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City of Second Chances

As a minister, Jud Wilhite isn’t prone to telling fibs. But when offered the chance to become senior pastor of Central Christian Church, Wilhite broke the news to his wife, Lori, with a slightly stretched truth.

“I’ll never forget that moment when I turned to her and said, ‘I got a call today from the church in Henderson,’ ” he recalls, laughing. “She said, ‘Where’s Henderson?’ I said, ‘Well, I think it’s this great town sort of near Las Vegas.’

“She said, ‘How near Las Vegas?’ I said, ‘I hear it’s close enough to Las Vegas that you can see the Strip from your backyard, but who’s counting?’ “

Yes, there’s something about Las Vegas that can make even the most spiritual man feel a bit unclean. And that’s as good a reason as any for Wilhite and Las Vegas author and columnist Bill Taaffe to write “Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas,” (Multnomah Books, $19.99), which explores faith in a city some would consider faithless.

The objective of the book, Wilhite says, is simply “to give people hope. We wanted to basically tell stories and say, ‘Listen, if God can move this way in people who live in Las Vegas, he can do it in your life. If God can forgive these people, he can forgive you.’ “

It’s a fitting subject for Wilhite, 36, considering his own iffy relationship with religion as a teenager.

Wilhite grew up in Amarillo, Texas, the youngest of four “by a lot,” he says. “My mom was 40-plus when I came along.”

It was “a fairly traditional home, a lot of love,” he says. “How I got sidetracked into drug addiction and all this mess I got into really doesn’t reflect on my parents and the kind of people they were.”

Wilhite recounts the story in “Stripped” — his rebelliousness, his lack of interest in church, his falling in with suspect friends, his drug use. In hindsight, he chalks it up to that classic adolescent desire to “figure out who you are and where you fit in. I think I was just confused about meaning in life and the whole point of life.”

For Wilhite, sobriety and direction arrived when, as he puts it, “I got on my knees for the first time as a 17-year-old, and that was when my faith became my own. I just asked God to help me and for forgiveness.”

Even today, that experience motivates Wilhite, a boyish-looking guy who laughs often, usually at jokes he directs at himself. Every weekend, he says, “I look out at people and I feel I am one of them. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all done something we regret.”

But being a minister wasn’t in Wilhite’s youthful plans. In fact, when a minister suggested to Wilhite during the spring of his senior year that he should consider the ministry, “I looked at him and thought, ‘You have no idea who I am or what I’ve done, do you? I’m, like, so not minister material. I don’t know what you’re smoking.’ It was that kind of moment.”

Instead, a few days after graduation, Wilhite packed a U-Haul and trekked to Albuquerque, N.M., to play bass in a rock band called Angelic Force.

“It was awful,” he says with a laugh. “We wore spandex and the whole deal. It was bad.”

Apparently so. Several months later, Wilhite returned home and enrolled in Dallas Christian College as a Bible major, mostly to learn more about his faith. But, later in his college career, Wilhite read a biography of an English minister who chose to become a pastor in a small Welsh mining community.

“It was a fascinating story,” he recalls. “After I read this biography, I just prayed every day, ‘God, please open a door. I’d love to do this.’ “

The door turned out to be a call on a dormitory phone Wilhite happened to answer not long afterward. A small congregation was looking for a student who might preach and teach until it could find a new pastor.

Wilhite signed on and, he says, “I’ve never looked back.”

Since then, Wilhite has served at churches of all sizes in Texas, Southern California and, since 2003, at Central Christian Church.

KLAS-TV, Channel 8 weather anchor Sherry Swensk recalls hearing Wilhite speak at Central Christian before becoming its senior pastor.

“I walked out of there going, ‘I sure hope they offer him the job,’ because he just fit the contemporary style of Central Christian,’ ” she says.

Co-author Taaffe, a member of Central Christian Church, says Wilhite has “a wonderful way of talking about grace and life change and how people can turn the direction of their lives around and be healed.”

Wilhite, Taaffe adds, has “a wonderful way of presenting a 2,000-year-old message in contemporary terms.”

Wilhite says the appeal of ministry has been the same throughout his career, from the 100-member church he pastored early on to the 12,000-member church he pastors now.

“I love encouraging people,” he says. “That’s one of the things that really gives me strength.

“It makes me feel strong when I’m encouraging others, and, as a pastor, I think you have a lot of opportunities to encourage people. I love seeing them make positive changes in their lives. That’s huge for me.”

Before moving to Nevada, Wilhite admits he had a few preconceived notions of what Las Vegas is about. Today, his altered perception is illustrated by the photographic mural in his office: a depiction of the Strip, emblazoned with the title “Grace City.”

That also could serve as the theme of “Stripped,” in which Wilhite and Taaffe explore faith and redemption in Las Vegas through the stories of ordinary Las Vegans from all walks of life, including Henry Prendes, a member of Central Christian Church and a Las Vegas police sergeant who was gunned down in the line of duty.

Prendes’ killing prompted an outpouring of emotion throughout the valley, and Wilhite says he still receives comments about the funeral and service, which were covered live on local TV.

“The whole world sees this as Sin City,” Wilhite says. “I see something else. I see a city of second chances and new beginnings.”

Another book by Wilhite, “That Crazy Little Thing Called Love: The Soundtrack of Marriage, Sex and Faith” (Standard Publishing, $14.99) was released earlier this year. In it, Wilhite explores marriage via a jukebox full of songs by everybody from Aretha Franklin (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”) to Pat Benatar (“Love is a Battlefield”) to Elvis Presley (“Return to Sender”).

The former bass player for “Angelic Force” admits it was a fun book to write. Wilhite and his wife have two children, and Wilhite says it’s “autobiographical, in some ways,” in touching on lessons he and Lori have learned during 10 years of marriage.

“We’re still on our journey, and we don’t have it all figured out,” he says. “But to weave it in with music, that was a blast.”

Oh, and that long-ago fib? No problem.

A year or so after moving here, while driving down the street, “my wife, just out of nowhere, just looked out the window and said, ‘Jud, I like living in this area more than anywhere we’ve ever lived,’ ” Wilhite says.

“It just blew me away because, as a husband and as a dad, you want your kids and your spouse to be happy and content.”

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