When I opened up the newspaper the other day, the first things I spotted (after I got past all the stories about war, violence, and corruption) was a picture of the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. The accompanying news story described the possible closing of four of Atlantic City’s twelve casinos this year. Gambling revenue is down. Way down. It was a very different story back in the early 1980’s when I was stationed in a parish in New Jersey. Just a few years earlier the struggling resort town on the Jersey shore had become the first place outside of Nevada to offer casino gambling. Poverty, crime, and aging facilities had left the once popular family vacation spot and convention city bereft of visitors. I made several day trips to Atlantic City during those halcyon years. New hotels and slot parlors were springing up all along the Boardwalk, but very little seemed to be changing for the better when one got more than a block or two inland. Decaying homes and vacant lots still ruled. That’s been the real moral problem with legalized gambling and lotteries that are now everywhere and which have drawn away the crowds that once went to Atlantic City. They promise so much in the way of tax revenue to struggling communities, but the promised riches rarely seem to reach the people in need. And it is often the people who can least afford it who fall prey to gambling addiction and other ills.
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I learned early on that gambling was evil. One of the reasons that Catholics were going to hell is that they had raffles, bingos, and games of chance at their church socials. When I was about 10 a group of us were playing cards (undoubtedly my cards) on one of my friend’s front porch. When his mother caught us, we had to stop. As she explained, “Even though you aren’t gambling, those cards themselves are evil.”
Even though gambling does possess the potential to lead souls down the path to perdition, there is one aspect of gambling that I think Jesus would like. He did not believe that we should just sit on our money (or any of our resources for that matter). No, he would not be impressed with all the money pouring into the coffers of the huge casino operators, but he certainly believed in taking risks with our resources. Several of his parables condemn the person who simply buries his talents or his money in the ground. Jesus wanted us to understand that what we have been given we should invest in improving the life of others. In fact, scripture scholars note, based on what is recorded in the Gospels, Jesus spent five times as much time talking about the proper use of material resources than he did talking about prayer.
There is a real life parable right close to home that might illustrate that point. Some of our parishioners live in the complex of buildings that were once the warehouses and corporate offices of Montgomery Ward. Montgomery Ward himself was both a great benefactor of Chicago (He fought diligently to protect the lakefront from development) and a pioneer in retail marketing. Decades before Sears got into the act, Montgomery Ward established a huge mail order catalog business and later a chain of retail stores. Throughout the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, Ward’s and Sears competed for the mail order dollar and the middle class market. In the early 1930’s, when Ward’s was struggling through the Great Depression, Ward’s Board brought in a very conservative executive named Sewell Avery to run the business. Avery quickly reduced costs by closing marginal stores, reducing product lines, and installing more experienced managers. By the end of the 1930’s, Ward’s was profitable again. The problem was that Avery never changed his operating strategy. After World War II when rival Sears followed middle America to the suburbs, opening stores in new shopping centers and malls, Avery vowed that Ward’s would sit on its capital. He was convinced that another Depression was just around the corner, and that once it hit, Sears would go bankrupt and Ward’s would be able to buy up their suburban stores with his stockpile of money. That never happened. By 1955 when Avery was finally forced out as President, it was too late for Ward’s. They were too far behind all their rivals who had invested in new stores. The company struggled on for another 35 years as a very minor player in the retail market.
I cannot help but wish Atlantic City well. Maybe it will bounce back one more time.