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Sharing Riches of Faith

A Las Vegas, New Mexico, church is impacting its community through jail ministry and outreach to local schools.

On Sundays, pastor Paul L. Hesch tells the 60 congregants at Victory Life Church about the power of Christ’s love to bring the spiritual riches of faith, hope, and healing to the poverty-stricken community they call home.

For Hesch and pastoral partner and wife Diane, that home is Las Vegas — not the sprawling gambling hot spot in Nevada, but the economically challenged and historically rough-and-tumble city of 13,100 that straddles northwest New Mexico’s Gallinas River. The U. S. Census Bureau reports that 34.4 percent of local residents live at or below the poverty line, compared to the 12.7 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The Hesches arrived a decade after several rapid successive pastoral changes and a church of only a handful of worshippers.

“We were looking hard at ways to get into the community,” Hesch says. “Then I saw that the jail was just a quarter mile away.”

That seed of an idea initially fell on rocky soil. The then-warden of the San Miguel County Detention Center rebuffed the Hesches initial offers to visit and minister to both inmates and jail staff.

But Hesch had come up against challenges before. As co-owner of a successful construction company in neighboring Taos County, as well as director of the region’s Habitat for Humanity, he knew it takes time, prayer, and persistence, to build anything worthwhile.

Year after year, the jail administrator spurned requests to implement a ministry. After five years, Hesch adopted a more oblique approach: if Victory Life Church could not go to the inmates, then it would reach out to those who put, and kept them, behind bars. Four years ago, the church began reaching out to law enforcement personnel with a small gesture.

“We made contacts with Las Vegas police, the jail guards, and firefighters to provide monthly gift packages of drinks and snacks as a morale booster,” Hesch says.

Three years ago, Victory Life Church, which commits 6 percent of its congregational offerings to community outreach, added an annual steak appreciation dinner for more than 100 area law enforcement, corrections officers, firefighters, and other first responders. About the same time, new jail warden Matthew A. Elwell welcomed the concept of ministry behind bars.

With a chuckle, Hesch recalls that an unexpected donation — of underwear — likely helped open the doors of the county lockup a little wider.

“We were given a bag full of 80 pairs of adult briefs, socks, and T-shirts,” Hesch says. “We decided to offer them to the jail.”

Elwell has welcomed the Hesches into San Miguel County Detention Center two times a week for the past two years with a Celebrate Recovery program.

“They come in and work closely with detainees in our Medication Assisted Treatment Program,” Elwell says. “Pastor Paul wants success from our detainees just as much as we do.”

The program offers practical as well as spiritual mentoring, teaching inmates goal-setting skills, as well as providing scripturally based principles aimed at a successful post-release life.

Victory Life Church’s community outreaches extend well outside the jail’s walls, too. In addition to offering counseling and meals to recovering drug offenders on probation and parole, the Hesches and congregational volunteers adopted three public schools, providing coats, shoes, and backpacks to students, and snacks and classroom supplies to teachers.

The Hesches also can be found quietly walking a school hallway in prayer. They do the same thing during city council meetings.

Having raised four children and as grandparents to a dozen, the Hesches, in their mid-60s, know retirement eventually will come. But not yet; Las Vegas and its people have become an extended family for them.

“This is going to be our one and only pastorate,” Hesch says.

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.