Pastors: Lottery exploits the poor

They fear it gives people false hope

Staff WriterApril 1, 2006 

For years, the Rev. Patrick Wooden has preached hard work, discipline and budgeting. Now the state of North Carolina is interfering with his message.

Wooden, the pastor of Upper Room Church of God in Christ, said he worries the state-sanctioned lottery will convey the message that there is a quick fix and a fast buck to be made playing games.

"The people standing in line to buy a lottery ticket aren't the wealthy," Wooden said. "They are the exploited."

Wooden's church in Southeast Raleigh lies in the heart of one of the state's heaviest concentrations of lottery ticket vendors. For Wooden, that means he will be preaching about the evils of the lottery for a long time to come.

Others are equally worried.

The Rev. George Reed, executive director of the N.C. Council of Churches, which strongly opposed the lottery, said he will step back and watch what impact the games have on the poor and on those addicted to gambling.

"There's not much else to be done or said," Reed said.

A large cross-section of religious congregations, from theologically liberal to staunch conservative, opposed the lottery and lobbied lawmakers to defeat it.

"The state has now become a partner with the gaming industry -- all for the ungodly purpose of fleecing the citizens of this good state," said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League and a lobbyist at the state legislature. "This is a reprehensible moral evil."

Gambling and drinking were once twin vices equally maligned by frontier Baptist and Methodist churches because they were done in tandem. In the 1820s and '30s, there was a popular practice called "shooting for liquor" in which people waged shooting contests and played other games of chance for an ounce of whiskey or gin. Gambling halls in those days were rife with drunkenness, crime and prostitution.

With the state earmarking the profits from the sale of lottery tickets toward educational projects, gambling has acquired a cleaner image. But resistance on religious grounds persists.

"Is it sinful to buy a lottery ticket?" asked the Rev. Kelvin Redmond, pastor of Body of Christ Church in Raleigh. "No. Where sin comes is in poor stewardship where the odds are stacked against you."

Most clergy today oppose the lottery not for the traditional reasons -- that it's a moral menace -- but because they think lotteries prey on the poor and exploit the vulnerable.

"People think it's their way out of trouble," said the Rev. Dumas Harshaw, pastor of First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh. "It's problematic to give people false hope."

In some neighborhoods, especially in Southeast Raleigh, pastors said there was a shade of racism involved in the lottery startup.

"The lottery is tantamount to an advertisement for malt liquor on my side of town that you never see in other parts of town," said Wooden of the Upper Room. "I just hope that, this time, African-Americans do not participate in the plan."

Staff writer Yonat Shimron can be reached at 829-4891 or yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com.

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