A Visit to the Casino

It struck me the moment Gary and I walked in the door of the soon to be opened Gun Lake Casino in Wayland last week.  The stimulation of the blinking lights of 1,450 slot machines was overwhelming, even without customers present.  It took me back to 1995 when our family went “out west” for the first time.  Since we knew the kids would tire of the daily routine of hiking and driving, we decided to show themLas Vegas, a part ofAmerica they had never experienced before.  I was repulsed by the glitz and oppressiveness of theLas Vegas strip and the glazed looks of people mindlessly playing the slot machines.  In contrast, our three children were mesmerized by the excitement and glamour and were determined to find a way into the gaming area!

As we toured the casino last week, I could just imagine thousands of people putting coins into slot machines and playing video poker and table games like Progressive Fortune Pai Gow Poker, Midi Baccarat, and Progressive Let It Ride.  Although I have never gambled in my life and have no idea how any of the games are played, I am aware that 25% of the adult population of theU.S.chooses to spend money at a casino every year.  According to the American Gaming Association, gross gaming revenues in 2008 were $32.5 billion, a significant boost to the economy, even at the beginning of the recession.  In 2008 more than 375,000 people worked in the gaming industry.  Interestingly, more racial ethnic people were employed in casinos in 2007 than the rest of theU.S.workforce by 20.6%. 

I visited the Gun Lake Casino because it is owned and operated by the Gun Lake Tribe, of which many Native Americans from the Bradley and Salem United Methodist Indian Missions are members.  The chair of the Gun Lake Tribal Council is also an active member of the Bradley church.  The Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians is part of the historic Three Fires Confederacy, which is an alliance of the Pottawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal nations in the Great Lakes region.  

It was a Supreme Court decision in 1987 that eliminated gambling restrictions on Indian reservations.  The following year Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which authorized casino gambling on Indian reservations and established the National Indian Gaming Commission to provide oversight for the industry.  Native Americans now had the ability to become economically self-sufficient for the first time since they were relegated to isolated reservations without choice and with little or no opportunity for employment. 

Only federally recognized tribes who have a common meeting place are permitted to operate casinos, and it was a 10 year process for the Gun Lake Tribe to achieve that recognition and purchase land in trust.  It was the Bradley United Methodist Indian Mission, which has been in existence since 1839, that provided the necessary documentation.  For many years, whenever information needed to be shared in the Native American community, the Methodist church bell rang, and people walked from all directions to the church to hear the news.

I admit that I am thoroughly United Methodist in my understanding of the negative effects of gambling.  However, I was determined to look at the Gun Lake Casino with new eyes, hear about the benefits of the casino with new ears, and learn about the struggles of Native Americans with a new heart. 

Our United Methodist Social Principles makes a strong statement about gambling.  “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship.  As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” (¶163)  In case you’re wondering, that’s why we don’t raise money in The United Methodist Church by bingo, raffles, or lotteries. 

            The rationale for this statement is that gambling (or gaming, as it is also called) involves the playing of games of chance for money.  We acquire material gain at our neighbor’s expense and more often at our poor neighbor’s expense.  Gambling is regressive in the sense that, in large part, it takes revenue from those less financially able.

The idea of getting something for nothing is not only intriguing, it’s highly addictive for some people.  I’ll never forget a woman in a former church who called me in tears one day to say that her husband’s gambling addiction cost them his job, their house, and their marriage.  She could no longer live with a person whose first love was not her, but the slot machine.  I also remember seeing long lines of people in our neighborhood pharmacy waiting to buy lottery tickets.  They didn’t look very happy to me, and I couldn’t help but think that their money might have been better spent on food, clothing, or shelter.  

I was very impressed with the Gun Lake Casino.  There is a subtle Native American influence in the design, and employees are called team members.  600 employees have already been hired, with priority given to Gun Lake Tribe members, members of other tribes, spouses of tribal members, and then others.  All staff are full-time and are given health insurance.

A certain percentage of revenue goes to the government to help those who are addicted to gambling, and an 800 number for addiction assistance is available in the casino.  Furthermore, revenue from the casino goes right back to the tribe, which can determine a per capita amount to be given monthly to tribal members.

I was blessed by the opportunity to engage in conversation with Pastor Sandra VandenBrink and several members of members of the Bradley and Salem UM Indian Missions, which are the only chartered Native American congregations of any denomination in the metropolitan Grand Rapidsarea.  As United Methodists they understand the tension between the opposition of The United Methodist Churchto gambling and the needs of Native Americans.  Like so much of life, when our hearts and minds are open, we realize that there are not always black and white answers to difficult issues.  Native American gaming is one of those gray areas, and once we seek to listen and understand, we realize that our call is not to condemn but to look for alternate solutions.

My Native American friends were quick to acknowledge the downside of casinos:

  • Gambling addictions may be reinforced and even created among a segment of the population, including Native Americans
  • The closer casinos are geographically to a given population, the easier it is for the addictions to be fostered
  • The monthly payouts to tribal members can lead to a sense of entitlement rather than serve as an incentive to become self-sufficient

            The upside, however, is equally compelling:

  • The per capita payout provides many opportunities to do good for tribal members: my friends told me of children who have been able to attend summer camp or get braces, modest homes that have been remodeled, teenagers who have been able to attend college, and medical help that has been procured
  • In a community where there is extremely high unemployment, the casino is providing secure jobs
  • There is a renewed sense of hope and optimism in the Native American community
  • The self-worth that comes with a modicum of financial security goes a long way in countering the racism and prejudice that Native Americans continue to experience in the United States

Those who operate the Gun Lake Casino desire to show hospitality and want their customers to be entertained and have fun.  My visit to the casino will not transform me into a gamer, though.  I prefer to abstain.  However, my Native American friends have challenged me to a deeper understanding of that part of the Social Principles which I have too often ignored,

            “The Church acknowledges the dichotomy that can occur when opposing gambling while supporting the American Indian’s tribal sovereignty and self-determination.  Therefore, the Church’s role is to create sacred space to allow for dialogue and education that will promote a holistic understanding of the American Indians’ historic quest for survival.  The Church’s prophetic call is to promote standards of justice and advocacy that would make it unnecessary and undesirable to resort to commercial gambling … as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.”

The real responsibility of Christians is not simply to oppose gambling as a menace to society.  To identify the problem without engaging in dialogue and actively seeking solutions is not redemptive.  On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we remember anew our responsibility to confront our own shameful stereotypes, work to change unjust laws and structures, and assist and empower Native Americans to live healthy and whole lives so that they will no longer need the revenue that casinos produce. 

            What are your thoughts?  I invite you to use the blog. 

Blessings, Laurie

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