Chances are . . . you worship with a gambler

April 19, 2010 | Feature
By Deborah Froese |

They’re advertised on billboards, on radio and television. The kiosk in your local grocery store or shopping mall sells them. Your local charity wants you to buy one to help it out? Buy what, you ask. A lottery ticket, of course.

Or your daughter’s basketball team needs money for new jerseys? Just join the game pool.

Bored, perhaps? Check out live entertainment at the casino—and while you’re there drop some money into a video lottery terminal (VLT) or try your hand at blackjack.

Or if you really want to be discreet, check out

‘The hidden disease’

Wagering on a hoped-for outcome—the definition of gambling—has a broad range of appeal: from dreams of ending financial struggles to the spark of an adrenalin rush or a temporary escape from everyday challenges. Christians are not exempt.

Barry Andres, executive director of rehabilitation and recovery addiction and mental health with Alberta Health Services and a consultant for the development of Mennonite Publishing Network’s Close to Home pamphlet, “Dealing with Gambling Addiction,” says that there are no statistics available for the number of Christians who gamble. He suspects, though, that they would be similar to national statistics as they are for other social issues.

It’s hard to tell, as compulsive gambling has been called “the hidden disease” nobody wants to talk about.

Changes to Canada’s Criminal Code in 1985 expanded the scope of provincially managed gambling, and since then gaming has morphed into a multi-billion-dollar industry that permeates all segments of society. According to Statistics Canada, gambling—not including wagering on horse races, charity-driven lotteries and other local fundraisers—drew in about $13 billion in 2008 after paying off the prizewinners. Over half of that income was pure profit.

The highest prevalence of gambling appears to be in areas where there are large concentrations of VLTs and permanent casinos, according to a 2005 article in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. In Alberta and some other regions of Canada, VLTs are everywhere, even in family restaurants, tempting those who would not otherwise consider games of chance.

Gambling can ‘take over’

As with other disorders and addictions, faith and an active community can be strong protective factors.

“Faith could be a barrier to experimenting, but the guilt and shame associated with it may make it more difficult to seek treatment,” Andres speculates. “Christians don’t get a pass.”

Doug* can attest to that. Raised with a deep faith and commitment to God, he had a strong work ethic and solid reputation that eventually led to a position of trust and seniority with his employer. He never considered gambling—until he went to Las Vegas on a business trip and threw a few dollars into a slot machine. He pulled the handle and instantly won big.

The sudden wave of euphoria he experienced was compounded by flashing lights, ringing bells and the crowds who gathered around to congratulate him. Doug was hooked. “It was the biggest rush you could ever imagine,” he admits.

For 10 years, Doug gambled often and on the sly. “Almost every time I did something that I knew was wrong—‘smooth’ somebody for money or spend long periods of time away from my family gambling—I would think back to the principles that I believed in way back when. I knew God was watching and there would be consequences, but the addiction took over,” he says.

‘I completely lost touch’

While Doug gambled for the adrenaline rush he experienced, Sandra* hit the slot machines to escape low self-esteem. “It allowed me to relax and not think about things,” she says.

Her addiction developed over a period of years. “By the time I was 22 or 23 I was playing more consistently,” she says. “I went over my spending limit and began to gamble more often—once a week, twice a week—mostly VLTs.”

Sandra lied about how much she was spending and how often she was gambling. “When I was gambling I would ask God to help me cover up the money I’d lost so I wouldn’t have to lie about it. I couldn’t see how anybody could love me, even my children, my husband and friends,” she says. “I completely lost touch with faith in anything.”

The more Sandra gambled, the more deeply she became mired in guilt and helplessness. It was only when her husband discovered the truth and directed her towards counselling that she began to break free. Through Gamblers Anonymous and its 12-step program, Sandra’s faith in God was eventually renewed and she learned to cope with her addiction.

Gambling affects more than gamblers

Pollster Harris-Decima reports that 81 percent of the 25 million Canadians over the age of 18 played a lottery game in 2008. In the same year, 47 percent of them participated in other gambling activities, such as casinos, sports betting and bingo; that means that Canada could have more than 325,000 gambling addicts—slightly fewer than the population of London, Ont. And this does not include those who gamble online, something for which the Canadian Public Health Association says there are no statistics.

Andres says that problem gamblers generate about one-third of Canada’s gambling income and he estimates that they comprise 3 percent to 5 percent of those who gamble.

