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October 1, 2014

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Lamb in the lion’s den:

Pastor-in-training chooses Sin City church to develop her skills

Part of her ministry: to confront sex trafficking in Southern Nevada

Image

Steve Marcus

Kaitlyn Ferguson, an intern pastor from Minnesota, watches the fountain show at the Bellagio during a tour Saturday, Sept.1, 2012. Ferguson will to serve as an intern pastor for a year at the New Song Church in Henderson.

Recruiting Clergy: Las Vegas Tour

Kaitlyn Ferguson, center, an intern pastor from Minnesota, gets her first look inside a Las Vegas Strip casino during a tour with church members Vern and Annie Danielson Saturday, Sept.1, 2012. Ferguson will serve as an intern pastor for a year at the New Song Church in Henderson. Launch slideshow »

Kaitlyn Ferguson, who has spent all 25 of her years in Minneapolis, Minn., and yearns to spread the word of God, is taking her first walk along the Las Vegas Strip.

Her eyes dart in every direction. She sees the Guatemalans slapping leaflets hawking call girls. She sees the mobile billboards promising naked women direct to hotel rooms. And everywhere around her is a world of gluttony and debauchery, framed in bright primary colors.

Ferguson thinks this might be the perfect place to develop her preaching skills.

“I don’t think I could have chosen a better place if I tried,” Ferguson says.

A few weeks from this experience, she will deliver her first sermon to a suburban congregation that is adopting her for a year. But first, she has to move in to her apartment in Sin City and unload 60 pounds of books, including Diana Butler Bass’ “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” and Dorothy Soelle’s “Against the Wind.”

•••

Students of various professions serve internships to build their chops. Medical students, law students, architectural students. Theology students, too. The question is: Where to gain that important experience?

In the Henderson hillside community of Anthem, New Song Church is a growing congregation, established by husband-and-wife ordained ministers and co-pastors David and Marta Poling-Goldenne.

They moved here from Phoenix in 2003 and began conducting services at an Anthem clubhouse. The small group grew larger and started raising money for its own building.

Kaitlyn Ferguson Preaching

Intern Pastor Kaitlyn Ferguson poses with Pastor Marta Poling-Goldenne before her first morning of preaching at New Song Church in Henderson Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. Launch slideshow »

New Song opened its new church in September 2006. Today, nearly 1,000 people attend its four weekend services.

The church, surrounded by neighborhoods of quiet retirees, tidy yards and golf cart trails, would seem quite removed from the Strip.

The Strip, though, is visible from the church, a constant reminder of the temporal temptations facing God-fearing people.

And the congregation isn’t shy about confronting a major issue arising from the dark side of the Strip environment: child sex trafficking. That problem was aired at an interfaith conference recently at UNLV called by Nevadans for the Common Good; Marta Poling-Goldenne embraced it as one of the church’s ministries.

“We have a dynamic congregation that rises out of the passions of the people here,” she says. “And it does care about what goes on down on the Strip.”

By now, she already had been approached by leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, gauging her interest in sponsoring a pastoral internship at New Song. The goal: to give seminary students a boots-on-the-ground experience.

Candidates have studied in the classroom for two years and, after the internship, will return to the seminary to process what they’ve learned.

“They’ll get to experience the rhythms and the seasons of parish life and be mentored by a pastoral staff,” Poling-Goldenne said.

When Ferguson completes that fourth year, she’ll have earned her master of divinity degree certifying her to become a pastor and the distinction of being called “the reverend.”

Poling-Goldenne loved the opportunity to become a coaching pastor, remembering the influence youth pastors had on her own spiritual growth — a journey that saw her graduate from church administrative work to preaching from the pulpit.

Poling-Goldenne went to Minnesota in February to interview seven candidates for the internship position.

“We made it really clear in our application that this would be a very good, safe place for a woman to come and to be able to exercise her leadership skills,” she says.

Ferguson was her first choice; three candidates, including Ferguson, chose New Song as their top selection.

Seminary leaders agreed on Ferguson and, to bring her to Southern Nevada, New Song raised $30,000 to pay for program expenses.

Just after Easter, Ferguson learned that she was heading for a test bed that might seem as challenging as any that her professors could throw at her.

But what might be off-putting to some is opportunity for others.

“This is a perfect laboratory for future pastors,” Poling-Goldenne says. “It’s alive. People are excited about serving. People step up to serve, and when you ask them to serve, they say yes. There is a lot of joy in this place.”

Ferguson, a third-year student at the Luther Seminary in St. Paul — and who had always lived within three hours of her family — arrived in Las Vegas over Labor Day weekend, her father making the drive out with her in a Chevy Impala to help her settle in.

Church members had already stocked the apartment’s cupboards and refrigerator with food, and it took her just 10 minutes to transfer all her worldly possessions — including the theology books — from the trunk and back seat of the car to the second-floor unit.

