ATLANTIC CITY - When gambling was being proposed for Atlantic City 38 years ago, most religious denominations opposed casinos. They viewed gambling as a vice that could destroy families and communities.
Now, many of the same churches are standing firmly by the casino workers, a number of whom fill their pews on Sundays, who are expected to lose their jobs in massive numbers, starting Labor Day weekend with the closure of the Showboat and Revel.
Many houses of worship are offering counseling for the affected workers, increased food pantry hours, or just someone to pray with.
"There are going to be a lot of people hurting," said John R. Schol, bishop of the United Methodist Church Greater New Jersey Conference, based in Ocean Township, which has 572 member churches. "No matter what industry, we want to be there to support them."
Last Wednesday, Schol and about a dozen clergy locked arms and led hundreds of casino workers along New Jersey Avenue between the Revel and Showboat, in a show of unity and hope, to a special prayer service at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
The churches, while still opposed to gambling, are in solidarity with the casino workers because of what they say is at stake: about 6,500 jobs, stability of communities, and future church membership.
"Presbyterians never supported gambling," said the Rev. John Scotland of the Community Presbyterian Church in Brigantine, who spoke at the prayer service. "But we support jobs to build a stronger community. Now it's unraveling."
"It's not the promise that was made in 1976 to keep our members housed, clothed, and fed," he said. The first casino, Resorts Atlantic City, opened May 26, 1978.
Three casino closures will affect about 800 people in Brigantine, Scotland said. In addition to Showboat and Revel, Trump Plaza plans to close Sept. 16.
About one-fifth of his 250-member congregation will lose their jobs, Scotland said. "We've already lost a lot of people" after the Atlantic Club closed in January, he said.
Scotland said Presbyterians view gambling "as poor stewardship of God's resources."
"We're not allowed to use it for fund-raising," he said. "It's frowned upon. But we're looking at this from an employment standpoint. What would it mean now to close" the casinos, Scotland said. "We looked at the desperate situation Atlantic City was in 38 years ago, and the churches came around and saw a greater good than the amount of evil" gambling would bring.
What is now the United Methodist Church has opposed gambling since its inception in the 1700s, Schol said.
"For the past several decades, I have protested the legalization of gambling," he said. "The United Methodist Church has been opposed to gambling because it lures the most vulnerable into quick fixes that do not materialize. Gambling creates addiction and dependencies for the most vulnerable."
That said, Schol added, United Methodists "are made up of a wide spectrum of people."
"We have members who oppose gambling, we have members who work in the gaming business, and we have members who gamble," he said. "Our concern for the people of Atlantic City and the region is because the significant layoffs will hurt families, the local community, and the stability of the area."
In a letter he distributed Friday to the pastors and leaders of all 572 congregations, Schol wrote: "The United Methodist Church is supporting the [casino] workers in their immediate needs during this transition and to help them find meaningful and sustainable work. We are also committed to working with city leaders to find a new vision and path for Atlantic City."
In the letter, Schol wrote that the Cape Atlantic District superintendent for the church, the Rev. Brian Roberts, had called together clergy and laity to organize an "Atlantic City Economy Team" made up of faith leaders, community groups, and elected officials to respond to the closures. He said the team would develop a long-term vision and provide a caring response for people's emergencies.
The Rev. David McGettigan of St. Andrew by the Sea Lutheran Church in Atlantic City and other clergy and agencies, including Catholic Charities, met Monday with leaders of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Egg Harbor Township. The Food Bank received a $250,000 grant last week from the national office of Unite Here Local 54, the union that represents most casino workers, to buy food for the displaced workers.
"We're brainstorming on ways we can help the workers for what could be an onslaught of demand," McGettigan said. "They need to be fed and be healthy."
McGettigan said he planned to expand pantry service at his church, from twice to three times a month, as soon as he gets enough volunteers. He gets supplies from the Community Food Bank.
McGettigan said Unite Here had asked clergy, including himself, and other local service agencies to be available for the workers for counseling and other needs.
"The spiritual and psychological impact of this is unimaginable," McGettigan said. "Until you have been unemployed, you cannot understand the interior effect it has."
He predicted the layoffs would "devastate whole communities" through loss of population and an increase in home foreclosures.
McGettigan did not live in the area when New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City in 1976, nor was he involved in the debate on whether to have casinos. The Lutheran pastor said his church would not condemn gambling, but rather caution against it.
"Casino gambling, while mostly innocent entertainment acceptable to most people, can be dangerous because it can lead one to chase after a pot of gold as if it's the panacea answer to all of our problems, be it our lack of jobs or employment.
"We bought into it too deeply," McGettigan said, "as if it was that pot of gold. Whether on the individual, municipal, or state level, it cannot solve all of our financial problems."
McGettigan said he saw gambling as just part of the resort city's future.
"For the last 35 years, it was very good to Atlantic City. It provided good-paying jobs with benefits. Then things started to decline, as does every human endeavor," McGettigan said. "But it lulled us into that and became almost a false god with a small g.
"As we now know, we can't put all of our eggs into one basket. Gambling is not our savior."
At last week's prayer service, the Rev. Eric McCoy, president of the Atlantic City Fellowship of Churches, a collaboration of about 30 churches, mostly Baptist, offered consolation for the workers:
"We're praying for God to open new doors to them," McCoy said. "We have hope that God is about to restore to them whatever his plan for them was. He had plans for us before casinos existed, and he'll have plans for us after they're gone."