The lights of Las Vegas glitter for miles along a stretch of highway, an oasis in the vast Mojave Desert, just east of Death Valley. In the nineteenth century, the city—its name Spanish for “the meadows”—became a beacon for Mormon settlers headed west between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. As the nineteenth century wore on, gold rushes and the Transcontinental Railroad brought people from all over the world to the American Southwest; Las Vegas’ rail, mining, and dam industries boomed. By the early 1900s, this desert oasis was home to thriving immigrant communities, especially from Asia. A vibrant Chinatown emerged and with it came Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples and shrines.
Beginning in the 1930s, it was the science and entertainment industries that were booming in the region. Gambling was legalized in 1931 and the Hoover Dam, an engineering marvel, completed in 1935. The Manhattan Project came to fruition in the 1940s, and Nellis Air Force Base was founded in 1950. By the 1980s, the population of Las Vegas had doubled in size as these industries continued to thrive.
As a result of this growth, synagogues, masjids, Hindu and Jain temples, and Sikh gurdwaras sprang up next to existing Buddhist and Christian communities. Today, these as well as Atheist, Bahá’í, Pagan, and Native American organizations and at least thirty Spanish-speaking Catholic parishes dot the landscape. Gurdwara Baba Deep Singh Ji has been a part of the North Las Vegas’ landscape since 2000, although the congregation has been meeting since the early 1990s. On the city’s western edge, just inside the Beltway, the sandstone Hindu Temple and Jain Center of Nevada sits against the backdrop of the desert.
Today, Las Vegas remains a hub of for both Mormonism and Buddhism with over twenty-five Buddhist temples in the metro area. A few miles west of the famous Las Vegas Boulevard the Chaiya Meditation Monastery “welcomes people from all walks of life, religion, and belief” to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. The Monastery’s website mirrors this welcome by offering resources in Burmese, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese, in addition to English. On March 25th, 2012 the Chaiya Meditation Monastery celebrated the grand opening of the World Peace-Lucky-Happy Pagoda, the first pagoda in the state of Nevada.
Yet the city’s rapid expansion has not been without growing pains. As one interfaith leader explained, the civic infrastructure is frequently left to “play catch up” to ensure municipal services and schools are sufficient to meet the needs of residents. The United States Census estimates that over 13 percent of Las Vegans live beneath the poverty line and less than 30 percent of adults in the metropolitan area have a high school diploma. With an unemployment rate that exceeds 12 percent, leaving more than 70,000 residents out of work, Las Vegas’ economy has been one of the hardest-hit in the recessions of the 2000s.
Responding to these local needs, Las Vegas’ religious and interfaith communities have made social services a high priority. The mission of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada speaks of “compassionate leadership, sharing in service and working for justice.” Another interfaith organization, Family Promise of Las Vegas, is a network of over thirty congregations whose doors are open to their neighbors experiencing homelessness. The city’s historical connection to images of “oasis” and “meadows” are a reminder of how these efforts might offer fertile ground for further community growth.