The Rev. Brian Roberts sees a storm headed for Atlantic City, New Jersey, that could inflict just as much damage as Superstorm Sandy did two years ago.
This time, the telltale signs are not fierce winds and a churning ocean but an avalanche of pink slips as closing casinos disrupt the local economy.
Since January, three casinos —the Atlantic Club, Showboat and Revel — have closed and a fourth, the Trump Plaza, is scheduled to shut its doors on Sept. 16. Another casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, has signaled it could be in trouble as well.
The response from the 63 United Methodist churches in the Cape Atlantic District, including three in the city itself, will encompass both prayer and practical assistance. As their district superintendent, Roberts already convened an Atlantic City Economic Response Team, which will hold its second meeting Sept. 10 at the district office.
Just as Sandy “was a weather storm of epic proportions,” New Jersey Bishop John Schol told United Methodist News Service, so the layoff of 6,000 or more workers has created “an epic economic storm for South Jersey which will ripple its way through the state.”
In an Aug. 25 letter to the United Methodist Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference, Schol wrote about joining other faith leaders to pray and walk with those whose jobs were threatened.
“Many, maybe most of those losing their jobs are hotel workers, wait staff, cooks, and cleaning staff,” the letter said. “We prayed for a new vision for Atlantic City, for the financial health of the families and for sustainable jobs.”
The Rev. William M. Williams III, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, believes the church’s participation in casting an economic vision is crucial to Atlantic City’s success. “What we, as United Methodists, need to do and are trying to do is to have a seat at the table.”
Second or third layoffs
The Rev. Juliann Henry, who manages pastoral care at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and serves two small United Methodist congregations, noted that some casino employees are reeling now from what is a second or third layoff.
Her husband, Ed Henry, 59, is a case in point. A lighting designer, he spent 27 years working for shows connected to the Trump Plaza before being laid off three years ago, but found a new position when the Revel Casino opened in April 2012. “Most of the folk at Revel that just lost their jobs had found a job after they had been laid off at other casinos,” she explained.
United Methodist clergy are among the volunteers at a clearinghouse set up last week in the Atlantic City Convention Center by Local 54 of Unite Here, the main casino workers’ union, and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The laid-off workers can file for unemployment and get information on job search assistance. The resource center will close Sept. 10 and reopen elsewhere after the Trump Plaza closes Sept. 16.
Henry has been one of the volunteers. “One of the things that the union asked for, right off the bat, was a comprehensive clergy presence around the clock,” she said.
The United Methodist Church officially opposes the legalization of gambling, but, as Schol points out in his letter, the denomination also has members who work in the gaming business and members who gamble.
“Our concern for the people of Atlantic City and the region is because the significant layoffs will hurt families, the local community and the stability of the area. Our commitment is to help those who lost jobs by supporting them during the transition and to assist them in finding meaningful work.”
For church, mission is the same
Those most affected in his congregation at Asbury, Williams said, are members whose children and grandchildren work for the casinos, along with “a handful of members who are associated with the tourism industry.”
The church’s mission in this economic crisis is “the same mission it was through the ages — to spread the good news, to spread love,” he explained. “Maybe now more than ever we need to embody that mission.”
That could mean anything from creating a system to quickly meet economic needs to tailoring worship services to address the issues raised by the crisis. Asbury already provides food for the hungry on Saturdays. “Our doors need to be open for silent prayer, for mediation, for people to just come and sit,” he added.
Roberts said the Cape Atlantic District is moving “with haste” to form partnerships with others and provide resources such as counseling, food provisions, résumé-writing assistance, drop-in and online centers for conversation and “a heaping helping of hope.”
“We’re trying to be where they are,” explained the Rev. Clifford Still Jr., pointing out that the church has “to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ” and offer support. “There’s nothing worse than not knowing how you’re going to feed your family,” he said.
Still leads two Atlantic City United Methodist churches, Venice Park and Hamilton Memorial, where Schol preached over the weekend. “I’m very encouraged and excited that we have a bishop who is genuinely concerned about people and people’s welfare,” Still said. “He has demonstrated that numerous times.”
Williams believes it will take courage, discernment and “a sense of mutual cooperation” in partnership with other faith groups to push for a more holistic approach to unemployment.
“Atlantic City has time and time again gone through the transition of economic instability,” he said. “Maybe now it’s time for the church to take on that position of combining a compassionate economic theory that helps us move forward with sustainable growth in all areas of a person’s life.”
‘Feels like another hurricane’
For the community as a whole, the collapse of several casinos coming at a time when the Sandy recovery is ongoing is a blow, Henry said. “It feels like another hurricane, to be quite honest.”
The silver lining in that storm cloud, she and Schol pointed out, is the experience and expanded capacity that has developed from that disaster.
A Future with Hope, the Greater New Jersey Conference’s Sandy recovery organization, currently has volunteer teams working on 15 houses in Atlantic City. Statewide, its teams will repair some 70 homes this year and anticipates finishing another 100 homes in 2015, Schol said. He expects the organization could become “the largest nonprofit housing developer in the state of New Jersey.”
A new pilot program in three Sandy-damaged communities, using the denomination’s “Communities of Shalom” model, will focus not just on rebuilding houses but rebuilding lives, he added.
The long-term recovery group in Atlantic City, of which Henry has been a part, has been very successful in providing case management for Sandy survivors. Because of that, Atlantic City’s mayor may provide funds to hire a few case managers to help the newly displaced casino workers.
“We’ve got a great infrastructure already in place,” she said. “Atlantic City has been able to really move forward in the last two years.”