Historically speaking, a casino is a place to lose money and time and wear a bad shirt (or take acid and go to a Lauryn Hill concert). What it isn’t is a place for a priest. So when I heard that Melbourne’s Crown Casino employs a full-time priest I said fuck off. But they do. They really do. That man is Friar James Grant, a plain-spoken dude of the cloth who spends his days chatting to lost souls in what must be one of the least spiritual places on Earth. I met him in the food court—where he knew everyone—to talk God, gambling, and whether or not he wanted to play craps with me.
VICE: So what are you doing here?
Friar James Grant: I offer counseling services. A lot of the people come to the casino because they’re lonely or they’re depressed. I always tell people to look at the bigger picture. OK, so you might have a gambling problem, but what else is going on in your life? What’s the bigger picture?
Do you tell people it’s wrong to gamble?
No, I don’t think it is. There’s nothing in the bible that says it’s wrong to gamble. What’s bad, and this goes for booze and drugs and driving your car 200 miles an hour down the road, is a lack of moderation. I would consider that in moderation, gambling could be considered a normal human activity.
So drugs are OK in moderation?
I don’t know about that, I’m simply saying you have the right to free will. Do you have the right to walk in here? Absolutely. Do you have the right to take drugs and fuck your life up? Yes you do. Is it a good decision? No, it’s a dickhead decision but if I try to stop you, if I say “you no longer have the right to do that,” then I’m reducing your humanity. And God wants a full life for everyone.
Wow, that doesn’t seem typical of the Catholic belief system. And you said “Fuck.”
[Laughs] Yes well, I’m just speaking for myself. I don’t espouse what you might think of as the normal Catholic agenda but then I think the Church needs to change. There are too many priests who never go into the real world. They sit in their church and wait for the congregations to come to them. That’s useless. I think I serve a much more useful roll by providing counseling where people need it and speaking like a real human being.
So how did you get this job?
I’ve been here for six years. I was originally working in private schools and I’ll tell you, working in a school keeps you grounded. That’s one of the things that made me realize we need a more modern version of chaplaincy. So I came to the casino and said, “Hey, I think you need a Chaplin.” And they said, “Ah, no we don’t.” But they slowly came around to the idea.
Do you ever play craps?
I’ll rephrase that. Can we play craps?
You can if you want but I just don’t have any fascination for gambling at all.
How about the casino morgue then? Could we see that?
Yeah, I’ve heard that story but it doesn’t exist. People think there are suicides here every day of the week and they end up in a basement morgue but it’s just not true. There have been people who die here but it’s just like every other work place.
So people do die here?
Sure. There was one recently. A man died of a heart attack in one of the Chinese restaurants and none of the staff would work until the restaurant had been cleansed. I wasn’t around so I got another priest to do it. He went in there, threw a bit of holy water around and then everyone went back to work.
Do people want to confess after gambling? Do people want to see you for good luck?
Some people come and ask me for a blessing so they can win. Of course, I absolutely try to avoid that because I’m not going to encourage a system. And everyone who comes in here has a system to win. Asian women are very prone to this stuff. They'll say to themselves, It’s the 7th of the 7th, oh my God, it’s my lucky day. And they’ll come in here and they'll get really shitty when the system doesn’t work. And they'll think that Crown has foiled their system. It’s paranoia. I get a lot of people seriously advancing these theories to me. I’ll give them a blessing for their life and for their family, but I won’t give a blessing to win.
Is James Packer a good man?
I’ve met him and I’d say, very tentatively, yes he’s a good man. Not because he owns a casino but because he employs a lot of staff. If James Packer goes before God I don’t think he’ll be judged for owning casinos. The question is what he does with his money.
So what’s the best thing about casinos?
I think that on a really primitive level there are people who will come here because the casino is their family. And that tends to be an older person who, for whatever reason, comes here because they don’t want to die and not be found for a month. So they come into Crown, they know the staff and the other players and it becomes a pseudo family. So the casino has a community value.
Is hell a real place?
Yeah. I’ve got enough proof for me to say that hell already exists on Earth. I know lots of people who are in it. They’re not dead. If by hell, you mean a place where there’s no god, then I’d agree with that. Humans can create places where there is no God or growth or life. And I know people who have lifestyles that they might as well be dead. I know people who live in their nice brick houses and they have a BBQ every Sunday but their lives are so narrow and so joyless and diminished in expectation that they might as well be dead. I think that’s a type of hell.
So how should people live?
Just don’t give up. I don’t have any problem with the person who starts 20 businesses and they all fail. I have a problem with the person who gives up and accepts their lot. God wants you to take risks and to learn. If you stop taking risks, you stop living.
Well, a casino is fine place to take risks. How would you feel if called this article "God Digs Casinos"? Is that OK?
That’s not really what I mean. I don’t know if God “digs” casinos. I don’t have this view of God that says there are certain people or institutions that are good, bad, or indifferent. I just don’t think God has a particular opinion about Crown.
How about "Gimme 50 on God"?
It’s OK. Have a think about it. Maybe you can think of something better.
We’ll just call it "Interview with a Casino Priest" then.