If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep one’s self unstained by the world. James 1:26-27
A good friend of mine used to live just two blocks from the Saint Croix Casino in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. On a visit several years ago he offered to take my wife and me out for dinner at the casino restaurant. He said they had a wonderful Saturday night buffet and it was cheap. We readily accepted.
When we arrived at the casino I was struck by the size of the parking lot. There were acres and acres of cars. Our friend pointed to the spots where six houses had been torn down to make way for the parking lot. About one third of his neighborhood had been bought out by the casino. Where he used to look out on trees and houses with green lawns, he now sees pavement, lights, and security cameras.
As we entered the casino I noticed the presence of numerous security officers. We paused for a moment in the large lobby area at the door and after the guards had checked us through, we began to make our way slowly through the masses of people gathered around the slot machines. The flashing lights, the buzz of the machines as the levers were pulled, and the occasional sound of coins clinking in the slots were mesmerizing. Our friend said that there are no windows and no clocks in the casino. All sense of ordinary time stops at the door.
When we finally made it to the dining area, which is located in the back of the casino, we were greeted by a friendly waitress who told us the amazing Friday night buffet and it was all-you-can-eat. Our friend was right; the food was wonderful and to be had for a pittance. We had our choice of prime rib, fried chicken, roast beef, pork chops, deep fried scallops, baked ham, barbecued ribs, mashed potatoes, gravy, a host of salads, vegetables, dinner rolls, and all the trimmings.
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The best part of the buffet was the dessert bar. There was a large selection of pies, cakes, puddings, and chocolate turtle cheesecake to die for. I had three helpings.
After the dinner we strolled out into the casino to watch the action. There was very little conversation. All eyes were on the slot machines and the blackjack tables. I especially enjoyed watching the blackjack dealers contend with what I imagined were veteran gamblers trying to beat the odds. From the little we were able to observe it seemed that the house almost always won.
We went into the gift shop and our friend showed us stack after stack of cigarette cartons. "Why so many cigarettes?" we asked. He pointed to a sign listing the price. A carton of Marlboros cost less at the casino. Across the street at the Holiday station the same carton sells for much more.
Few of the local merchants have been able to compete successfully with the casino. Many of the buildings on the main street of Turtle Lake are empty or dilapidated. Some of the remaining businesses are struggling. When the casino opened in 1992 there were high hopes that the increasing number of people coming to town would mean higher profits for local businesses. Over a million and a half people pass through the doors of the Saint Croix Casino every year but very few of them shop at local businesses. People come by the busload from all over Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. Along with the bus ride you get a night's lodging at the Saint Croix Motel, a steak and lobster dinner in the casino restaurant, and a $20 rebate in chips to get you off to a good start on the slot machines. It is not known how many out-of-town guests patronize area prostitutes or drug dealers, the two local businesses which have seen an increase in trade.
The Saint Croix Casino takes in several million dollars a month. Most of that money is not spent in the Turtle Lake community or anywhere else in Northwest Wisconsin. One young family man with a wife and three children, who works in the maintenance department at the casino, earns minimum wage. He gets no health insurance and no pension. He could make more per month if he quit his job and went on welfare.
A woman from a neighboring town was arrested some years ago for embezzling $450 thousand from the business where she worked. Much of the money was lost in gambling at the Saint Croix Casino. Unlike bartenders who will refuse to serve a perpetual drunk, the casino employees continued to take the woman's money until her life was ruined.
There is one image of our visit to the casino that has remained in my mind to this day. Every once in a while a teller would come out onto the floor followed by an armed guard. He would roll his cart up to the blackjack table and collect the money. The action would stop for a moment. The crowd became very quiet. All eyes were on the money and the armed guard. There was little doubt about what is worshiped in that place.
John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.