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April 24, 2014

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Interfaith group starts with a bang, now looks to keep momentum

Nevadans for the Common Good launches with 65 organizations

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Christopher DeVargas

An estimated 1,500 people from across the valley gathered at the UNLV Student Union ballroom for an interfaith effort to address community and family concerns, May 22, 2012. Members of Christian, Jewish and Muslims organizations, along with other charitable and non-profit groups, addressed issues such as children’s safety, foreclosures, immigration, and education.

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The UNLV Student Union was rocking, and not because a college band had booked the venue.

An estimated 1,500 people packed a ballroom and overflow room in the student union this week for the first public meeting of Nevadans for the Common Good, a broad-based interfaith organization dedicated to tackling Nevada’s toughest problems.

In an atmosphere that felt like a sermon focused on social justice, the two-hour program began and ended with songs. In between, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from all over the valley expressed the need for cooperation and collaboration to confront the area’s worst ills, from sex trafficking to the foreclosure crisis.

“It’s time to bring hope to a place that is quickly becoming hopeless,” said Pastor Camille Pentsil of Zion United Methodist Church.

“Is it time?” she called out to the audience.

“Yes!” the answer came back emphatically.

Audience members, many of whom came on buses organized by their respective religious groups, were boisterous and engaged.

“Now the hard work starts,” Barbara Paulsen, a member of the Boulder City United Methodist Fellowship, said on her way out of the event. “I’ve lived here for 27 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I thought it was a great event.”

As Paulsen implied and Bishop Minerva Carcano said during the event, the success of the newly formed Nevadans for the Common Good, which boasts 65 churches, synagogues, mosques, schools and nonprofit groups, will be judged by how many people “show up not just for big events like this, but for every single meeting that needs to happen in the future.”

At the Tuesday night event, Robert Hoo, who most recently worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation, was announced as the group's lead organizer.

Pastor Dennis Hutson of Advent United Methodist Church said he was “very pleasantly surprised” by the turnout.

“I think it signifies there is a need for what we are doing,” Hutson said. “People have concerns and they want to be heard. They want to feel empowered, and they want to speak up to share those concerns.”

Moving forward, Nevadans for the Common Good is forming five task forces to tackle their first set of issues: home foreclosures and neighborhood blight, human trafficking, education, immigration, and vulnerable elderly.

For each issue, a guest shared a personal story.

Flor Hernandez said two homes across from hers that sit adjacent to a public park were foreclosed upon. One day she saw a man coming out of one of the dilapidated homes and he exposed himself to her. Hernandez took action and got the houses boarded up by the city.

Andrea Swanson told the crowd about the horror of seeing her youngest daughter recruited by her high school boyfriend into prostitution.

“If this tragedy can happen to my family, it can happen to yours,” she said.

Imam Fateen Seifullah of Masjid as-Sabur, north of downtown Las Vegas, attended Tuesday and called the event “amazing,” commenting that in 15 years of attending interfaith meetings he had never seen one get off to such a strong start.

“What I’d like to see now is progress,” Seifullah said. “Next year if the organization can be active in lobbying and maybe even successful in getting some legislative action taken, that would be good.”

Noticeably absent from the organization’s roster of participants was any group affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the Latter-day Saints newsroom website, there are 176,000 Mormons in the state and 324 congregations.

While it is impossible to know if any Mormons were in the crowd, no Latter-day Saints group or congregation was officially involved.

Hutson, one of the chief organizers for Nevadans for the Common Good, said invitations were extended to the local Latter-day Saints community, but he was told they could not officially participate without approval from authorities in Salt Lake City.

Mark Severts, director of the Southern Nevada Public Affairs Council of the LDS Church, said in an email that his council was not aware of the event until news coverage this week.

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