Who are all of these shameless do-gooders? I’m pulling into the parking lot at Cashman Center on a Tuesday night, and the first lot is full. What’s more, charter buses are lined up at the curb, depositing people—lots and lots of people, bus after bus—to attend the second annual conference of Nevadans for the Common Good. Some are wearing matching T-shirts affiliated with a church or a synagogue or a nonprofit; some are holding signs: “I care” or “We can.” The mood is cheery, like a pep rally, and the people are young and old, black, white and brown, English-speaking and non-English speaking—translation headphones are available in the lobby.
I grab a program and head into the theater, trying to temper my cynicism. What’s the catch? Why is the buzz so loud, so enthusiastic? I take a seat with a group from a Catholic church—I’m lucky to get a chair on the first level; plenty of people are heading upstairs to the second tier.
Onstage, two clergypeople—a Spanish-speaking Episcopalian man and an English-speaking Methodist woman—take turns at the mic: We started as a group of interfaith leaders; we’re nonpartisan; we began listening to each other’s stories, and we found that we had more commonalities than differences. We want to fix systemic problems in this place we all call home.
Muslim Imam Hanafi Shakur of Masjid As-Sabur gives an opening prayer about diversity leading us to common ground, and Christians and Jews and social activists and ushers and children all applaud. An elderly woman behind me says, “Es verdad, es verdad”—it’s true, it’s true.
The Rev. Bob Stoeckig, a Catholic priest, tells the crowd, “We have grown weary of those who would distract us. Partisan politics just won’t do anymore. … If we allow the human dignity of any one of us to suffer, it’s an affront to all of us.”
But just as the positive vibe threatens to pierce my jaded shell, I spot politicians. Aha! This will soon devolve into a series of vapid campaign speeches! Religion is the opiate; politics is the language designed to make lies sound truthful. My hunch grows as a slew of office-holders is welcomed: U.S. Representatives Dina Titus and Steven Horsford; Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto; Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky; County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani and plenty of Nevada legislators.
“But,” says Rev. Camille D. Pentsil of Zion United Methodist, “we are not here to endorse them, but they are here to endorse us.” A roar from the crowd ensues. Some laughter. Some high-fives. Hmm.
The moderators rip through an agenda that includes a wide range of troubling issues, from abuse of the elderly in unlicensed group homes, which was called “an epidemic” in Las Vegas, to Nevada having the lowest rate of applications for immigrant employment-authorization, so-called “deferred action” in Dream Act language.
“Immigration is not a racial issue,” Pentsil says. “Immigrant children make up more than 35 percent of the Clark County School District. These children are an important part of our future.”
“Here, here!” shouts an older white man in the audience. I raise an eyebrow. Why should such enthusiasm surprise me? Years of witnessing political apathy devour community action? Years of watching spite and negativity divide and conquer?
After each issue is presented, the appropriate official is given three minutes or less to respond—no lengthy campaign speeches. Horsford commits to going after fraudulent immigration attorneys by answering, simply, “Yes.” Cortez Masto commits to help set up a single telephone hotline for senior citizens to receive assistance by saying, “I will.” The event lasts more than two hours, and the crowd’s fervor never wanes.
As I walk through the dark parking lot to my car, I can’t say that I suddenly expect the entrenched issues of our day to disappear.
But when the parking lot attendant— a stranger, a middle-aged Hispanic man wearing a fluorescent vest, a person who lives in the same city and same state that I do, a person whose stories I do not know—nods at me and says, “You have a good and safe evening,” I pause. Somehow that small, common bit of civility means a little more to me tonight.
“Thank you. You too,” I say, and we smile.