help in trouble.”