THE minister's collar around the Rev. Charles Bolin's neck stops a lot of people. What's a chaplain doing in a gambling casino in the heart of the Las Vegas strip? Is he a stray from a costume party, or did he lose his way to a theological convention?
Neither. Mr. Bolin, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister and as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve, has been hired by the Riviera Hotel and Casino to be the hotel chaplain - on call 24 hours a day. Bolin is now the only chaplain along the dazzling, nonstop gambling strip sometimes called the Sodom and Gomorrah of the modern world.
"Every week I deal with some kind of major crisis," he says, walking through the casino, "either a divorce or a death, or something drastic happening in someone's life."
With 2,300 employees, and the potential for 5,000 guests at the hotel, Bolin sees his "neon parish" as similar to ministering to the spiritual needs of a small city.
The difference is that he has a beeper, travels in elevators, holds Sunday services in a room on the Mardi Gras Plaza, and the encircling big city is Las Vegas.
Several churches in Las Vegas applaud Bolin's ministry. "The people who work at the Riviera also have lives," says the Rev. Michael Higgs of the United Methodist Church of the Living Christ here. "We all live within troubled systems, and there are ethical issues in gaming. I think it's very helpful to have a chaplain on their turf."
Bolin says his major concern is: Do the people he meets have a strong enough spiritual foundation in their lives to handle their problems?
For Terri Mayeux, a server at the Riviera, Bolin may have saved her job. In a divorce, she recently lost custody of her twins. "I would break down at work," she says, "and have to step aside. But he was there to help me when I was desperate. Without him, I probably would have lost my job."
Whether he is helping guests suddenly taken to the hospital, or an employee admitting to substance abuse and wanting treatment, Bolin focuses on their spiritual needs and provides a helping hand. He also connects people with clergymen of other faiths.
He says his chief role is to minister to "people who work here who need assistance, not because of the casino, but because of life."
His critics wonder how a minister can justify his presence in a casino, as well as pocket a paycheck from gambling profits.
Bolin says he doesn't speak out against gambling because he would be alienated from the environment he wants to help. Pressed to explain his rationale for being paid by the casino, he says, "I address the needs of people, not what people are doing, but what is going on inside of them. People ask me, 'Why do you preach in a place like this?' You know, there wasn't one Christian organization to [financially] support me in this ministry, not one. So I say to [critics], 'If my being here really concerns you, you pay my salary. I'm sure the hotel would be more than glad.' "
He admits that gambling and a casino can be a diversion from family and family concerns of people. "This will never be a place for kids," he says, "and casinos with amusement parks for kids are jokes."
Jerry Grippe, vice president of operations for the Riviera Hotel, says that the hotel has never received any criticism for having a chaplain. "It's been the opposite," he says. "We get calls and letters weekly from guests who have had something to do with Charlie and they all praise him. Everybody knows him, and he's everywhere in the hotel."
If Bolin is ministering to a casino employee who has developed a gambling problem, he counsels from two perspectives: spiritual and human. "Addiction to gambling is a symptom of a deeper problem," he says. "I tell them they need to get their lives right with God first, because if they only deal with the symptom, they'll probably just exchange one symptom for another."
Why and how did the Riviera hire him?
At one time, Bolin was helping with eight Bible-study classes, mostly for employees of the Las Vegas hotels who were looking for help with problems of addictions, divorce, and the challenges of working and living in a town that never stops.
Bolin conducted weddings and funerals, too, to earn more income over an eight-year period, and was thinking of shifting to social work because the church he was affiliated with stopped supporting him.
THEN he met William Westerman, chief executive officer of the Riviera, who was receptive to the idea of a full-time chaplain. After a year in which Bolin volunteered his time and proved his worth as a counselor to employees, he was hired.
Bolin finds himself ministering to all kinds of people and problems. "We had a stagehand who overdosed on drugs," he says, "and I spent two days in a hospital with him. I know God sent me here, and this is the door He opened. All through the scriptures, He used secular organizations to do his work, and that's why I'm here."
He also responds to requests from supervisors who may have a problem with employees, and he talks at management-training sessions. Over the years, Bolin has prayed backstage with singers Johnny Cash, June Carter, Glen Campbell, and Natalie Cole before their performances.
"I think the answer for the human race is a deeper spiritual foundation in lives," he says. "I believe we are spiritual beings, and that if we can get a grasp on that, and develop our spiritual lives and understand what that means, much of the rest will take care of itself."