From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Mennonites wrestle with casino work
George Conklin <email@example.com>
24 May 1996 19:21:31
May 24, 1996
Mennonite Board of Missions
Contact: Tom Price, director of information
Phone: (219) 294-7523
Mennonites 'blend in' at casinos;
wrestle with ministry to new 'tax collectors'
GULFPORT, Miss. (MBM) -- About three dozen Mennonites gathered Jan. 26
at this coastal resort city on the Gulf of Mexico to "wait on the Lord"
and stake the boundaries of ministry in a gaming community.
First, they listened to a Christian ethicist tell them the Bible said
little directly about the topic of casino gambling.
Then, they hit the casinos.
As a group, they had internalized the biblical message of non-conformity
with the world. Now, a chaplain to Mississippi Beach and its 12 casinos
stretching along Route 90 from Biloxi to the Louisiana border was telling
them, "blend in."
"What you want to do is blend in -- just walk through," said John
Landrum, a former leader of the opposition to gambling here who left his
Southern Baptist pastorate in 1992 to minister to the people drawn here
by an emerging gaming community. "You'll get an idea of how to minister
as you go through."
The Mennonite infiltration of several Gulf Coast casinos opened a window
on a glitzy, high-stakes lifestyle, from which Anabaptists long have
sought to remain separate. But this "Casino Consultation" Jan. 26-27 at
Gulfhaven Mennonite Church brought together Christians seeking to let
their light shine in an environment where the lights of a dozen casinos
never stop glowing.
"For the most part in church circles, the issue of gaming generally is
brought down to very simple terms: are you for it or against it?" said
Allan Yoder, director of evangelism and church development for the
Mennonite Board of Missions, one of the consultation's sponsors. "The
question we want to raise is: How do we minister in a context such as
The most questions came from David Kniss, pastor of Gulfhaven Mennonite
Church here and an MBM urban ministry director. Since 1992, when
Mississippians approved local option on off-shore gaming by a 5 percent
margin, Kniss and his congregation have wrestled with a classic dilemma:
What would Jesus do?
"(A ban on casino gambling) is not one of the Ten Commandments," said
Kniss, whose growing, 75-year-old congregation includes several casino
employees out of about 130 people. "It would have made it so much easier
if Moses had put that in there for us, but he didn't.
"When you are a pastor in a gaming community, it's hard to come up with
any solid answers," he said. "It's not as simple as black-and-white.
There are no ABCs in this whole dilemma. I don't want to make the
gambling end of pastoring be the big issue in pastoring, but it permeates
more than we want to admit."
Kniss said he was "very sure of myself" when he preached several sermons
warning about the wages of gambling. But certainty eroded when he sought
to apply his beliefs to unforeseen dilemmas:
* Should a secretary with small children to support making $6 an hour
refuse a $12 an hour secretarial job at a casino? If so, how should she
support her family?
* Should teachers tell their schools to refuse long-overdue salary
increases and money for education?
* Should Christians continue to work to expel the gaming community from
its beachhead in Mississippi or should they accept a new opportunity for
"Sometimes I feel like crying, screaming out to God and saying, 'God,
what do you have for us here? What is the answer for us?'" Kniss said.
"The Bible says nothing directly (on the morality of gambling)," said
Mark Thiessen Nation, a doctoral candidate in Christian ethics at Fuller
Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "What does it mean to speak
about an issue the Bible doesn't speak to directly? ... There has not
been a lot in general written from a Christian perspective."
Yet Nation, pastor of Glendale (Calif.) Church of the Brethren,
highlighted several passages regarding a believer's attitude toward money
-- with verses used to oppose gambling running 2-to-1 against those that
might infer support.
"We have a lot of latitude as Christians, a lot of freedom," he said.
"(But it) is lethal for churches to be mostly concerned about being
minimally Christian. We must keep both things in tension: the increased
freedom Jesus Christ gives us and the need to be disciples."
At the same time, Nation cautioned against falling into a game of
semantics, in which gambling becomes "gaming or casino entertainment.
"We're not talking about dominos. We're not talking about checkers.
We're talking about games in which money is exchanged, sometimes in large
quantities," he said. "Money is changing hands and that is the issue."
