Las Vegas missionary's passion: 777,000, a number 'I can't forget'

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (BP)--Isaiah Mejia knows the stakes are high in Las Vegas. Six-figure numbers race through his mind nearly every day. But you won't find Mejia pulling levers on slot machines, rolling a pair of dice in a game of craps or anxiously hovering over a spinning roulette wheel.

"I can't forget 777,000," said Mejia. "I can't forget that number."

That's the number of people in Las Vegas who profess no religious preference or affiliation whatsoever. "The only way they know God is in a curse word," Mejia said.

Of the metro area's 1.5 million inhabitants, only 5 percent claim to be Christians. Just over 1 percent are Southern Baptists.

As a North American Mission Board missionary, Mejia, however, still likes his odds.

"Our churches here live on the cutting edge, meeting people where they are," he said. "It's the law of survival, if you don't you die."

Mejia and his wife of 20 years, Jan, are among the missionaries featured in the 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 4-11.

"We're discovering and looking for ways the church can effectively penetrate the community to share the gospel," Mejia said.

As a ministry evangelism specialist with the Southern Nevada Baptist Association, Mejia coordinates evangelistic outreach ministries at ritzy skyscraper casino-hotels on the neon-lit Las Vegas Boulevard, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Lake Mead campground -- home to the second-largest manmade lake in the world -- and tourist magnet Hoover Dam.

By practicing what Mejia calls "street evangelism" at major entertainment, resort and leisure venues, local churches are able to reach the unchurched masses.

"People are not beating your door down," he said. "They don't want in your church. They don't care what you do there. If your relationship with Jesus Christ has not transformed you they don't want what you've got."

Mejia came to Las Vegas in 1998 after serving as director of church and community ministries with the Neuse Baptist Association in LaGrange, N.C. Since then he has helped Southern Baptist churches here share the life-changing message of Jesus Christ through such ventures as Vacation Bible School, evangelistic block parties, after-school programs, ministries to the hungry and illiterate, and concerts.

In a city where nearly everything glitters, Mejia said it is often the simplest acts of kindness -- such as handing out cups of cold water, hot coffee, free gifts or providing diaper-changing and infant-feeding stations at outdoor events -- that make people receptive to the gospel message.

"People are receptive and warm and curious," he said. "They're seeking, but they're not interested in your God, they're not interested in what he can do; they're interested in what he's doing in your life."

Las Vegas attracts 36 million tourists each year, yet the city's bright lights, Mejia said, only mask a spiritual darkness evidenced by its high divorce rate, suicide rate and proliferation of prostitution and illegal drug use.

During 2001, NAMB is conducting its Strategic Focus Cities initiative throughout Las Vegas aimed at evangelizing the city and starting new churches.

Despite its reputation as "Sin City" or the modern-day Sodom and Gomorah, Mejia said people in Las Vegas have the same needs of people everywhere. "They're people for whom Christ died," he said.

And they keep moving to Las Vegas, Mejia said, citing a net gain of about 5,000 new residents each month, according to Census records.

"People are looking for family values, a better community for their families," Mejia said.

A west Texas native from a missionary family with seven sisters and four brothers, Mejia knows from experience that lasting family values are discovered when Christ is the foundation.

Mejia's parents were church planters with the former Home Mission Board for 20 years.

He and his wife, Jan, try to impart the same family values by example. "My husband and I are definitely a husband and wife team," said Jan, an elementary school teacher. "I like to think of us as a family team. The time that I get most excited is when we are all doing ministry together."

Mejia professed Christ as Savior at 9 years of age. Following graduation from Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, Mejia taught high school chorus, band and Spanish for a few years before entering full-time Christian ministry in the early 1980s.

He served on staff in churches in Texas and North Carolina as minister of music, youth and education. A 1993 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mejia served as pastor of a new Hispanic church start in LaGrange, N.C., and at First Baptist Church, LaGrange.

Mejia asked that Southern Baptists prayerfully search their hearts to see if God might be calling them to serve him more in their own communities or possibly even in Las Vegas.

"God said he didn't want your sacrifices," Mejia said. "He said he wants your heart, and where your heart is your treasure will be."

Mejia said Southern Baptists also have the opportunity to help reach Las Vegas through their giving to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

"Mission giving is literally securing the opportunity for one of those 777,000 folks who have no religious adherence whatsoever an opportunity to respond to the gospel," he said. "Don't underestimate what God can do with what is in your hand."

(For more information on the Mejias and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com Web site.)


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ETERNAL STAKES.

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