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In Vegas’ historically Black Westside, churches are ‘heart’ of both civic and spiritual life

Savanna Strott
Savanna Strott
CommunityLocal Government

Inside a strip mall just north of downtown Las Vegas sits a humble room of white and beige walls. It’s the home of The Wealthy Place Ministries, a nondenominational church that gets its name from a Bible verse about people who fought oppression and struggled, but who God has finally brought to a “wealthy place.”

On this Sunday morning in March, a woman in a maroon robe stands at the pulpit with a voice like a battle cry. The choir responds to her fervent calls, and the congregants clap their hands and move their bodies along to the lively music. Two audience members play tambourines. Some sit and wave their church fans — one from the Biden-Harris campaign. 

As the music intensifies, so does the crowd. People stand up like a slow-building wave, and light glimmers off women’s rings as they raise their hands in worship. Some worshipers move around the room, dancing and shouting. A few are overtaken by the spirit and fall to the ground.

As the two-hour service winds down, the leader of the church, Bishop Bill McDonnell, ends in prayer. It includes a request for a “special at the gas station.”

“I promise the Lord will put water in your desert,” he tells the people.

The Wealthy Place Ministries is one of dozens of Christian churches in the Historic Westside. Churches in the historically Black neighborhood have been a refuge born out of racism and segregation. Pastors there are known to bring up political, civic and social issues from the pulpit. 

Though Black churches have sprung up throughout Las Vegas, the Westside remains the epicenter and attracts people from across the valley. Seven churches sit on less than a half-mile stretch of Madison Avenue. Just one block on Adams Avenue hosts three churches: one Baptist, one Pentecostal and one nondenominational Christian. 

Historically, Westside churches have been a kind of connected body, rather than isolated worship centers, leading the community and connecting it to outsiders — notably local government and political candidates. But some say the church’s influence within and beyond the neighborhood has waned, and caution against pastors aligning so close to civic leaders that they self-censor.

Members of The Wealthy Place Ministries in Historic West Las Vegas pray during Palm Sunday service on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The religious density in the Westside comes from the importance of churches to the Black community, according to Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center for UNLV Libraries.

“One of the things that the Black community can control — one of the only things — is a church,” White said. “When you think about not being able to get loans for a house, not being able to get [Small Business Administration] loans for business, one of the things that you can control in your neighborhood is a church.”

Churches in the Westside grew with the Black population, White said.

In the 20th century, millions of African Americans left the South to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence to find economic and educational opportunities. 

But those who landed in Las Vegas were forced to the area now known as the Westside starting in the late 1920s. Residents would later call the city “the Mississippi of the West.” 

Churches were a critical part of Black migration to Las Vegas. When people left their homes to come to the city — many from places like Fordyce, Arkansas and Tallulah, Louisiana — they would sometimes bring almost their entire church congregation, White said. They would either restart their church in the new city or create a new one. 

The Westside and its churches grew explosively in the 1940s, White said, because of job creation from World War II. Black men found jobs at Henderson’s Basic Magnesium Inc. plant, while Black women worked in the back of the house of the emerging casino industry. 

You can still feel the history in Westside churches today. 

Pastor Rose Gaston, who leads the nondeminational God’s House International Ministries, remembers hearing stories passed down through her family of how singing spirituals encouraged African Americans during slavery, when faith was the only thing they could have. 

The songs, often in a call-and-response format that originated from African musical traditions, were also practical tools. For example, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” famously alerted slaves that Harriet Tubman was near.

“There was a lot of relief through singing. And so even in the African American churches that we have now, the music is very intricate, and it's very important,” Gaston, 61, said. “The music brings a sense of freedom.”

Black churches have been an instrumental tool for voter turnout since World War II, but especially during the Civil Rights Movement that eventually removed voting barriers, such as poll taxes. “Souls to the polls” events directly connect the church with voting, often leading people to vote immediately after Sunday service. 

Palm Sunday service at Second Baptist Church in Historic West Las Vegas on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

National, state and local politicians have also made a point to stop at Westside churches on the campaign trail. 

“That gives us insight into what they plan to do to help the Westside and Black people specifically in the church and around here,” said Christian Sheldon, 21, a Second Baptist attendee who lives in northwest Las Vegas. “And that always helps us when it comes to voting as well, to see whose issues and whose morals and beliefs align with yours.”

Victory Missionary Baptist Church in the Westside became a political magnet under its former pastor, the late Rev. Robert Fowler. Many prominent Black politicians, including Attorney General Aaron Ford and the late Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, have gone to Victory Baptist. Fowler himself was also politically outspoken, famously endorsing Hillary Clinton for president in 2008

For many, churches are the heart of the Westside. Church leaders and attendees who spoke with The Nevada Independent see the body as the link between the community and the city, which is planning to redevelop the neighborhood now characterized by vacant lots and abandoned buildings after decades of disinvestment.

