About 10 miles from the shrieking lights of the Las Vegas Strip, the sand-colored Christ the Servant Lutheran Church sits in a nondescript parking lot, on an equally nondescript and equally sand-colored street. The only thing that distinguishes the building from surrounding strip malls and office parks is its shimmering cross.
The interior of the church is strangely modern in design, but in a vaguely antiquated sort of way—it looks like what an architect from 1987 may have drawn if asked for an interior befitting the tastes of the future.
Between the first row of pews and the chancel, a group of five adults, none of them younger than 50, read aloud from a pocket-sized yellow handbook: "We learned we had to concede fully to our innermost selves that we are compulsive gamblers. This is the first step in our recovery. With reference to gambling, the delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed."
At the word smashed, one woman, who sits behind a cloth-draped plastic table littered with handbooks and forms, gleefully slams her fist down on her makeshift desk. The group continues: "We have lost the ability to control our gambling. We know that no real compulsive gambler ever regains control. All of us felt at times we were regaining control, but such intervals—usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization."
Following the reading, the conversation ping-pongs between the group's members, turning here to an upcoming birthday, and there to a checking account that remains depleted; here to this week's spaghetti night, and there to a family that remains estranged. Prolonged silences are rare. There is always discussion, morphing with the speed bred by the familiarity of old friends. Or, depending on how you view Gamblers Anonymous, there is listening.
On this afternoon in Henderson, Nevada, these men and women must reckon, together, with past sins. To much of the outside world, gambling is a vice not worthy of mercy: It is a symptom of recklessness, of compulsiveness, of greed. To some extent, that may all be true. But compulsive gambling is also an addiction—one that affects some three to four million people in the United States alone, and causes suicide attempts in one-fifth of those afflicted. That makes this meeting, in this tiny church, a haven for the sick. A place where they can be seen not as failures, but simply as people who have erred.
There is no salvation offered here, just as there is no damnation. There is only acceptance.
Bobby and I sit on a wooden bench in a dimly lit hallway outside of the main chapel. (There will be no last names given here, to protect the subjects' anonymity.) Bobby walks with a slight hunch not uncommon for a man in his seventies. In his beret and green windbreaker, he looks the part of a taxi driver, which is convenient, because he works as a taxi driver (or, as he calls it, "a transporter of human beings"). He's lived in Las Vegas for the last 37 years; for the last 18, he's been attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings across the city.
Meetings have supplanted gambling as the object of his addiction—he estimates he attends around eight or nine meetings per week, sometimes three in a single day. He tells me all of this with the stoicism of a priest. These meetings are just as much a part of the foundation for Bobby's theology as the church we sit in.
"I've always had God in my life," he says. "There's been so many instances in my life to where, if it wasn't for the grace of God ... I don't think I should be here today. I found myself up on the bridge, looked at the 18-wheeler coming down the highway, and I thought I fell in front of it, because I was there and I wanted out. I wanted out. But the hand of God is all I can say that kept me here, because I thought I fell. I thought I went the other way, but I'm still here. So no, I didn't jump. I'm here."
Bobby tells me this quietly, soberly. It takes a moment to process exactly what it is he's saying. The bridge incident came shortly before he entered GA.
"My last bet was 9/9/99 at 6:18 in the morning," he says. "They told me: 'Only carry as much money as you need to get by. Pay the bills. Do the next right thing, and it gets better.'"
In the places where Bobby remains guarded, Joan oozes kindness, in a way only grandmothers wearing wool sweaters can.
Joan and I sit in her aqua-colored Lexus SUV in the church parking lot. Though Joan insists she doesn't have much time to talk, once we get going, the words come tumbling out, earnestly and chaotically.
"Year after year after year, I began losing more and more and more, to the point where I wanted to kill myself. Thought I'd drive over the dam, thought of that many times," she says rapidly. "Thought I'd run into traffic, but I'm a nurse so I didn't want to hurt anybody. I didn't want to drive into anybody. So I didn't want to do that. It got to the point where I thought, What am I going to do?"
Joan has loads of stories, and none of them make for particularly easy listening. There's the way she would sneak out of the house in the wee hours of the morning, while her husband and four children were still asleep, careful to let the car roll down the driveway in neutral, lest the engine wake anyone up; the extra shifts pulled in secret, to allow for some extra gambling money that wouldn't pull directly from the family bank account (though that, too, eventually fell victim); the relapses in the casinos, and the shameful calls to her sponsor that would inevitably follow.
There's an unmistakable sadness in Joan's deep blue eyes: of money lost and trust squandered. But as we speak, and streams of tears run generously down her cheeks, I realize they are tears not only of agony, but also of rapture.
Rapture for the husband who stood by her as she waged this war against herself, and for the life she's finally been able to rebuild.
"I'm amazed he didn't leave me," she says with a laugh. "I'm so grateful that I was in this program before he got sick. I can't talk too much about it."
She grows quiet, and we're left with the dull buzz of the car radio and the howling wind blowing in from the desert. The air in the car feels heavy. We sit there together for a moment, pondering the blessings.