There were common features to the interior of several Gulf Coast
casinos: dim lighting with flashing lights on machines, the perpetual
noise of video games and dropping coins, the predominance of retired
people, whose clothes suggested meager financial means.
Many carried small buckets of coins, from which they would feed the
insatiable slot and electronic poker machines. "Some people couldn't put
the money in the slots fast enough," said Melba Martin, MBM's assistant
director for evangelism and church development.
Signs called out "Double Your Paycheck," "Megabucks," "Every Spin a
Winner" and "Mad Money."
"One pull can change your life -- positively or negatively," said
Landrum, who with his wife, Linda, represent one of only three organized
chaplain ministries to casino communities in North America. "Practically
speaking, I know people who have lost businesses and homes. I know back
in the old days you could just about mortgage your wife or husband on the
spot to get more money."
Because of their church ties, half of the people the Landrums help are
Southern Baptist church members who have become compulsive gamblers. But
the faith-supported Landrum Evangelistic Association also aims its
"friendship evangelism" at other casino "guests," employees and
The Landrums give a simple business card and a standard introduction to
everyone they meet. "We don't pass out tracts in casinos. We don't beat
people over the head with the Bible," Landrum said. "When they come to
us, they have tried everything that could be tried. We are able to tell
them, 'We have had some problems in our lives, but let me tell you what
God has done for us.'"
"You can never go wrong loving people like Jesus did, and it will be
fruit," he added. "Do we try to get people to quit their jobs? No, we
don't. We try to share the love of Jesus with them. If the Holy Spirit
tells them it's time to get out of the industry, he has got a job for
Repeatedly, the image of Jesus, "the friend of tax collectors and
sinners" entered the consultation's discussion. Landrum emphasized "a cup
of water in Jesus' name." Kniss recalled Jesus' visit to the home of
Zaccheus. Nation described the experiences he had with gambling before he
became a Christian.
"It is sometimes too easy for us to distance ourselves from those people
we categorize as sinners," Nation said. "These are real people. These are
not some cardboard characters. ... These are people whom Christ loves and
Christ wants us to reach out to in many ways.
"We think the alternatives are either this rigid judgmentalism on the
one side or being neutral about things. Those are not the only two
alternatives," he added.
The discipline of an authentic Christian community in which fellowship
becomes a reality can do more than anything else to communicate "freedom
from mammon," according to Nation.
Kniss has seen some of that reality already at Gulfhaven. "After
(people) are brought in and the church is loving them and puts a warm arm
of fellowship around their shoulders, we see them changing slowly," he
said. "If we demand a change of lifestyle immediately, we never would
reach that person."
Troy Farris, a pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship in Venice, La., stopped
at the consultation while on break from his job as a bus driver. He had
delivered 43 people to the Grand Casino in Biloxi, where they planned an
afternoon of gambling. About 15 percent of his job entails trips to
casinos -- a position he has vowed to quit if it ever compromises his
But a recent incident perhaps illustrated why such dilemmas are not
quite so clear-cut. While Farris drove a charter home from a casino, a
passenger struck up a conversation. Eventually, the woman asked Farris
why he didn't gamble.
"Right there, the door was wide open. ... Right then and there, we had a
15-minute discussion on why I feel gaming is wrong," he said. After he
parked the bus, the woman approached Farris and hugged him. "Thank you
for saying what you said," she told him. "I knew it was wrong. I knew I
shouldn't be doing it."
"She was almost crying," Farris said. "If the Christian community is
going to have any kind of impact on what's going on, we are going to have
to discover what our convictions are and how to articulate them. And it
can't just be statistics."
"Just remember that every person you see in a casino is a person God
loves, a person Jesus died for and is a ministry opportunity for
somebody," Landrum said. "The casinos are here now. There's nothing we
can do about that. We lost. So, let's do all we can to minister."
"The Lord has given us a wonderful opportunity to serve in a community
that has been a beautiful community and, contrary to what other people
say, can continue to be a beautiful community -- if the Christian
presence is real," Kniss said. "If we can put our Christian presence out
on the streets, even Route 90, this can continue to be a beautiful
community, where we let our lights shine. ... We want to be a shining
light in the community -- not just to the casinos and the people involved
with those, but to all the community."
* * *
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