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Group studying gambling, American Indian sovereignty

Bishop Deborah Kiesey, playing the role of a single mother, gestures for one more play on a slot machine portrayed by John Hill, staff member of United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Four gambling scenarios were acted out by members of a study group on gambling at the social justice agency's board meeting Sept. 13-16 in Washington. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Sept. 24, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

Playing a college student, the Rev. Matthew Smith feeds his book money into the slot machine.

A single mother of three stops off at a casino on her way to the grocery store hoping to win some extra cash to buy food and get her family through the week.

A retired couple fresh from the bank with their monthly Social Security check stop off at the Lucky Lady casino for a little fun, full of dreams of supplementing their income.

A widow gets her husband's insurance check and is feeling so lonely she thinks some time at the casino might bring her some luck and companionship.

A college student takes the money earmarked for his books and feeds it into the slot machine because he is sure he will at least double his winnings.

Within minutes, their money is gone. They are left with a sense of panic. How will I pay my bills? How will I feed my children? How will I make this month's rent?

Those four scenarios were played out by members of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society's special study group on gambling to depict the typical people who go to casinos with dreams of bringing home big bucks. The board meeting was held Sept. 13-16.

The special study group is sending revisions to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference on the paragraphs in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the church's law book, that deals with the subject.

Phillis McCarty, a member of the Kiowa tribe, speaks on the conflict between gambling dangers and economic benefits for Native American tribes.

The United Methodist Church addresses gambling in its Social Principles, paragraph 163G: "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government."

However, the flip side to the gambling issue is the church's support of American Indian tribal sovereignty and self-determination which often means tribes are depending on gambling for most if not all of its income.

Creating sacred space

"The church's role is to create sacred space to allow for dialogue and education that will promote a wholistic understanding of the American Indians' historic quest for survival," reads a revision to Social Principle 163G written by the special study group.

"I agree with the church, gambling is not good for anyone," said Phillis McCarty, a member of the board and Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma City. "There is a lot of conflict in my life. All three of my children are employed by native tribes. My youngest is a maintenance worker with a casino because they offered him employment."

McCarty said casinos have given tribes housing programs, clinics and jobs they would not have had 50 years ago. "For every tribe in Oklahoma the ladder out of the hole has been the casino."

According to the Rev. Deborah O'Conner-Slater, superintendent in North Central New York, Turning Stone Casino has come into her area and is a billion-dollar business. "Oneida (the kitchenware company) recently closed and people turned to the casino to provide places to work," she explained. "Those people don't have an issue with gambling."

The Rev. Deborah O'Conner-Slater talks about the impact casinos have had in
the North Central New York
Annual Conference.

O'Conner-Slater acknowledged gambling is a multi-layered issue with no easy answers.

The special group studying the issue will continue through the end of the quadrennium, said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, board staff member assigned to alcohol, other drugs and health care. The group is working to provide educational materials to local churches and annual conferences for study and action to combat gambling and to aid individuals addicted to gambling.

One of the guiding principles adopted by the group states: "We need to demythologize and move from fiction to fact in our understanding of American Indians and Indian Country."

"Gambling and tribal government has become a way of life," McCarty said. "Without gambling we would be back in the hole we were in 50 years ago. Economic development is the only way to solve this problem."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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