Recruiting Clergy: Arrival

Kaitlyn Ferguson, an intern pastor from Minnesota, greets the welcoming committee when she arrives at her new apartment in Las Vegas on Friday, August 31, 2012. Ferguson will serve as an intern pastor for a year at the New Song Church in Henderson. Launch slideshow »

She squealed with delight, including over the fact that the closets wouldn’t have to be filled with bulky coats she had worn in Minnesota.

Poling-Goldenne turned to Ferguson’s dad, Pat Ferguson.

“Thanks,” she says, “for letting us borrow your daughter for a year.”

During that first weekend in Las Vegas, there was sightseeing — Hoover Dam, the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge, the Bellagio. She declared its dancing water show her favorite Strip attraction.

She had been forewarned by church members about the handbillers distributing lurid advertising along the Strip and was advised not to make eye contact with the solicitors.

During those first few days in town, she was able to brush them aside without much concern.

“I had heard so much about it that I knew it was there and it didn’t faze me,” she says. “And I thought, ‘OK, it’s going to be here.’ But there’s still a lot more that is here, as well. There’s more on the cultural side than the naked-body side.”

But then, at a lunch she attended with Poling-Goldenne, she heard about the sex trafficking and met the mother of a victim.

“Before I came here, I thought that maybe the Strip would be a fun place to walk around in my off time,” she says. “But having seen some of the consequences of young girls who have been forced into prostitution, I can’t look at it the same way anymore and I know that I should always be with someone else when I go there.”

Some of her friends joked with her about being really busy in Las Vegas, driving the sin out of Sin City. After seeing a mother's pain when her young daughter was forced into a life of prostitution, the jokes aren’t funny anymore.

“It was heart-wrenching seeing the look on (the mother’s) face and hearing how her daughter got wrapped up in it and all the psychological damage that has been done,” Ferguson says. “It was chilling.

“My sister’s boyfriend told me I could send him pictures from a strip club in Las Vegas and I said, ‘No, that’s somebody’s daughter,’ ” she says. “I kind of snapped at him and I felt badly about it, but I’ve gotten a whole new perspective on it now.”

•••

Ferguson presented her first sermons last weekend — at each of the church’s four services — themed to ongoing presentations about relationships. She talked about bullying and disrespect.

“I could count on both hands the number of times I’ve done this before,” she says of preaching to a congregation. “And the amazing thing was that each service got better and better. Some of the church leaders felt it was a good message to be heard by our Sunday school children, so for the 10:30 service, we had a full house.”

She hasn’t yet stood at the pulpit and reflected on her new-to-Las Vegas experiences.

But that seems inevitable.

Vern Danielson, a member of the church’s welcoming committee, says he is excited about the opportunity for a Las Vegas church to groom a new pastor, knowing that the city is unlike any in the world.

“I think her biggest challenge may be going from the classroom to reality,” Danielson says. “The classroom is theory. This is not.”

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  1. "...her biggest challenge may be going from the classroom to reality,"

    Sin is not defined in reality. Should Kaitlyn wish to remain challenged and employed, it's better to stay in the classroom.

  2. "Kaitlyn Ferguson, who has spent all 25 of her years in St. Paul, Minn., and yearns to spread the word of God, is taking her first walk along the Las Vegas Strip."

    Sooner or later this Dorothy will learn she's not in Kansas anymore.

    "Religion is like a lift in your shoe. If it helps you stand up straighter and walk a little better, good for you! But don't you go and try to put your lifts in my shoes, and for crying out loud, let's stop sending missionaries to Africa to nail the lifts to the natives' bare feet!" -- the late, great George Carlin on Saturday Night Live, Premiere Episode

  3. I moved from a Minnesota farm to Las Vegas 30 years ago. It took me 2 days to fall in love with the city.
    Kaitlyn will find that this is not the "sin city" that everyone talks about. Why would we all make this oasis our home if it was?
    Kaitlyn, welcome to Las Vegas, may you find your new home a heart warming and welcoming place.

  4. She's hardly going to do ministry in "Sin City" since most of her congregation (if not all) are from the gated communities of Anthem.

  5. RobRBarron,
    I understand your point -- Anthem is hardly the Strip. But too often, I think, we forget that gambling addictions, alcoholism, depression and stress come home to roost in our neighborhoods. People in need of support live throughout the Las Vegas valley; they are our neighbors, friends, family. They may live downtown -- and in Anthem, Green Valley, Southern Highlands and Summerlin. Gates don't protect us.
    Tom

  6. Good Luck Las Vegas is a great Boot Camp.

  7. When I visit Vegas I will stay 8 to 9 days and I don't gamble on sundays. As a matter of fact I once attended services at a chapel inside the Riviera. I also checked on this tidbit that at one time there were more Churches in Clark County NV. Than in Los Angeles CA. ie. Sin city

  8. Comment removed by moderator. - -