Onboard With the Jesus Bus

Is there really such a thing as a free ride on the Strip? A writer follows the flock to find out

Nowhere does the old adage “Nothing in life is free” fit better than Las Vegas. The fine print is everywhere. Ask a Camel or Marlboro employee handing out “free” cigarettes in the lounges for a pack and they’ll ask you for your ID so they can fill your mailbox for the rest of your life with mailers and coupons. Accept a free drink from the man at the bar and the next thing you know his hand is resting on your ass. I could go on and on.

My little theory came to mind one day recently while I was on the Strip and I saw the Jesus Loves Sin City bus pull over to the curb and, to my great surprise, a flock of tourists climbed in. Free lift, huh? Good luck with that! But I couldn’t let it go. Something about that fateful little roll of the dice intrigued me. What were those people thinking?

So, a week later, I climbed aboard myself. I had to find out the true price of this “mass” transit.

The bus, I discovered, is owned by the Las Vegas-based Christian nonprofit organization called the Strip Church, and they’re all about serving the community. Some days that’s taking lunch to homeless people. Other days they’re on the Strip handing out water bottles to the card flickers—yes, the guys who push sex. But on most nights, the 24-seat bus, in all its Jesus glory, cruises the Strip offering rides. That’s right, for nothing.

I met the director, Jessica Nienaber, and her interns, Joy and Philip Hoover, at the Strip Church office on North Russell Road and Interstate 215 one chilly weekday evening. With Philip behind the wheel, we departed at the Fabulous Las Vegas sign and headed down the Boulevard.

Before we saw a potential passenger, I cut to the chase. “So, what’s the catch?”

“There’s no catch,” Jessica said. “We don’t get them on here to preach or give sermons of salvation. We just want to help them out.”

Right. I sat back and waited for the catch.

At each stop, Joy stood in the doorway and shouted, “Free rides for anyone going that way, and we’re going all the way to Fremont! Does anyone want a ride? Want to get out of the cold?” No one budged at the first three stops. I could clearly read the people’s expressions as they stared at the giant picture of Jesus plastered on the side of the bus. Some were leery, others taken aback. Most were like, No way in hell!

“People are nervous,” Jessica admitted after the doors shut. “The free ride is what initially gets people on, but that thought of ‘What are these crazy Christians going to do to me?’ is constantly on their mind, until they realize that it’s totally chill.” At our fourth stop, two men in their late 40s came aboard. The girls started talking to them, asking them questions about where they were from, where they were staying, why they were in Vegas. When we got to their destination, The Mirage, the girls wished them a great rest of their trip. The men thanked them for the ride, and that was that. A free ride.

Still, at most stops, people said no and we were on our way again. Every once in a while, a few brave souls would jump on. In between, we chatted. The girls didn’t appear to be Bible thumpers. They seemed like girls I could be friends with. Girls that gulped down cheap cocktails at happy hour. Girls that say bad words. Regular girls. They told me story after story of people they have met on the Jesus Bus. People who came here to gamble and get lap dances and escape their troubles—not exactly Christian activities. But the girls never judged them. They just offered them a ride and talked to them.

“One night we had a group of girls who asked, ‘Can you pick us up tomorrow? We might be a little tipsy and Jesus might not like that,’” Jessica recounted. “My response was just, ‘Oh, I think Jesus can handle your drunk ass.’”

We arrived at our final stop, outside Mandalay Bay, and there were probably two dozen people there. Joy jumped to the door and asked if anyone wanted a ride. No one budged. “No? No one wants a free ride?” Finally one brave soul started walking toward the bus and about 10 people followed.

This situation made me think of a comment Jessica made earlier. She said, “We try to stop at the bus stops with more than a couple people because people are like sheep—once one person gets on, the rest follow.”

Ah, and the Jesus Bus is the shepherd. I got it.

I may be familiar with the New Testament but otherwise I’m someone who shies away from anything religious. Yet I liked the Strip Church people. They were the opposite of preachy; they were warm and welcoming. Instead of selling the Word of God, they were acting it out by doing something so small but so greatly appreciated.

To borrow a thought from the Book of Jessica, that’s what I call totally chill.

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