Bad Money Gone Good?
Are gambling winnings and other questionable gains redeemed if we give them to charity?
BY: Paul O'Donnell
All of the Salvation Army sidewalk bell-ringers in Naples, Florida put together brought in less than $100,000 during the holiday season. So it was rather dramatic when Salvation Army Major Cleo Damon
turned down a single $100,000 check
--because it came from the $14 million Florida lottery winnings of David L. Rush.
By contrast, the Abundant Life Church of God in Torrance, California, was all too happy to accept the gift last week of Andrew "Jack" Whittaker, who will take home $117 million from the 26-state Powerball. "If God wants to take the devil's money and give it to us, that's fine," says Pastor Gerald S. Abreu.
But Damon, the Army's top officer in the Naples area, spends a good deal of time counseling gambling addicts and felt, therefore, that "he couldn't accept the donation based on his position in the community," explained Steve Dick, spokesman for the Army's Florida division. The regional offices of the Salvation Army supported the decision, Dick said, but nonetheless are anxious that Damon's decision might discourage future donations.
The Salvation Army has no standing policy on accepting money from any source. "We look at the intent of the donor," says Dick, who points out that the Army has taken money from liquor distributors, even though the group helps alcoholics. And since the Army rarely asks questions about the source of a donor's money, Rush's donation might not have caused misgivings had it not been widely publicized. "We assume people are giving because they want to help the less fortunate," says Dick. Only when the money is clearly illegally obtained will the organization refuse it, as it did in the 1950s when mobsters tried to participate in a benefit.
The question of whether gambling dollars can be "made good" has long troubled Christians of all stripes, and does so to this day. In November, Tennessee became the 38th state to legalize a state-run lottery, with all proceeds going to university scholarships. The loudest protests against the scheme came from evangelical groups. Weekly bingo games, an honored fund-raising program for many churches, are often better attended than Sunday Services, to the chagrin of pastors.
But does accepting a gambler's winnings compromise the morals of a church-based charity? The fact that state lottery winnings are legal does not distinguish them from criminal profits, say many evangelical Christians, who heed biblical ones that they say inveigh against wagering.
Religious anti-gambling activists cite statistics more often than Scripture, claiming that legalized gambling preys on the poor, who are led further into poverty by the false hope of becoming rich. For the Naples Salvation Army, the question was one of reputation, not revelation. "We preach against gambling," the chapter's spokeswoman Maribeth Shanahan, was quoted as saying. "To accept it would be to talk out of both sides of our mouth."