The Macau Mennonite Church body. (Photo by George Veith)
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Mennonite Church Canada
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network) — The sign of  the cross advertises The Masters Hotel in Macau, but translation of the hotel’s sign from Chinese reads “good fortune” and the hotel is known to charge service fees for “escorts.”

The irony of that sign embodies the contrasts of Macau, a small city-state whose lavishly displayed wealth is dependent upon games of chance where the winners prosper at the  expense of the losers. In the midst of this culture of profiteering sits Macau Mennonite Church, whose leaders and members engage how best to live faithful lives within a casino culture.

Since 1999, Macau has grown to become the world’s largest gaming center, with revenues surpassing those of Las Vegas. Currently, close to 40 casinos and a population of 500,000 are squeezed into an area of about 17.5 square miles. In 2009, Macau hosted 21 million visitors.

Treasure Chow, pastor of Macau Mennonite Church, called gambling a form of greed that leads to addiction, a temptation that greatly affects the Macau church and culture. George and Tobia Veith and Tim and Cindy Buhler, workers to Macau with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, noted that because gaming is Macau’s primary industry, most employment is either directly or indirectly related to it. Casino workers, hotel and food services, shops and even city services cater to the industry. Other vices such as prostitution and loan-sharking, although less public , are also part of the gambling culture.

Growth in the gaming industry has even affected the education of Macau’s youth, as lucrative employment opportunities within the industry entice high school students to drop out. Small businesses have closed and some city services have been disrupted as workers leave to earn higher casino wages. Churches also are affected. Those who do not work in the gaming industry may work long hours to make ends meet and they have little time for church.

“We’re dealing with people who have to work shifts so they rarely come to church or participate in small groups. With new believers it’s very difficult to follow-up or do any discipleship,” Cindy Buhler said.

Tobia Veith tells the story of one committed believer who suddenly disappeared after beginning work as a dealer to earn money to care for her mother and younger brother. The woman felt ashamed of her job, Veith said, so she avoided church.

When the Veiths discovered what had happened they told her that she needed support in what she was doing and drew her back into the church. Eventually she found a different job in security.

Despite challenges created by the gambling industry in Macau, faith and commitment are growing among the 35 regular attendees of Macau Mennonite Church. Chow has been ordained as the first local Chinese leader of the congregation, and by the end of March 2010, a newly elected church council consisted entirely of local citizens.

Releasing congregations to local leadership is the goal of church planters like the Veiths and Buhlers. As local citizens assume leadership roles, Witness and Mission Network workers have gradually stepped into roles of encouragement and support, including helping to counsel church members who struggle with the choice to work in a casino.

Chow’s husband, Bailey, who also works with Macau Mennonite Church, compared the ethical struggle Macau believers have working in a casino with that of pacifist Anabaptist who would have an ethical struggle in joining the military or choosing to work in jobs that support war and those who kill.

“It is very easy for those working within casinos to get caught in gambling somehow,” Cindy Buhler wrote. “Even if you don’t gamble in the casinos, there are mahjong dens [a Rummy style game played with tiles] or horse racing, or dog racing.”

Maintaining church connections with believers involved in gaming is a challenging aspect of ministry in Macau.

“When someone starts to gamble, they quickly disappear and don’t want to relate to the church,” Cindy Buhler said.

Located just across the bay from Hong Kong, Macau belonged to Portugal until 1999 when it was returned to Chinese authority. Although Macau is part of China, it is considered a Special Administrative Region, governed by different laws. While the gambling industry is illegal in mainland China, it puts rice on the table in Macau.

“People were actually happy that casinos were coming because it meant more money for the city,” Tobia Veith said. Although citizens anticipated a better lifestyle, they were soon disillusioned by the impact of shift work, urban congestion and rising prices.

“For us in terms of doing ministry, it’s not just the issue of gambling, it’s the issue of money, the issue of affluence,” George Veith said. “People in Macau are fighting the increased price of real estate, food, the cost of living. The pressures of life go up a notch.”

Because the government and casinos work to beautify the city for tourists, evidence of the bleaker side of gambling—like the poor—aren’t readily visible.

“You don’t see the homeless,” Veith said. “But they are there.”