From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Mennonites wrestle with casino work

From George Conklin <>
Date 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."
                                * * *
Tom Price


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