North Dakota is composed of almost 80,000 square miles of primarily prairie, well-suited for wheat fields, cattle grazing and rural living.
But the blessing of wide-open spaces becomes a curse for area residents suffering from gambling addiction.
"A lot of communities in our state don't have great access to treatment," said Dawn Cronin, a nationally certified gambling counselor based in Fargo, North Dakota. "It's closer for people to drive to a casino."
However, sociological research has shown and some therapists, including Cronin, agree that support for problem gamblers may be as close as the church down the street. Problem gamblers can find strength to overcome a gambling habit in the fellowship of local congregations, as long as worshipping communities can put aside harmful stereotypes in favor of openness and understanding.
"If one can surround oneself with other people who have other ideals and with positive reinforcement and social support for life changes, then that transition is likely to be more effective," said Christopher Ellison, a distinguished professor of social science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
In 2011, Ellison co-authored "Religion and Gambling Among U.S. Adults: Exploring the Role of Traditions, Beliefs, Practices and Networks" (subscription required). Although not focused on gambling addicts, the study addressed how church attendance and the presence of fellow churchgoers in one's friend group influences gambling behavior.
The study's findings indicated that "social relationships within congregations, which involve face-to-face interaction, may have substantial influence on individual behaviors such as gambling." In other words, frequency of gambling decreases as friendships with fellow churchgoers increase.
Ellison explained he expected that result, given his field of study. "As sociologists, one of the things we talk about is the importance of social networks, the importance of the kinds of people with whom one associates," he said.
Addiction counselors draw similar conclusions. Bob Vickrey, the rehabilitation manager at the Salvation Army's Las Vegas Adult Rehabilitation Center, said that part of the process that the ARC's beneficiaries must go through is to build a network of support.
"When we're requiring people to go to five meetings (such as Gamblers Anonymous) a week, what we're doing is sending that individual out and forcing them to engage with a sober, presumably healthy population that they will take with them when they leave," he said.
Beneficiaries are also required to attend two chapel services hosted by ARC each week, as well as four outside church services during their time with the program.
Encouraged to seek out friends who will support their lifestyle changes, recovering gambling addicts may naturally look to local congregations. Twelve-step programs like Gamblers Anonymous build upon belief in a higher power. Participants are asked in step three to turn their will and life over to this power, and, for many people, this acknowledgment of God or a God-like power triggers a renewed desire to attend church.
In search of fellowship
But counselors note that the men and women in treatment programs can be reluctant to rejoin a faith community they feel has alienated them in the past because of their gambling problems.
Dawn Cronin often helps people find their way back into worshipping communities, working with them to address their initial anxiety.
"I do see some hesitation," she said. "I don't know what exactly it is — this fearfulness."
Cronin works for Gamblers Choice, one of 18 programs offered through Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. She facilitates biweekly meetings for recovering gambling addicts.
The Gamblers Choice program includes an assignment that asks people to consider how gambling impacted their church attendance.
"Every once in a while, I think that people (in the program) have had an experience at their own church or with their pastor where they didn't feel quite as accepted because of their addiction," she noted. Reorienting oneself to faith and to organized religion is part of the recovery process.
Although each person's journey is different, Cronin said that one constant theme is the necessity of strong community. Many problem gamblers find this connection through Gamblers Anonymous meetings, even as their faith in a higher power grows.
"(Gamblers Anonymous) can become a substitute for church involvement," Cronin said. "We'll oftentimes hear people say that they don't need to go to church to have faith or believe in God."
Cronin agreed that people don't need to enter a sanctuary to worship God. But "What you don't get when you watch (a church service) in your home on Sunday morning or listen to on the radio is the fellowship."
'Perfect place for imperfect people'
For Gamblers Choice participants who live in Fargo, Cronin has another option for re-entering the world of organized religion: Recovery Worship.
Pastor John Roberts has led Recovery Worship since February. A ministry of the First United Methodist Church of Fargo, the community is for people of all kinds who have been affected by addiction.
Roberts has both a pastoral and personal connection to the congregation. An ordained United Methodist clergyperson, he is also a recovering addict.
"I just love being here. I get them and they get me," he said.
Recovery worship centers on sharing. Men and women are invited to share milestones, like anniversaries or the months that they've been sober. The microphone is also passed to people with more difficult messages to share during an open response time after scripture is read.
Then, it is Roberts' turn to speak — often an extemporaneous sermon that is tailored to the reflections shared each week.
"Each Sunday before worship I say, 'OK, God. Let's see what you can do this morning,'" he said.
The slogan for Recovery Worship is "the perfect place for imperfect people." "In this congregation, there is no pretending that life is good, and there's no embarrassment in the fact that your life has been messed up," Roberts explained.
About half of the people at Recovery Worship on any given Sunday are regulars. The other half is a more transient group, composed of people who are in town to receive treatment or just visit.
Although Roberts doesn't formally keep track of what happens to worshippers who return from Fargo to their home communities, he said many have churches waiting to receive them.
A safe environment
According to a 2014 study commissioned by the American Gaming Association, "Casino visitors are a portrait of America." Nearly half of the gamblers surveyed were college graduates and two in three regularly attended church services.
AGA's message was that the population of people found in casinos parallels the variety of men and women who gather at other, less polarized entertainment venues.
Problem gamblers form a similarly diverse group, and people in treatment programs can be young or old, atheist or ordained pastors. "Anyone who gambles can develop problems if they are not aware of the risks and do not gamble responsibly," the National Council on Problem Gambling's website explains.
Gambling addicts can't be typecast, which further complicates the efforts congregations must undertake to provide a place of healing.
"One of the first places (recovering addicts) go internally is to a deep level of shame and embarrassment," Roberts explained. He said that people need to feel like they're in a safe environment where they can express their suffering.
"I think a lot of churches hope that they're that safe environment, but they're not," he said. "There are going to be people in that church who will gossip and that will prevent someone from returning."4 comments on this story
Cronin suggested the churches could hold support groups for congregants of all kinds. An open question like, "Where does your pain come from?" addresses recovering addicts without singling them out.
"A pastor may know of a couple of other people (in recovery) who could support each other, even if it wasn't a formal group setting," she said.
The key is that former gamblers know there's a place for them in the church community.
"It's authentic, loving welcome that is absolutely needed," Roberts said. "We all believe that's what Christ calls us to do. And we've all experienced the pain of not receiving that."
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