Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Testing luck

Church bingo not like slots

        ERLANGER — It's bingo night at St. Henry District High School. Beneath a wall-mounted crucifix, the faithful pick up their daubers.

        “G-51,” a voice intones.

        People listen. They daub ink on their cards. The aura of bingo settles on the room, cigarette smoke mingling with contented murmurs.

        Betty Fuller, 60, comes every Monday. She and her sister-in-law, Margie Shouse, make no apologies: They love bingo and don't feel a bit guilty.

        “Some people say, "You mean, you're going to gamble in the Lord's house?'” says Mrs. Fuller, who attends a Pentecostal church.

        “And I say, "No, I'm in an auditorium.'”

Fund-raising staple

        If only the Catholics had it so easy.

        Bingo every week and casino-style games at summer festivals are a staple of church fund-raising. But the tradition doesn't sit well with some leaders.

        Bishop Robert Muench of the Covington Diocese once asked churches to give up gaming at festivals. Some did. Others tried but couldn't take the fiscal blow.

        Now the church faces a dilemma: How to oppose state-sponsored gambling while tolerating its own habit.

        Kentucky bishops are against legislation that would allow electronic slot machines at racetracks. Proceeds from these machines would go to support government programs.

        This isn't responsible, says Jane Chiles of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. It's not a religious or moral issue, she says, but one of priorities.

        She's right. Funding critical programs such as public education on the whims of gamblers isn't acceptable. If these programs are worth having, they're worth supporting with tax revenue.

        Some legislators are talking hypocrisy. But if they think Catholic fund-raisers are akin to the slot-machine racket, they haven't been to a church bingo lately.

Not Las Vegas

        On Monday night, I checked out St. Henry's game, which raised $192,596 in 2000.

        More than 100 players packed the gym. It felt pleasantly amateurish. There were no laptop computers for players, and the volunteers looked like parents, not Las Vegas smoothies.

        Regulars included Jan Baer of Erlanger, who plays bingo at least three times a week.

        “My dad enjoyed movies and my mom enjoyed bingo,” says Mrs. Baer, 67. “He would drop her off to the bingo and then go see his cowboy movies.”

        Her own husband died in November. Bingo has been a great comfort, she says. Tears glisten in her eyes.

        Across the room are Mrs. Fuller and Mrs. Shouse, who consider bingo the key to sanity.

        “I can be real upset about something, and I can come here and play bingo, and it's just like nothing else exists,” says Mrs. Shouse, 61. “It's so relaxing.”

        The women say they bring no more than $35 to each game, to avoid spending too much.

        They like it when charities explain where their money goes. They know, for instance, that playing bingo at the Florence Lions Club helps poor people get eyeglasses.

        “You feel like you're a part of everything,” Mrs. Shouse says.

        Would we feel more a part of Kentucky if the racetracks had slots? I doubt it. The maw of state government isn't the same as the budget of St. Henry High School.

        We already have taxes and state lotteries. That ought to be enough.


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