Las Vegas Sun

January 19, 2018

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Columnist Tom Gorman: On Charlie Bolin, a Baptist chaplain at the Riviera who helps casino workers cope during the holiday season

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

If you work at the mall or in an office building, chances are you'll find signs of Christmas around you.

A festively decorated tree in the lobby. Poinsettias. Christmas (or seasonal) greeting cards taped beneath the receptionist's desk or in the stock room. Christmas cookies in the lunch room. A wreath on a door, a time clock draped in garland, co-workers wearing more green and red.

Share the Christmas cheer!

But if you work at a casino, you may be fighting the holiday blues.

When was the last time you saw a casino floor -- or casino employee lounge -- festively decorated in commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ? When was the last time you saw a pit boss dressed up as Santa, or a dealer decked out like an elf? I don't imagine you'll ever see a Nativity scene or Santa's sleigh next to the cash cage.

That's why this can be a really crummy time of year for casino workers. There are a few exceptions out there -- such as the seasonal display at Bellagio's conservatory -- but chances are there is no sense of Christmas in the world of poker, progressives and pass lines.

The Rev. Charlie Bolin, a Southern Baptist minister, says that absence of Christmas spirit can leave even the most stoic casino workers glum. Their shifts may not be conducive to shopping or family holiday meals. They may not get any extra time off. Gamblers are not any nicer (they come to Vegas to win money, not dwell on what happened in Bethlehem), and because it's a slow season, there are fewer tips out there at a time of year when families could use the extra money.

"The casino environment just doesn't lend itself to families, to the holidays, to Christmas," he said. "It's hard for a casino employee to think about Christmas when the casinos remain all about gambling. The two don't connect."

Charlie is something of an authority on this matter. He is the staff chaplain at the Riviera. They call him Charlie Chaplain.

He's gotten a fair amount of publicity over the years because he apparently is unique on the Strip. While other hotels and casinos have ministers at the ready to perform weddings and tend to other customer requests, Charlie is there for the employees.

(A few years ago, People magazine did a piece on Charlie under the headline "Holy Roller!" He was photographed standing between a couple of sultry showgirls. He wants to write a book someday, titled "The Collar in the Casino.")

Charlie, 57, got into the business of saving souls on the Strip about 20 years ago, becoming a kind of street minister who led backstage Bible study sessions for dancers and stagehands between shows. Because of their work shifts, they could not participate in more conventional church activities.

Baptist leaders were chagrined by his ministry, he said. "Here I was, walking into an environment that was diametrically opposed to what the church is supposed to be," he said. "Baptists can't smoke, can't drink and -- heaven forbid -- can't be around nudity. The church wanted me to save people from that environment, not work in it."

But a chaplain, unlike a pastoral minister, is trained to do his work outside conventional parameters. He may serve at an Army base, a hospital -- or backstage of a showroom filled with topless dancers.

"I simply make myself available and, if they want to talk to me, I'm there for them," he said. "It's the ministry of presence."

In 1993 he was hired by the Riviera, and in short order learned the employees' need for someone to talk to. "In most resort environments, the customers are relaxed, so it's easier for the staff," he said. "But in a casino, the customers usually have an agenda -- to make money. And if they don't make any, they tend to take it out on the employees.

"So the job becomes stressful. The very people you're serving will turn on you."

Charlie meets workers while strolling through the casino and its back office areas. They chat, they joke, they vent. Sometimes they will quietly pray.

If the issue is serious -- marital problems, financial stresses, alcoholism and the like -- Charlie and the employee will meet in his office for up to eight counseling sessions. If more assistance is needed, the employee is referred to professional help.

"I don't understand why there aren't more people like me working in casinos," he said.

This Christmas, Charlie said, the employee cafeteria at the Riviera will have some special treats. A roast, some turkey, a nice ham. I guess that's something.

If you visit casinos, take along a Christmas present this month. Even a smile would be nice. Unwrapped.