I’ve never resisted selling chocolates or magazines for my children’s school, but this time was different. “Would you volunteer a few hours of your time at our casino fundraiser?” the letter asked. Only two nights of parent volunteers at a local casino and our school could earn about $40,000 towards computer equipment or playground upgrades.
I was tempted. It’s less hassle and raises more money than hawking chocolate. My kids would benefit. I benefit from lottery funds that go into local library, recreation and social services in my community. Since I’m already part of the system, why do I balk at this direct participation in the gambling industry?
I hesitate because the social costs of gambling concern me. In our society, where two or three out of every 100 people have gambling problems, I’d be naïve to think this does not hurt my congregation. I suspect the costs of ruined relationships, financial struggle and heartache outweigh the benefits of the industry.
I’ve admired Alberta Catholic school boards for courageously weaning themselves from lottery money. The Evergreen board, East of Edmonton, ended its reliance on such funding in 2004. Back then, the Hinton newspaper reported board chair Gerald Bernakevitch as saying, “What message does it send to students when you teach social justice and then use casino funds to pay for school equipment?”
Our Mennonite institutions face difficult funding questions as well.
Byron Thiessen, principal of Menno Simons Christian School in Calgary, says, “We’ve never considered gambling as a fundraiser at all. I do know that our board would not consider it.”
The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, however, does accept some government funding from lotteries. After long discussions at the board level, a decision was made that it would not be fair to deny immigrants such government funding.
I support both institutions in their decisions and find myself a bit conflicted and wandering in grey areas. So what can I do with my discomfort?
Lorraine Turchansky, director of communications and public relations for the Catholic Archdiocese in Edmonton, suggests advocating “with the provincial government for sufficient levels of school funding so our schools don’t have to resort to fundraising for computers or music instruments or things that are essential for the learning process.”
A member of my congregation, Barry Andres, is executive director of rehabilitation and recovery addiction and mental health with Alberta Health Services. He says, “I think the church’s role is one of helping sort out a response based on conviction and calling, and in bringing awareness to the issue of the harms of gambling and the entrenchment of gambling revenue with charity fundraising.”
There are no simple answers, but that the church must have a voice is clear. My responsibility is to talk about the issues. I need to be open and caring in offering support to those who suffer from gambling-related problems. I should encourage my government to properly fund schools so parents are not asked to participate in the casinos. I will not buy lottery tickets. I need to tell my school why I do not volunteer for the casino night, and perhaps I need to be part of inventing a healthier alternative.
Besides her role with Canadian Mennonite, Donita Wiebe-Neufeld is co-pastor of First Mennonite Church, Edmonton.