The city’s HUNDRED (Historic Urban Neighborhood Redevelopment) Plan aims to bring the community economic development and social services, such as job training opportunities and educational centers. The area has a median income less than half of the city overall. 

But these services exist to some degree in the Westside already — because of the churches. Church members and pastors noted that the work the city has been planning for years is work churches have been doing for decades. Because of the church’s connection with the community, they argue, it should play a role in the redevelopment. 

“They're looking from the outside in, and we're right here in the community,” said Barbara Jordan, 71, who goes to The Wealthy Place and has lived in the Westside for 35 years. “We know what the community needs.”

Palm Sunday service at Second Baptist Church in Historic West Las Vegas on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘More than just the pulpit pastor on Sunday’

After several performances — from a child leading the congregation in “This Little Light of Mine” to an adult choir submerging the auditorium in a heavenly sound — Rev. Clayton Moore stands up to the plexiglass pulpit at Second Baptist Church. The congregation began in 1942, and chose the name “Second Baptist” because the white church was “First Baptist,” according to its website. 

Moore starts slow but is soon rapid-fire preaching, eventually landing on a pause. The pattern repeats as he tells the people they are witnesses to God fulfilling his promises to the Bible greats, such as Abraham, Moses and Eve. 

“Brothers and sisters, you and I are participants in what God has prophesied,” he said. “The prayers of our ancestors, as Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson said, are being answered through her confirmation on the Supreme Court.”

The predominantly masked congregation clapped. 

In a sermon two weeks before, Moore illustrated a part of his message with comments on gentrification and an apparent reference to former president Donald Trump. 

He declined in an interview to identify the person called a "misogynist" who "lived in the White House," saying the comment was meant to illustrate the spiritual message.

White, the UNLV historian, noted that Black churches are “not just a spiritual experience.” Christian churches of all kinds will teach the Bible and give instructions for how to live, White said, but Black churches give their congregations the strength they need to survive today’s issues, such as racism, and aren’t afraid to talk about political or controversial topics other churches may avoid.

“We have challenges that the other communities don't have,” she said. “And you get that in a powerful way on a Sunday morning at a Black church. You get that inspiration to go on.”

Rev. Clayton Moore during Palm Sunday services at Second Baptist Church in Historic West Las Vegas on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Moore said he preaches the gospel relative to the times. He acknowledged that some people think the church’s only role is to save people through the Christian faith and should stay out of current issues. 

“I have just a different theological stance on that,” Moore said. “I think the church’s role is to transform the lives of people. That’s every aspect of their life — not just their spiritual life.”

Many members also spoke about how churches are a hyperlocal news hub. 

“This is where we seek and receive most of the information regarding Black issues,” said Deana Green, 56, who has traveled to Second Baptist from Summerlin for 30 years. “Whether it's educational issues, voting issues, life issues. That's where we come.”

The Westside church leaders who spoke to The Nevada Independent all saw caring for people beyond their spiritual needs as a divine mandate. 

The announcements on Palm Sunday at God’s House included a $500 scholarship and an upcoming diabetes information session. The Wealthy Place once partnered with an electrical workers union to train and graduate a handful of men both in and out of the church. Calvary Baptist Church sends their congregants home with a packed lunch every week. 

McDonnell, the bishop of The Wealthy Place, describes these pastors who are “more than just the pulpit pastor on Sunday” as “community pastors.” 

He said the pandemic highlighted the importance of the Westside’s community pastors. He saw his church and others help people with a variety of needs — from navigating unemployment to finding toilet paper — even as initial government mandates kept church doors closed, which he disagreed with.

“The churches had to stand in for the government, which we always had in retrospect, but we didn’t get the recognition,” McDonnell said. 

Children and teens sing during a Palm Sunday service at Second Baptist Church in Historic West Las Vegas on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Westside churches as a bridge

Westside church attendees and leaders who spoke with The Indy saw the church’s connection with the neighborhood as a necessary tool for shaping the city’s redevelopment plans in a way that will reflect and benefit the community. 

Several expressed fears that the city would gentrify the area, but saw the church as a buffer against that happening. 

“The church has been here for such a long time, and it's never going to leave,” said Sheldon from Second Baptist. “That's something you always have to think about, like who's been here and who knows the area? Who knows the people? And I think that's important to ask.” 

The 21-year-old’s great grandfather was the lead engineer for the original building of Second Baptist, and his family has been attending ever since. 

