Methodist Bishop does about-face on West Side casino

on Friday, 18 April 2014.

Appropriate to embrace the tangible role the Hollywood Casino is playing

A United Methodist bishop who opposed Hollywood Casino Columbus is now embracing it as a community partner that contributes jobs, volunteers and funding for much-needed programs on the Hilltop.

Retired Bishop C. Joseph Sprague shared a position paper on the topic with attendees at a recent fundraiser for the nonprofit Greater Hilltop Shalom Zone. The fundraiser was at the casino’s event center.

Sprague, who helped found the Shalom Zone in 2011, said the casino is making lives better and “ enhancing creative change in a tattered community.”

“When the city of Columbus and other influential corporations have failed or been very slow to invest significantly in the West Side for far too long, it is appropriate to embrace the tangible role the Hollywood Casino is playing and inappropriate for religious persons and organizations to throw intangible stones at those making a positive difference,” Sprague wrote.

The Zone is a partnership of faith-based groups, businesses, government and other agencies that works to improve life on the Hilltop. It’s part of an international network of Shalom Zones inspired by the United Methodist Church.

Faith-based groups, including Methodists, were leading voices in the campaign against the Columbus casino and three others that Ohio voters approved in 2009. The Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church calls gambling a “menace to society” and says the church should promote standards and lifestyles that make gambling an unnecessary revenue source for charities.

Ameet Patel, the casino’s vice president and former general manager, praised Sprague and the leadership of the Zone for accepting “at face value” the casino’s commitment to support the organization.

“We respect Bishop Sprague’s position against gambling, but we equally respect his community commitment that allows him to put that issue aside so that we can work together for the benefit of West Siders,” Patel said.

The casino has provided money that has helped stabilize the Zone and has hired people who had been unemployed for years, said the Rev. Julia Nielsen, a Methodist clergywoman who serves as the group’s executive director.

The venue and food for last weekend’s fundraiser were provided free of charge, and many casino employees volunteer to help feed the hungry each month, all without asking for compensation or recognition, she said. “If we’ve asked for resources, they tend to be willing to give them.”

Although rare, church-casino affiliation is not unprecedented in a difficult economy.

In February, the pastor of a Baptist church in the Baltimore area joined with casino developers to hold a job fair at his church. The Rev. Alvin Hathaway told  The Baltimore Sun that the average annual income for a local family of four was $13,000 and that churches are responsible for helping community members find jobs.

Sprague said he experienced an ethical conundrum as he began to support the casino’s efforts.

But he became increasingly convinced “that it is easy for me and others to oppose a job-creating gaming establishment from a privileged position of full retirement benefits or a middle-class salary structure,” he wrote.

“But what of the many families on the Hilltop struggling to survive without jobs that pay a living wage?”

By The Columbus Dispatch