Saints and Winners 

At Our Lady of the Angels Church, on Rocky River Drive in Cleveland, a machine percolates numbered ping-pong balls that pop up a pipe for the caller to pluck and read. Bingo is the intersection of a children's song and a game of chance, and gambling is its name-o.

But church bingo has nothing to do with the ubiquitous farmer and his dog. Lou Zitiello is the volunteer who has run bingo at OLA for the past 18 years. He says it is gambling, but it sneaks by the law because it's for a good cause. "As long as the money goes to charity, it's legal. It used to be mostly Catholic churches, but everyone is in it now."

Father John Cregan, OLA's parish priest, sees the game through the eyes of the man in charge of the church. At OLA, the church doesn't need the money, but the Catholic school does, and bingo kicks in more than $200,000 a year. "If we didn't have the school," Cregan says, "we wouldn't need bingo."

At OLA -- and dozens of other churches and needy nonprofits all over the city -- the game is played in the gymnasium with intense concentration. It's not because the players need to remember when or how many times to clap; this sport requires that they catch every number. In some bingo halls, vendors stroll the aisles selling instant bingo cards -- a fast, cheap fix -- and refreshments. The players don't want to get out of their chairs, because doing so would mean leaving their cards. There's money on the table; tension and smoke hang in the air.

But even though the money supports the parish school, it's not a church crowd. "We don't even draw 10 people from the parish," Zitiello says. "That's not the way it works. I can't really put a finger on why. They come from all over. We do have a lot of regulars."

The caller falls into a steady rhythm of numbers and letters. Two TV monitors project images of the ping-pong balls, making the game a multimedia experience. The players lean over their cards, hawkeyed -- an ink stamp in one hand and a cigarette in the other -- ready to mark the numbers as they are called. Several players have backpacks and purses full of supplies: bottled water and soft drinks, extra ink pads, cigarettes, lighters. Some play a dozen cards at a time. Some have brought their lucky figurines and stuffed animals or pictures of grandchildren.

"A lot of these people will play four or five nights a week," Zitiello points out. "Here, they are just playing to win money. We give away $3,500 at the game, plus instant tickets over the course of a night for maybe $2,000 to $5,000."

Cregan has to be concerned about more than just the money. "People do question having bingo at a church, because it is gambling, and they say that's not in concert with what the church teaches. But gambling is not what's wrong. It's the abuse that is wrong."

Just as gambling is addictive to individuals, the income stream makes institutions dependent. "I don't think any pastor wants bingo," Cregan says. "You'd rather have people expend their energy in spiritual pursuits." Once in a while, a church manages to kick the habit. "Immaculate Conception stopped. St. Colette's is planning to stop."

But no one in the OLA hall is giving any hint of wanting to stop. "The people are having fun," Cregan admits. "They're gambling. They have it in their blood -- they look forward to it. We get calls all the time -- they call the rectory to ask who is having bingo on any given night."

For your parish fix, just look in the Yellow Pages under "Catholic Churches."

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