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10/2/97 Miss. gambling challenges surveyed at 5th anniversary

GULFPORT, Miss. (BP)–At the fifth anniversary of legalized gambling in Mississippi, gamblers continue to flock to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, bringing their problems with them.
When they’ve hit rock bottom during those years, a helping hand has been available.
“We’re staying busy,” said John Landrum, a Gulf Coast pastor who resigned his church shortly after the first casino opened to begin a full-time ministry, Chaplain to the Mississippi Beach, with his wife, Linda.
“The (local) economy is booming. You can’t get around that,” Landrum said, “but the human needs that go along with legalized gambling are also rising.
“There are a lot of marital problems, among both casino patrons and casino employees. We know the stress that gambling can place on a patron’s marriage, but we don’t often consider the stress on a casino employee’s marriage.
“Their personal problems are heightened because of the pressure under which they work,” Landrum recounted. “You wouldn’t believe all the government and casino regulations they must follow to the letter, and every move they make is videotaped by the casino security system.”
It’s not at all unusual for his ministry to be working with a number of Southern Baptist problem gamblers at any one time, Landrum added.
“Most of our pastors and churches on the coast had not dealt directly with gambling before it was legalized in 1992 — maybe just a case or two when someone got in trouble during a ‘junket flight’ to Las Vegas. Now, many of our churches have felt the direct, personal impact of gambling,” Landrum said.
Landrum’s advice to communities considering legalized gambling is simple: “Do everything you can to keep it out. If it’s there, do everything you can to minister to people affected by it.
“Everywhere there is a casino, there should be someone who sees the situation as a ministry,” Landrum said. “The hard part is ‘changing hats’ from condemning gamblers to being able to minister effectively to people and families in trouble because of it.
“I liken it to other ministry opportunities that have been put before us as Christians. You can have a ministry to homosexuals without agreeing with the lifestyle; the focus of any ministry should be to bring lost people to salvation through Jesus Christ,” Landrum stressed.
As Keith Fulton ponders the fifth anniversary of legalized gambling in Mississippi, meanwhile, he is frustrated over a call he sensed from God but could not fulfill.
Fulton is pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, just across the line from Neshoba County, home of the Choctaw Indian reservation and Silver Star Casino. Fulton lived in Neshoba County all his life, except for now and eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Two years ago, when local Baptists found out the casino was coming, Fulton felt the Lord was directing him to start a ministry to the casino. He resigned from the church where he was pastor, North Calvary Baptist in Philadelphia, Miss., and founded Barnabas Ministries. “I tried this for a year, but there wasn’t the climate to begin a work yet,” Fulton said. A year later, the door opened for him to pastor at Mount Carmel.
“This was a real frustrating experience,” Fulton said. “We are not addressing problems here. Pastors were generally supportive, but congregations were not. Many pastors see the problems but don’t know how to confront them.”
Fulton’s one-year experiment brought to light several obstacles. Christians are divided as to how to face the casino, he observed.
“There are those who see it (the casino) as absolutely wrong and want to punish the employee or anyone who goes out there,” he said.
Others see it as just harmless entertainment. Then there are many others who can’t decide if this is a moral issue or an entertainment issue, he said.
All of these attitudes toward the casino are formed against the backdrop of a general prejudice against the Choctaw tribe, and to many lifelong Neshoba Countians that is the single biggest obstacle, Fulton contended.
Silver Star Casino, unlike casinos on the coast and along the Mississippi River, is owned and operated by the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indian Tribe. “The state has no jurisdiction over Silver Star,” Fulton pointed out.
Fulton wanted to start a two-pronged ministry. First was a chaplaincy-type ministry to the employees of the casino.
“Many of the employees have family problems,” he said. Because of the large amounts of money involved, the stress on the employees can be tremendous.
“The turnover rate is high. I don’t want to stereotype anyone, but by and large there is a high alcohol problem and a high divorce rate,” he said.
Second, Fulton wanted to start a recovery-type ministry to problem gamblers and their families. “Problem gamblers don’t realize they have a problem until they need help,” he said.
“There is nothing to help the family of a gambler,” he noted. “Most of the calls I got were from spouses or children of a gambler.
“A little girl called once and said, ‘My father is gambling away everything we’ve got.’ A wife called and said, ‘I’m leaving him. We’ve lost everything.’
“A woman I talked to said she would leave the greeting card factory on the reservation on Fridays and instead of turning left and depositing her check in the bank, she would turn right and go straight to the casino. They have ATM machines or will cash your check for you right on the premises.
“Another lady told me she got in the mail a pre-approved Visa with a $1,500 credit limit. She went straight to the casino. After an hour and a half, she walked away with nothing but a $1,500 credit card debt.
“These stories could be repeated thousands of times. All you ever hear about are the winners. Nobody ever hears about the heartbreak,” Fulton said.
“This is a moral issue, not an economic or entertainment issue. While we want to confront the sin, we need to act redemptively toward the sinner.
“Just because a person works in a casino doesn’t mean they have committed an unpardonable sin. We don’t want to condone it, but rather confront the person with Jesus Christ.
“There is too much cultural Christianity in the churches of Mississippi. Every time the moral aspect of an issue and the economic aspect come head-to-head, the economic side wins. We lack understanding.
“What I am trying to do now is keep the issue alive,” Fulton said. “I have pulled back and I’m waiting for the opportunity to minister, for new doors to open.”

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  • William H. Perkins Jr. & Carl M. White