First Good Shepherd Lutheran Church adapts to changing scene

First Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and School, at 301 S. Maryland Parkway, may be a fixture of Las Vegas’ downtown. But that doesn’t keep the Rev. Toby Joeckel, senior pastor, from roaming.

Lately, about three times a week, he takes a spin around the neighborhood, walking into hotels and other public venues, talking to people — and keeping tabs on the pulse of downtown. His favorite area is Fremont Street.

There, he recommends PublicUs, an eatery where the “basics” get done with “yuppie” flare, he says. He’d like to hang his spiritual shingle there periodically, talking to people and answering questions. He recently introduced himself to the owners.

“I was amazed,” he says. “I was the oldest person there. Except for him.” He jocularly motions at the pastor who had joined him there for lunch.

Joeckel says his wish for a bit of social air time at the eatery could come true in the next month.

“Many times, I find, as a pastor, when I’m sitting in an airplane, or with people, that they’re interested in religion,” he observes. “Maybe not coming to church. But they’re still interested in spirituality.”

Downtown’s emerging hipsterdom isn’t the only place where Joeckel can be found, however. On Oct. 18, his church — about 500 members strong — had a service celebrating 75 years in the community. About 290 attended, according to Steve Launer, discipleship and ministry coordinator.

And, in the past four years leading up to the celebration, since his arrival on the scene as pastor, Joeckel has been energizing the word “grassroots” for his church community.

That hasn’t been an easy task, in a locale that’s taken a different direction from the newer surrounding suburban sprawl. Especially for a congregation that mostly lives elsewhere. But that hasn’t stopped First Good Shepherd people from making connections with neighbors who could use a little help.

One of the first orders of business when Joeckel arrived: paying a visit to a nearby low-income apartment complex inhabited by senior citizens, and simply asking what the church could do.

“They didn’t even know we were here,” he recalls.

During the past two years, according to Launer, First Good Shepherd students have taken fresh fruits and vegetables to the seniors at Christmas, with some caroling and band performances thrown in.

“Service is really important to us, because we think it teaches our children all kinds of valuable lessons,” says Michelle Hines, elementary school principal.

The school also takes a cue from its students, when it comes to ideas for community service. According to Hines, one student approached her last year about planting a garden to grow produce for the local homeless population. The school is considering an area in the parking lot, to be fenced off.

There’s also the “Angel Tree” program, through which First Good Shepherd members bring Christmas cheer, and gifts, to children of convicts. Also, the comfort dog ministry, which could land a dog in the hands of the church by the end of the year, Launer says. The dog will be trained to make community house calls at places such as retirement homes. Or perhaps at disaster scenes.

Plus, an English language learning program at the church is in the works.

Through the Clark County School District, the Lutheran church and its school are also partnering with Sunrise Acres Elementary School to help low-income kids in the neighborhood, with drives for everything from coats, socks, and underwear to books that kids can own and read for fun.

Sunrise Acres Assistant Principal Kimberly Basham estimates, from her research, that the average income of families in the area is about $15,000. When First Good Shepherd brought more than 150 coats last year, there were “happy faces” when underdressed kids didn’t have to go outside to play in the cold, Basham recalls.

There’s also been discussion of sharing pen pals between the two schools, and an expanded volunteer effort from First Good Shepherd in Sunrise Acres classrooms.

“For some of our students, their community is the square block they live on,” Basham says. Interaction with First Good Shepherd provides “experiences for our kids that they may not have. Our students see that there’s someone out there who cares about their success.”

The Catholic school across the street closed two years ago after 55 years, according to Hines. But some longtime First Good Shepherd people plan to stick to their neighborhood niche.

That, in spite of inconvenient downtown treks and a church/school population that’s withered over the years, while giving birth to churches in newer suburbs. Not to mention grappling with SB 302, the educational savings account legislation that’s drawing kids away from private schools for a time.

Melvin Lamp has been attending the church since the ’80s. He frames his reason for sticking around this way: “If it’s not broke, why fix it. Right?”

Joeckel himself says he was confirmed at the church when he was 12, in 1964. After ministering all over the world, he returned to the neighborhood at age 59.

He calls it “a full circle of life.”

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