Bishop Confronts Casinos
  • Thursday, January 23, 2014

By J. Scott Jackson

Bishop Douglas Fisher did not seek his role as an anti-casino spokesman, but that has not made the Bishop of Western Massachusetts timid in challenging gaming interests that want to build casinos in his hometown of Springfield. One such proposal, under review by the state gaming commission, would license MGM Resorts International to build an $800 million resort casino in the heart of downtown Springfield, about six blocks from Christ Church Cathedral and the diocesan offices. “We like to think we choose mission. We pray and then decide to act for a certain cause or group of people,” Fisher said via email. “But I think mission chooses us. It sucks us in.”

Fisher was ordained and consecrated as bishop in the fall of 2012. By the following summer, he and others from the diocese had joined ecumenical partners and other volunteers in the fight to defeat the MGM proposal in a city referendum. The proposal, strongly backed by Mayor Dominic Sarno and the city council, was approved by 58 percent of voters in the July plebiscite. Casino supporters hope the development will revitalize the economy and infrastructure of the struggling city of 150,000 that borders the Connecticut River.

Fisher entered the fray — speaking at an anti-casino rally at the cathedral, giving press interviews, and writing blog posts — bolstered by an anti-gaming resolution that had passed unanimously at diocesan convention. After losing the vote in Springfield, anti-gambling activists turned their focus toward a state ballot initiative to keep casinos and slot parlors out of Massachusetts completely. Though the attorney general has challenged the legality of the repeal proposal, activists gathered the necessary 69,000 signatures for the ballot initiative and await a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on whether the repeal vote can proceed.

Fisher gave his blessing for Steven Abdow, diocesan treasurer and administrator for missions resources, to dedicate time to the statewide repeal campaign. On the political front, gaming opponents have been heartened by crucial public votes that defeated other proposed casino developments in Western Massachusetts, in the Worcester metro area, and, to the surprise of many observers, in East Boston.

Fisher told TLC that feedback about his anti-gaming work has been mostly supportive across the diocese, and some of his colleagues in the House of Bishops have thanked him for raising the profile of the gaming issue.

“Some have told me I am being divisive and should focus on inviting people to the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit in their lives,” Fisher said. “I feel badly for those rectors that have received negative reactions from parishioners for what I have said. But social justice is constitutive of the gospel, as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters declared in Vatican II.”

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Fisher said he refrains from issuing dogmatic pronouncements about what God demands but instead immerses himself in details of an issue. Most of his statements on gaming reiterate a central message: “Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. Casinos are bad news for the poor. We follow Jesus.”

Since the 1990s, 23 states have welcomed casino gaming in a bid for economic renewal. The Council on Casinos, an independent consortium of 50 academic and civic leaders, has gathered research from health and social sciences that paints a grim picture (see is.gd/WhyCasinosMatter). In contrast with the days when people of means would travel to Las Vegas or Atlantic City for recreational gaming, customers are likely to be local and gamble frequently. The newer facilities use high-tech slot machines designed to drive customers to “play to extinction.” Nearly half of revenues come from problem gamblers. Casino workers are poorly paid and often in cash, making gambling their earnings all the easier. Meanwhile, casinos tend to divert revenue from other local businesses, sucking communities dry. Yet state and local governments court gaming companies that promise solutions to dwindling tax revenues. Some governments must bail out failing facilities.

The Rev. Peter Swarr, rector of St. Mark’s Church in East Longmeadow, a suburb of Springfield, recalls one evening years ago in Portland, Maine, when his roommate came home and announced he was quitting his job at Scarborough Downs racetrack because he could no longer stand to take money from customers gambling away their Social Security checks. Swarr also recalls one New Year’s Eve, while he was serving as a priest’s associate in suburban Detroit, when he joined several friends downtown for dinner, only to find a once bustling Greek neighborhood virtually deserted. A nearby casino, however, was packed. When the issue came up in western Massachusetts, Swarr was ready to act and helped draft the diocese’s anti-casino resolution.

Fisher and Abdow worked with the Rev. Christopher Carlisle, retired chaplain and missioner for higher education in Western Massachusetts, to write an essay, “Theology and Casino Gambling” (see is.gd/LWwqi6). “It should be startling to Christians that the darkest moment of all time should begin with an act of gambling,” they wrote. “Roman soldiers — responsible for [Jesus’] death — are described by the gospel writers as gambling for the paltry possessions of a man who literally gave his life for the poor.”

Lani Bortfeld, who has lived in Springfield for 28 years, felt called to pray against the casino. She was discouraged, initially, at the lack of a concrete and decisive response in the ecumenical community. “It was eerie how few voices were raised against the casino; I felt like a conspiracy of silence enveloped the community,” she said. Although casino proponents won the plebiscite, she takes heart that a prayerful response did coalesce eventually, in the form of a rally one week before the vote.

The blight of casino gaming, Bishop Fisher has said, is not merely a local issue. “If you are in a state considering casinos, the mission is choosing you,” he said. “Don’t let another neighborhood get trashed. Don’t stand by while the poor are driven further into poverty by an illusion. Don’t promote addictions that destroy lives.”

J. Scott Jackson is a writer and independent scholar who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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