Moore from Second Baptist and McDonnell from The Wealthy Place each said the city has been “intentional” with including Westside churches in the conversations about the HUNDRED plan, such as by hosting forums for Westside pastors. 

But both had their worries about the plan. 

Moore worried about who would benefit from the new development because of equity issues. For example, disadvantaged Westside residents trying to develop in their neighborhood will have a difficult time competing with developers who already have portfolios and capital. 

McDonnell worried about the quality of the communication with the city. While he said he’s in “constant dialogue” with the city about the community, he stopped short of calling those conversations “valuable.” He emphasized that he wants the relationship to be “meaningful” instead of superficial inclusion just for the facade of a coalition.

“They put Black folks in position and stuff, and they supposed to represent the heart of the  community and advocate for the needs of the people, but what they're doing is whatever the city wants to do,” said McDonnell, who grew up in the Westside. “That’s why the churches are so important. That’s why the pastors, we are more than just a Sunday morning pastor. We have to be the community pastor 24/7.”

Palm Sunday service at Second Baptist Church in Historic West Las Vegas on Sunday, April 10, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Westside native Dillard Allen Scott thinks church leaders should work closely with the city on redevelopment but stand up to officials if the city’s plans don’t benefit the community.

“It's imperative they stand with the community and not stand with the political leaders because the political leaders are not always engaged,” said Scott, who owns a business consulting firm. 

Scott, 46, grew up in Westside churches. But he has been going to a church outside of the community for 20 years after he said Westside churches started to change.

He described the churches of his childhood as a pillar of the community. They had active children’s choirs and flag football leagues. Pastors met regularly to talk about Westside issues. 

But then the generation of pastors he knew died or retired. He said churches became less active and cut programs and services. It became more about who had the best choir or the biggest building.

Now, Scott said the churches don’t care for the community or stand up for it like the churches he knew — which he says is evident by the empty Westside streets. Some of the vacant lots that dot the Westside are connected with the neighborhood’s churches. 

In 2011, Second Baptist tore down a 56-year-old popular hamburger joint in 2011. The church planned to build a community center, but the lot is still empty. 

In 2018, church leaders at Greater New Jerusalem Baptist Church sold the property to the city. The city tore down the 70-year-old building last year — a wound several people mentioned when interviewed for this story. 

“If the original pastors of those churches had been alive, New Jerusalem would still be standing,” Scott said. 

Scott sees one exception to his critiques of Westside churches — a monthly community forum he attends led by The Wealthy Place, called the Shepherd's Breakfast.

McDonnell started the Shepherd's Breakfast 13 years ago as a way to connect with other pastors, as it can be a “lonely position.” In those initial breakfasts, the pastors realized they were all dealing with the same issues. Eventually the breakfasts grew to include other community members and became what many people describe as a valuable community platform with pastors, residents, law enforcement, local judges and some politicians. 

The breakfast was a campaign stop for President Joe Biden in 2020, McDonnell said. Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) attended in February, Black History Month. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) and Councilman Cedric Crear, who both represent the area, have also attended.

Everyone who comes feasts on soul food — “the best breakfast west of the Mississippi,” Scott said — cooked by Faye McDonnell, the first lady of The Wealthy Place. Then the 80 to 100 attendees talk about what they want for the community. 

“Whatever you have for the community, we want it to be exposed to the community,” Bill McDonnell said.

Pastor LeBeau, center, talks to members of the Greater St. James Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, April 10. 2022, about the planned reopening of the church for Easter Sunday. The church, located in Historic West Las Vegas, has been closed since the Covid-19 pandemic. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

‘Our foundation is our faith’

Pastor Gaston leads God’s House International Ministries with a bedazzled microphone. When she preaches, she alternates between a voice like a friend and a voice like a whip. Her congregation responds, often clapping, shouting and raising their hands. There are few chairs available among the 70 people in the small North Las Vegas suite that sits next to a seafood restaurant in a strip mall.

God’s House used to be in a spacious sanctuary in the heart of Gaston’s native Westside. But a drop in in-person attendance because of the pandemic brought a drop in funds, forcing Gaston and the church to move. 

Gaston said her congregation is actually larger than before COVID if you count her digital audience of more than 200 on any given Sunday. People can give their offering through a text service or Cash App now. Still, funds are down. 

But for Gaston, church is still a “place of hope” — the spirited music, the powerful sermon, the care extending beyond spiritual needs and all the things that make God’s House and Westside churches unique gives her that feeling. 

“We know that there's a spiritual need, but there's a natural [need],” Gaston said. “The church needs to get involved and be aware of what's happening in our community. The church needs to know … I don't think you could be an effective pastor and not have a pulse on your community.”


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