Just saying no to lottery cash

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 07, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Last week, Rosa A. Coles, 72, hit the Maryland Lottery big time.

Coles, a mother, a grandmother, a retired hospital worker, won $8.2 million, guaranteeing her some $300,000 a year after taxes for the next 20 years.

And so, last week, in the euphoria of the moment, a reporter asked Coles what she planned to do with her newly acquired riches.

Buy a home, she said.

Buy new cars for my children, she said.

Make a contribution to my church, she said.

None of this is surprising, not even her plan to make an offering to her church.

The chances against winning the lottery are 7 million to 1, but sooner or later, some individual wins. And when that person beats the odds, state officials claim, he or she vows to make a contribution to the church.

But when Coles' pastor heard about her offer, he said thanks, but no thanks.

"Even though the government says it's OK, I feel it's morally and spiritually wrong," said the Rev. Clifford M. Johnson, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on East Preston Street.

"I believe the church at large should not be involved in that kind of thing -- any church. I think," continued Johnson, "that the time has come when we need to make a stand."

This isn't that surprising, either. For the record, many clergymen probably would agree with Johnson.

But what is surprising is that so many people apparently had trouble even comprehending the clergyman's position.

What! they exclaimed. Turn down money! Who is this fool?

It is as if the clergyman and the public were speaking two different languages: the language of money, the mother tongue of the modern age, and the language of morality, which must hail from some distant and long lost past.

If ever we were presented with a clear-cut reason for abolishing the state lottery immediately, this is it: The games have left us so morally bankrupt that we cannot even recognize a position of principle when we see it.

This is what happens when the state makes compromises with its conscience. Thank God for the church!

"I know most Baptist churches would probably concur with Reverend Johnson," said the Rev. Walter S. Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church.

"The lottery definitely is morally and spiritually wrong. It draws its money from the poor folk of our society and it sends it back to the richest of folk.

"Some things," continued Thomas, "just aren't consistent with church practices. The state tells the weakest and most vulnerable among us to play this game and get rich. Then it decries the fact that our children can't read, that our children and adults are involved in drugs, crime, and murder. What are these but get-rich-quick schemes, people looking for a free ride? You cannot preach one thing and practice another."

State officials no longer even bother to deny that they prey upon the poor.

In fact, it was only a year ago that a lottery official told a legislative committee that the poor will always play the lottery whether the state is involved or not.

"They know from day one that the only way out of the ghetto is to win the numbers game," said Joseph B. Jason, then acting deputy director of marketing for the State Lottery Agency.

"But," he added cheerfully, "if they don't win they're still winners because they get benefits from the state's general fund."

Also last year, a lottery spokesman acknowledged that the jTC state's only regret is that it has not found a sure-fire way to entice more middle-class people to play. An outraged legislature demanded that lottery officials find a solution, immediately.

"The lottery is here to stay," conceded the Rev. Marion C. Bascom of Douglas Memorial Community Church.

"The fact is, most people play," Bascom said. "The lottery exists in almost every state in the nation. It is an example of our misplaced priorities. I'm not going to fight or deny the fact of its existence. But I hate it."

So, these are our days and times: State officials urge us to look to the bottom line with regard to the lottery. It is making money. Nothing else matters.

Clergymen such as Johnson urge us to consider the larger, broader, deeper, more spiritual questions related to our games.

Maybe such an attitude is hopelessly out of date in our take-the-money-and-run society. Maybe we all should take the money and run, always and in all ways.

But I say, thank God for the church!

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