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LAS VEGAS — I hit the jackpot on a recent Sunday.
No, I didn’t win big money at the slot machines or blackjack tables. Since I don’t gamble, that would be impossible.
But I did strike it rich in terms of how to spend the Lord’s Day in Sin City: I enjoyed time in worship and communion with fellow Christians.
“Wow, that’s a big building,” Larry Sullivan, my brother in Christ, said when he arrived at the 30-floor Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
Sullivan was driving a North Las Vegas Church of Christ van full of mostly older ladies from the church. They’d added an extra stop to their normal route to pick up this out-of-town visitor from The Christian Chronicle.
I had traveled to the Entertainment Capital of the World for the Religion News Association’s 70th annual meeting at the Westgate. Singer-songwriter Barry Manilow was performing there each night. Sadly, I was busy and missed seeing him.
Journalists who cover faith news for secular and religious media gathered just down the hall from the Vegas Dance Explosion, a convention of line dancers. Fortunately, I only briefly confused the two events and avoided any major embarrassment.
One of the thought-provoking sessions at the religion writers’ meeting was a panel discussion on “Saving Souls in Sin City: The Secret Life of Ministry in the Party City.”
The speakers were J.B. Myers, elder and minister for the Bright Angel Church of Christ; Imam Fateen Seifullah, a former Baptist who converted to Islam in 1988; Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of a Jewish congregation; and Annie Lobert, a sex-trafficking survivor who serves as president of the evangelical Christian ministry Hookers for Jesus.
“Please don’t take our name wrong,” Lobert said. “It’s basically based on Matthew 4:19: ‘I will teach you how to fish for people.’”
I appreciated Myers, whom I met on a previous reporting trip to Vegas, accepting the invitation to address the group. In his introductory remarks, he told the writers that “the reputation of Las Vegas far exceeds the reality.”
“The only thing I’ve noticed is that we do have a lot of gambling here,” the Bright Angel preacher said. “The gambling industry is very large and important to the community. It provides a lot of jobs.”
“I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where it says risking an amount of money in a game of chance is a sin.”
Gaming had a $67.6 billion economic impact on the state last year, according to the Nevada Resort Association. Leisure and hospitality positions account for more than one in every four jobs statewide.
“People who want to come and spend their money — they’re welcome to come and support the economy,” Myers said.
He likened a $3,000 gambling weekend in Vegas to someone buying a fancy bass boat in Texas or going on an expensive hunting trip in Colorado.
“I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where it says risking an amount of money in a game of chance is a sin,” he added.
He argued that wagering is only a problem if it leads to destructive behavior such as an inability to pay one’s bills.
And that does become an issue for some, noted Myers, who works to help Christians overcome gambling addictions.
With a population of 3 million, Nevada has only 28 Churches of Christ — with a total of about 2,600 men, women and children in the pews each Sunday, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
The North Las Vegas church building is about nine miles north of the famous stretch of hotels, casinos and resort properties known as “The Strip.” The predominantly black congregation averages Sunday attendance of about 200.
I first visited that congregation when it hosted the West Coast Preachers and Leaders Forum in 2011. The forum, started in San Francisco in 1964, rotates to a different city each year. It will return to the North Las Vegas church Jan. 26-30, 2020.
Many in the church work in the gaming industry.
Still, North Las Vegas minister Leo G. Gay — unlike Myers — preaches that gambling is a sin.
But as Gay sees it, that doesn’t preclude a person from earning an honest living in a casino. He compares such employment to a grocery store clerk who rings up alcoholic beverages but doesn’t drink.
“I definitely do not believe in gambling,” said Wanda Williams, a longtime North Las Vegas member and casino worker who greeted me between Bible class and worship. “The Bible says we are to work for our money, not gamble for it.”
After a service that featured jubilant hymns such as “Get Right, Church” and “Salvation Has Been Brought Down,” I joined Gay and a few other Christians for lunch at a nearby steakhouse.
Sitting directly across from me was Alberta Moreland, who has dealt cards at a casino for four decades.
“How much money have you won in 40 years?” Gay asked her with a wink.
“None,” she replied, smiling. “I’m a dealer, but I don’t gamble.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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