Monday, July 27, 2015

Flashback--1978: Serbian Orthodox church in California gambles in Las Vegas--and loses

Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; Jeremiah 22:13a

This was my favourite news item of its year. I don't know if the church pursued litigation afterward, but they got what they deserved, and whether they learned a lesson seems debatable. As reported by Jim Nichols of the San Diego Evening Tribune, July 27, 1978 (bold and capitals in original):


LAS VEGAS--Like many another visitor who's risked his chips in a Glitter City gambling game, a small San Diego-area religious congregation took a financial beating here last night.

Hoping to raise $250,000 to help build a church by sponsoring a high-stakes bingo evening in the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of St. Petka instead lost nearly $40,000 on the deal.

Toay chursh trustees were bandaging their financial wounds, considering a lawsuit, and wondering how four parishioners would repay the money they borrowed on their homes to provide $35,000 in prizes for the affair.

"We are all sick over it," said Danny Marshall of Escondido, a trustee of the San Marcos church, who was awake until 4 a.m. today looking over the figures and compiling the bad news.

The game went on as scheduled after a hectic day that featured a newspaper attack against it, a threat by the city to cancel it, and a last-minute court order that canceld the cancellation.

Despite it all, Marshall said proudly, "We paid our prizes. We stood there and took the beating like a gentleman, as we advertised."

"It was," he added, "a very expensive lesson."

First, Marshall said, a Las Vegas newspaper ran a front-page attack on the plans of the California congregation, noting that any money raised would be shipped out of state, lost to Las Vegas and its own worthy charities.

Then, he added, city officials announced that the complex rules for getting permits hadn't been followed to the letter. About noon, the church group was told the game was off.

Marshall found a local attorney and went to court. Two hours before the 8 p.m. start of the game, St. Petka's won a restraining order that allowed the affair to go on. The lawyer charged $3,000, Marshall said.

The game started on schedule, though the furor had left no time for rehearsal. Then, although organizers and publicists had prayed for 10,000 players, only about 500 showed up.

They spent about $13,000, Marshall said--considerably less than the $35,000 they won or the $16,000 St. Petka's had invested to arrange the game.

The unkindest cut of all, he said, was that none of the 80 or so Californians who had journeyed to Vegas to play in the bingo game was among the winners.

Marshall figures the newspaper story was partly responsible for the disappointing turnout. He said church trustees will discuss a suit against the paper, and maybe against the city as well.

Marshall is one of four parishioners who took out 90-day loans, using their own property as security, to put up the prize money. He says he doubts anyone will lose his home because of last night's disaster.

"It's a temporary economical setback for the next six months or so," he said, "but we'll just do the best we can to repair the damage."

St. Petka's owns nine acres in San Marcos. It opened a social hall with a temporary chapel in 1975, and hopes to build a church--estimated cost, $750,000 to $1 million--and eventually a home for the aged.

If last night's affair had succeeded, the trustees were considering a series of similar games, the next one probably in November.

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