If all of these figures hold true for the church, chances are that in a congregation of 100 adults, most will have purchased a lottery ticket at some point and at least two of them will have experienced problems with gambling.

But the impact of gambling is not limited to addicted or problem gamblers. The total number of people affected expands dramatically when family members, friends and workplace peers are factored into the equation.

Byron Rempel Burkholder, editor of the Close to Home series, notes that gambling was discerned by the series steering committee to be one of 20 personal problems Christians may try to hide. Others include pornography, bullying, child abuse, addictions, debt, depression and eating disorders.

Because addiction is often viewed as a sign of weakness, guilt and shame compel problem gamblers to keep their addiction a secret.

“It’s easy to hide,” Doug admits, since compulsive gamblers—unlike alcohol or drug addicts—have few if any outwardly visible signs.

“I couldn’t confide in anyone,” Sandra says. “It was a very secretive thing.”

At Gamblers Anonymous, Sandra met a number of people who told her they pulled away from church while they were gambling because they felt so guilty and unworthy. “I’ve heard them say they feel abandoned by God because they’re struggling so hard,” she says.

She suggests that the most important thing churches can do is to recognize the fact that members are not immune to gambling, and to talk about it without being judgmental.

Sandra has come to terms with the fact that gambling is here to stay. Her husband still buys lottery tickets and other members of her family gamble. “I have to learn to live around it,” she says.

Gambling especially attractive to young people

Despite its dark side, the future of Canada’s gaming industry looks bright. Andres reports that the prevalence of gambling among young people is about twice what it is for older adults. Although those figures are consistent with other risk factors at that stage of life—like drinking, smoking or driving without a seatbelt—younger gamblers have a greater risk of addiction, although he isn’t sure to what degree.

For many, it’s about entertainment. They seek the adrenaline rush and social interaction, but the gratification of winning can drive some to go further. Andres points out that young people who aren’t old enough to gamble may play video games instead, sometimes over the Internet, which can lead to Internet gambling. “They’re connected, interacting with peers. There’s a thrill associated with it,” he says.

Sandra has noticed the connection, too. “You can sit there and not have to associate with anything outside the video game,” she says. “It’s so easy to switch between video games and gambling. Gambling gives you a very similar feeling.”

Gambling for ‘good’?

Those who believe gambling is wrong can still be drawn into it for noble reasons.

Mennonite Church British Columbia executive minister Garry Janzen was torn when his son’s hockey team chose hockey pools for fundraising. Wanting to support his son, but strongly opposed to gambling, he bought into the fundraisers with a commitment to return any winnings to the team. He won once. The hockey pool organizer was flabbergasted when Janzen returned his jackpot.

“It was completely outside of his realm of thinking,” Janzen chuckles, saying, though, that he would personally rather work to earn a living than depend on chance. “I’m putting my faith in God to take care of me and my family.”

Many people may side with Janzen’s perspective, but the money generated by gambling fills more than individual pockets. Across Canada, provincial gambling revenues seep into crucial programs. Last year in Manitoba alone, more than $230 million went to programs providing healthcare, education, community and social services, and economic development.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation website states that “gaming proceeds support Ontario’s hospitals, amateur sport, recreational and cultural activities, communities, provincial priority programs such as healthcare and education, and local and provincial charities and non-profit organizations through the Ontario Trillium Foundation.”

Thus the tentacles of the gaming industry are so far-reaching that, chances are—whether you play the odds or not—you’ve benefited from someone else’s loss.

* Pseudonyms

Deborah Froese is Mennonite Church Canada’s news director.

See also:
What do Mennonites do with gambling donations? 
Caught between dice and a hard place 

For discussion

1. What have been your experiences with lotteries, sports pools or raffles? Do the people of your congregation participate in and support these activities? How do you respond when charities use this type of fundraising?

2. Some people believe gambling is harmless entertainment. What are the dangers of gambling? What do you teach your children about games of chance? Is it okay to gamble if you give your winnings to a good cause, as Garry Janzen chose to do? What should be the position of the Mennonite church?

3. How would you respond if your local municipality was planning to approve a casino that would bring in substantial tax dollars? Would you apply for funds raised through gambling for a charity you believed was important? Why or why not? Does it matter that governments raise substantial revenue from lotteries?

4. What message should the church give to society about gambling? How could your congregation help a member who was a problem gambler?

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