NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When Frank Lewis warns about the negative effects of gambling on a community, its churches and its people, he speaks from experience.
Lewis served as pastor of Green Valley Baptist Church in Las Vegas from 1986 to 1995.
Now pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Lewis acknowledges that the state-operated lottery on the Nov. 5 ballot in Tennessee is different from the casino gambling that dominates Las Vegas. However, he believes the fallout — people who lose everything trying to become big winners at the expense of others — will be the same.
“Churches are the ones who are going to have to pick up the fallout,” Lewis said.
Before graduating from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1985, Lewis and his wife, Lori, believed God was calling them to serve in a pioneer area for Southern Baptists. They saw Las Vegas and Green Valley Baptist Church, a fledgling mission of 16 members, as the fulfillment of their call.
During their 10 years in Las Vegas, Green Valley grew to 1,000 members, facing the challenges and opportunities of a growing congregation.
But the church also dealt with issues unique to a gambling environment. They ministered to compulsive gamblers and their families whose lives were being destroyed by addiction. They struggled with appropriate ways to provide help to those with needs and a commitment to change.
They led people to Christ employed in the casinos and then had to confront the issue of whether they should continue to work there. And they brought the light of Christ to a community being poisoned by the effects of gambling and its accompanying increases in prostitution, petty theft and misdemeanor and injury crimes.
Emphasizing that Green Valley dealt with story after story illustrating the negative effects of gambling, Lewis cited three.
A recovering compulsive gambler and member of another church in Las Vegas has started Gamblers Victorious, a recovery group based on Christian principles. He came to Green Valley to help the church start the organization’s second chapter.
“His take on gambling was that he knew the sports world well enough to pick the right teams in order to feed his gambling habit at the blackjack tables,” Lewis said. “He was making money on sports gambling but losing his shirt at the blackjack tables.”
Finally realizing he had a serious problem, the man tried several approaches to quit and then started Gamblers Victorious, believing that biblically based spiritual guidance was the key.
When Green Valley advertised the first meeting of its Gamblers Victorious group, a casino cocktail waitress named P.J. came. She had recently come home from work to find her husband, a compulsive gambler, at home with a stranger. “He was literally assessing all of her furniture and family jewelry that had been passed down to her,” Lewis said. “The only way [her husband] was going to be able to pay his debts was to sell everything she had.” A bitter divorce followed.
A couple moved to Nevada to retire because of the climate, cheap housing and food.
“The man came home one day to an empty house. His wife had a cardboard box with paper plates on it,” Lewis said. “She confessed that she had a gambling debt and had to sell their furniture and belongings.”
The husband, who had no idea his wife had a gambling problem, responded that she wouldn’t have had to empty the house because they had savings to cover the debt. The woman then had to acknowledge that she has also lost their savings at the casinos.
“So here was a couple in their 70s and their entire life savings was gone to pay her debt,” Lewis said.
To meet the burgeoning needs of individuals and families reeling from the ravages of gambling, more than 100 Las Vegas churches joined forces to establish Love in the Name of Christ, or Love, Inc. It served as a screening agency to determine who genuinely needed help. They also mobilized groups of churches to meet multiple needs a family might have, such as housing, food, transportation, counseling and parenting help. Accountability guidelines were built into the help.
“It was a beautiful thing to see the body of Christ function. It was a good way for us to organize ourselves for ministry,” Lewis said.
While he saw churches and Christians mobilize to minister in Christ’s name in the gambling environment of Las Vegas, he hopes that Tennessee will not approve a lottery that could lead to some of the same problems.
“For me it gets back to the fact that the people who can least afford it are going to get hurt by it,” Lewis said.
Overall, Lewis believes a lottery would do irreparable harm to the state.
“Tennessee has a moral climate. People think of Tennessee as a healthy place to raise a family. I think the lottery poses a serious threat to the environment we cherish as Tennesseans,” he said.
Lewis emphasized that churches can make a difference in the outcome of the lottery vote. He urged pastors to use every possible way to communicate.
Also, he said, churches need to look at the benefits touted by those favoring a lottery and be prepared to counteract their arguments. They should study what has happened in other states when a lottery was the first form of legalized gambling. “This is a foot in the door,” Lewis emphasized.
“We cannot be silent about this,” he reiterated.
“There should not be a single member of a Christian church who fails to vote on this issue. In their vote, they should take very seriously the call of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
“How can you be in favor of a state lottery as a Christian, knowing that you are violating scriptural mandates, is unfathomable,” Lewis said.