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Lotto in Kaeo

To initiate its second discussion the Auckland Synod Chatroom printed this opinion by Rev Robyn McPhail. Robyn’s article provoked a lively exchange of ideas about gambling in our communities and how churches might respond to it.

Last month a journalist phoned on the Saturday night (in the middle of the rugby!): “Did you know that the $18 million lotto win has gone to a ticket bought in Kaeo?”

“Oh,” I said, almost the kind of kind of ‘oh’ that’s said when someone dies.

“What will be the effect on the Kaeo community?” he asked.

One good impact of this ‘lotto event’ in Kaeo was that it put us on the map. People were suddenly interested in us. Locals were on the TV news and when I ended up speaking on National Radio and Radio Live, friends and family made contact from all over. There was a buzz about it. As I said at church after the Radio NZ person had left, “we always knew Kaeo was the centre of the universe.”

There were some deeper issues at hand, however. On a positive line some of thought that if it was a local person’s ticket, the bounty would surely be shared. We gave encouragement to spend wisely. Ours is a community where rural Pakeha traditions, as well as predominant Maori traditions, are still pretty strong and where family means extended family.

But the positive possibilities were soon replaced in my mind by the potential pitfalls. As a community that is near the bottom in socio-economic ratings (the Kaeo schools are decile 2) we are very aware of high levels of chronic need and low levels of funds. But would a whole lot of money solve our problems?

Money helps, but what is needed most in our community is ways and means for people to discover their own abilities. This means to recover God-given gifts people had to begin with, but which have been lost among the negatives and limitations of their experiences and circumstances.

That Sunday in our parish we featured a speaker from Habitat for Humanity. The timing couldn’t have been better. Habitat represents something that far outstrips Lotto in solving the problems of poverty and deprivation. It combines the kind of boost that Lotto promises by way of a gift from outside (donations help reduce land and building costs), with the solidarity of working together with other people and careful mentoring of the potential new home-owner into the stewardship skills needed to maintain home ownership long term. Habitat stories tell of people gaining not just a home but also self-worth, new skills that enhance employment opportunities, and enthusiasm for contributing in turn to the local community.

What disturbs me most about lotto is the likelihood that this big win has encouraged people to go and buy even more lotto tickets. I understand that in the week prior to the big win overall sales of fruit and vegetables dropped. Surely healthy food is a better investment in a family’s future than a lotto ticket. But I keep meeting people who believe that their only hope for the future lies in winning lotto. There seems to be no other way of getting out of the pit they feel trapped in. This is a despair that needs to be offered an alternative, a viable alternative that, unlike gambling, can lead to a sustainably better future.

Banning lotto and other forms of gambling won’t take away that despair. Reducing the visibility and accessibility of gambling options might be worth pursuing. But it seems to me the only way to get to the root issues is person to person. Doing things that show a bit of generosity lifts spirits, solidarity gives practical support to efforts for change, and mentoring helps people realise how much they’re worth and what they really are capable of.