A few years, I covered a meeting of preachers in Las Vegas and wrote a story titled "Saving Sin City."
In reporting that piece, I was fascinated by how local church leaders and members approached the all-encompassing gambling industry in their home city:
Go to the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino on a Tuesday morning, and you’ll find members of the Bright Angel Church of Christ in Las Vegas bowing their heads at a weekly prayer breakfast.
Bright Angel minister and elder J.B. Myers, who holds firm to traditional doctrinal positions on baptism and instrumental music, makes no apologies for frequenting casino buffet lines.
“If you can show me in Scripture that putting a quarter in a slot machine is sinful, then I’ll preach that it’s a sin,” said Myers, who moved to Las Vegas in 1999. “But it’s just as wrong to bind where God has not bound as it is to loose where God has not loosed.
“Gambling is like any other behavior: If it’s out of control, it can be very destructive,” he added, comparing spending money on a Vegas vacation to buying a $6,000 bass boat. “Both of them, your money’s down a rathole. But that’s a matter of judgment.”
I was reminded of that story when I read a front-page Philadelphia Inquirer report this week on clergy members supporting casino workers about to lose their jobs in Atlantic City, N.J.
The Inquirer's newsy lede:
ATLANTIC CITY — When gambling was being proposed for Atlantic City 38 years ago, most religious denominations opposed casinos. They viewed gambling as a vice that could destroy families and communities.
Now, many of the same churches are standing firmly by the casino workers, a number of whom fill their pews on Sundays, who are expected to lose their jobs in massive numbers, starting Labor Day weekend with the closure of the Showboat and Revel.
Many houses of worship are offering counseling for the affected workers, increased food pantry hours, or just someone to pray with.
"There are going to be a lot of people hurting," said John R. Schol, bishop of the United Methodist Church Greater New Jersey Conference, based in Ocean Township, which has 572 member churches. "No matter what industry, we want to be there to support them."
As I kept reading, I wondered if the Inquirer would dig below the surface and allow the kind of nuance that makes for good religion reporting, not to mention compelling reading. Would the Philly newspaper actually give the church leaders quoted an opportunity to explain their beliefs on gambling and how those beliefs mesh — or not — with their efforts on behalf of casino workers?
Or, given the circumstances: Blackjack!
Yes, in other words, the Inquirer gets down to the theological nitty-gritty.
Among the paper's sources is the Rev. John Scotland of the Community Presbyterian Church in Brigantine:
Scotland said Presbyterians view gambling "as poor stewardship of God's resources."
"We're not allowed to use it for fund-raising," he said. "It's frowned upon. But we're looking at this from an employment standpoint. What would it mean now to close" the casinos, Scotland said. "We looked at the desperate situation Atlantic City was in 38 years ago, and the churches came around and saw a greater good than the amount of evil" gambling would bring.
Methodist Bishop Schol also weighs in:
What is now the United Methodist Church has opposed gambling since its inception in the 1700s, Schol said.
"For the past several decades, I have protested the legalization of gambling," he said. "The United Methodist Church has been opposed to gambling because it lures the most vulnerable into quick fixes that do not materialize. Gambling creates addiction and dependencies for the most vulnerable."
That said, Schol added, United Methodists "are made up of a wide spectrum of people."
"We have members who oppose gambling, we have members who work in the gaming business, and we have members who gamble," he said. "Our concern for the people of Atlantic City and the region is because the significant layoffs will hurt families, the local community, and the stability of the area."
Also quoted: The Rev. David McGettigan of St. Andrew by the Sea Lutheran Church in Atlantic City:
The Lutheran pastor said his church would not condemn gambling, but rather caution against it.
"Casino gambling, while mostly innocent entertainment acceptable to most people, can be dangerous because it can lead one to chase after a pot of gold as if it's the panacea answer to all of our problems, be it our lack of jobs or employment.
"We bought into it too deeply," McGettigan said, "as if it was that pot of gold. Whether on the individual, municipal, or state level, it cannot solve all of our financial problems."
McGettigan said he saw gambling as just part of the resort city's future.
"For the last 35 years, it was very good to Atlantic City. It provided good-paying jobs with benefits. Then things started to decline, as does every human endeavor," McGettigan said. "But it lulled us into that and became almost a false god with a small g.
"As we now know, we can't put all of our eggs into one basket. Gambling is not our savior."
My one criticism: The Inquirer apparently has bought into the Oxford comma, a vice of the Devil.
That personal pet peeve aside, this story is a wonderful example of what can happen when a reporter takes a meaty subject and lets sources explain what they believe in their own words.
Congratulations, Inquirer. You hit the jackpot with this one.