Lessons From Los Vegas

Finding authenticity in a fake city

By Norris Burkes
January 2020

I spend a lot of time in Sin City.

I know Las Vegas isn’t the place where you’d think a chaplain should visit, but business and family often send me there.

Truthfully, I’m never really comfortable there and often feel like something is amiss. Still, I go because my disabled brother who lives there needs my help.

Last year, I went to Glitter Gulch to accept a writing award from the annual assembly of the Religion News Association. Despite having such a good reason to go, I still felt out of place.

To be clear, RNA members report on religion, but they aren’t necessarily religious. They are a mixed group of conservatives and liberals, and a few would admit to being atheist. With that diverse crowd, some of you might credit my uneasiness to mixing with liberal journalists.

Perhaps, but I am from California. Liberal is part of my regular landscape, so it wasn’t that.

Was it the pervasive “sin” of Las Vegas?

I’ll admit to feeling a bit awkward staying in a hotel that touted the “most erotic show in Vegas.” At times I was choking on cigarette smoke, stuffed by gluttony and overwhelmed by the sheer number of gaming tables. (Vegas euphemistically calls it gaming, not gambling.)

Possibly the “sin” made me uncomfortable. But sin is everywhere you look and, believe me, we all have a tendency to search for it, not just the clergy.
No, it wasn’t the sin that had me discombobulated.

Honestly, I think it was the overwhelming presence of “fake.” I felt surrounded by bogus happiness and counterfeit winners.

That got me thinking—maybe fake and sin are synonymous.

Being fake in your spirit or your presence is wrong (sin) because it doesn’t reflect who God made us to be. And that’s definitely not where we want to be.
That’s when I asked myself: Where do we want to be? What’s the opposite of sin? The farthest from fake?

Quite possibly, the contrast of fake is authenticity.

If so, that would mean the missing component I was searching for was authenticity.

Instead of looking at the sin everywhere, I started searching for genuineness.

And you know what? I found it.

I found it in the smile the restaurant server returned when I smiled at her. I found it in the airline lounge host when I complimented him on the cleanliness of the area.

And yes, I found genuineness at the Fountain of Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, which I attended with my brother. I heard it in the young soloist, the choir that rocked the house and the pastor who spoke trustworthy words.

At the conference, I heard it in pastor Lyvonne Proverbs, founder of Beautiful Scars. After surviving incest, she now calls herself a “sur-thrivor.”

I heard realism in the afternoon session where journalists described covering the faith angle in a half dozen mass shootings last year.

Authenticity was everywhere in Sin City, but, as in any city, you must look for it.

However, I will admit to feeling uneasy over the money I lost.

No, I didn’t gamble it away. I really lost it. Somewhere between giving my acceptance speech and walking back to my seat, I lost my award check.

No worries, RNA told me that I will recover my missing money.

But I suppose that’s what everyone believes when they lose money in Lost Wages, er, I mean Las Vegas.

Norris Burkes can be reached at comment@thechaplain.net. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.


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