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Luz change: A small church with a big downtown impact gets a makeover

Those who know me would probably agree that I am not a particularly religious man. While I am not a stranger to religious services of various flavors, I am more likely to cite Carl Sagan than the book of Genesis, and more likely to open a beer than the Bible.

Nonetheless, I found myself enjoying the festivities at a nondenominational church on a recent Wednesday afternoon. And I was happy to be there.

That little church, Casa de Luz, has made a big impact on the Naked City neighborhood, near downtown. Providing a food pantry, counseling, safe activities for young people in the impoverished warren of older apartment blocks, and Sunday services, Casa de Luz has gained the support of government officials, nonprofit philanthropic funders and residents.

On April 17, the church kicked off a major remodeling effort. An audience packed the tiny courtyard where services are regularly conducted.

Those attending included Steve Evans, the former Las Vegas planning commissioner who helped the church navigate the city paperwork needed to approve the remodeling; former Nevada candidate for governor and speaker of the Assembly Barbara Buckley; Julie Murray, chief executive at Moonridge Group Philanthropy and former CEO at Three Square Food Bank; and Las Vegas developer Trinity Schlottman, who is providing work on the remodeling project.

Chris Chapel is one of a host of “pastors” who has worked with the church since it was founded on Tam Drive in 2009.

“We got sick and tired of just sitting and watching our city go downhill,” Chapel told the crowd. He compared the street out front in 2009, then crowded with obvious drug dealers and prostitution, to the relatively cleaned-up and safe place it is today.

“How many drug dealers did you see out there today?” he asked. “Zero! And what’s even better, some of the folks who were out there now are a part of the crew in here.”

The church has been credited by city officials and Metro officers with helping to cut the Naked City’s once-formidable crime rate. Since 2009, calls to police for homicide, robbery and assault are down almost 80 percent, and other crime rates have similarly dropped.

The church, according to volunteer Briana Mackey, has budgeted $466,000 for this year’s building and operating costs, and still has to raise about 20 percent of the total. She told the crowd in the courtyard that they will raise the money.

“It’s always been an exercise in faith,” Mackey said.

Pastor Dan Winckler, who most Sundays leads the ad hoc congregation while playing his turquoise-blue Fender Telecaster, reassured the faithful that Casa de Luz would stay in the neighborhood.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re just remodeling.” LAUNCE RAKE