I started matching pennies with my father when I was four years old. I distinctly remember the thrill of winning four pennies and said to my Dad, “Let’s do it again.” However, he replied, “No, that’s enough for now.” It took me 45 years to get around to saying, “That’s enough.” That was when I went to my fi rst Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting in 1980.
In 1959 I took on an overseas mission assignment, but I struggled with the language and during my early years did not fi nd the support I needed to get on top of the language or the job. A lively game of poker was a great release from all that. Later I began to go to casinos and soon realized that I was addicted to gambling. It was not just something in my head, but rather something physical, something I felt; the urge to gamble gripped me. In fact, I felt miserable but did not know that until after I began to go to GA meetings.
In 1980 four things happened for me that helped turn my life around: fi rst, I worked as a chaplain on an Air Force base in Omaha, Nebraska, for six months; second, I did a three month renewal course that was run by the Maryknoll Missionaries; third, I began to attend GA meetings; fourth, I was invited to attend a three day marriage encounter retreat. You might say that 1980 was truly a year of grace for me.
As an auxiliary chaplain at the Air Force base, I heard the phrase “self image” for the fi rst time. In the course of my work on the base I realized that I had very low self confi dence. I had never felt appreciated in my mission work; I felt inadequate in the parish as I did not understand much of what people were saying to me even though I did manage to say what I wanted to communicate. Nor had I learned to think for myself through the education system that I had been through; I had merely learned what others wanted me to know. However, on the base, others affi rmed me, and I discovered I was reasonably good at helping those (especially couples) who came to see me about religious and other matters.
During my years on overseas mission another Columban had dubbed me “an incurable conservative.” In the renewal course I discovered that there are other valid ways of understanding our Catholic faith. I had locked myself into what I had learnt since childhood and so had become quite rigid in my attitudes towards many aspects of Catholicism. The renewal course helped me on the way towards flexibility and acceptance of difference.
When I went to my first GA meeting I did not speak, but soon after I did and realized immediately that those present understood me. My story was their story and theirs was mine, so I continued to assist regularly at the meetings.
After a year I returned to my mission, was assigned to another part of the country so was able to make a fresh start. I was appointed as pastor to a parish where the head of the parish council (who ran a hardware store) would come to visit me in the evenings, and we would just talk. There was no deep discussion about anything, and my friend kept the language simple. During my three years there I learnt so much more and gained confidence in my ability to both speak and understand the language. Also the circumstances of my life were easier. The weather was better – no driving through three feet of snow. I eventually felt welcomed by the people of the island where I was working. I also found the bishop, who was a local, most respectful and easy to work with.
However, after two and a half years I returned to gambling in the casino. I honestly thought it would be just an experiment to see whether I could gamble small and with control. After twelve trips to the casino I had won about $300. But I was beginning to realize my desire to play the games longer and for higher stakes was becoming ever stronger. I knew I had to stop completely.
Also, I was a heavy smoker, and my sinuses were badly infected. I returned to the U.S. and reconnected with the GA group, who expressed surprise that I had kept away from the gambling for so long without the help of weekly GA meetings. They helped me understand that we cannot combat our addiction alone and that we need the GA group.
Again I returned to my mission, but this time with the intention of establishing GA groups. The Columban leadership supported me, so I became the pastor of a parish near the capital of the country and started Gamblers Anonymous. I also hired a man to give me classes in language. He also helped me with the GA work. We worked well together for about twelve years, setting up GA groups, which have continued and increased to 43 weekly meetings all over the country in response to a seriously felt need in that country.
Fifteen years ago, after 37 years a missionary in that country, heart disease prompted me to return home for good, and since then I have continued with GA and keep my heart going with numerous pills, golf and other things. In the strength and vitality of youth I may have dreamed of achieving great things, but in fact my main contribution to God’s Kingdom on earth has come out of my struggle against my addiction to gambling. So, I say with St. Paul: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)