AT FIRST BLUSH (would that be “B-1?”) the decline of popularity in church bingo games reported in Sunday’s Times Leader surely isn’t much of a surprise. In the age of the Internet, social media, smart phones and legalized gambling, the pastime’s decline seemed inevitable.
In its prime, bingo nights at local churches and community centers served a wide range of purposes: A lot of socializing, the mild thrill of a modest risk, the challenge of figuring out a “system,” the potential for a few extra bucks in spending money and the knowledge in most cases that you were contributing to a good cause.
All those incentives still exist at the bingo nights run throughout the region, but they now compete with a plethora of options, from Mohegan Sun Casino at Pocono Downs to home computers and even smart phones that allow people to both entertain themselves and socialize — at least electronically — almost anywhere.
Add cable and satellite TV offering countless channels and programming on demand, and it’s a wonder bingo still survives at all.
As Sunday’s page 1A story noted, in many places bingo is clearly reaching (or already has passed) a tipping point no one who runs the games can ignore: When the amount brought in does not exceed the amount spent, the fundraising incentive to hold the event drops to zero.
Monsignor Joseph Rauscher, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre, put it bluntly: “When it costs us money to give away prizes, when it’s no longer financially feasible, that’s when it can’t continue.”
The loss of bingo nights at St. Nick’s would be a particularly unhappy milestone. History hints, and Rauscher strongly believes, the modern version of the game took off when a parish priest recommended the cards be revamped to decrease winning combinations and increase profits, thus making it worthwhile for churches and organizations to host such games.
Even if the story is apocryphal, or true, but the priest was not local, the end of bingo at St. Nick’s would mark the end of an era. It is almost certainly the oldest bingo center in Luzerne County, having hosting its first game in 1933.
The decline of bingo first and foremost has meant a decline in needed revenue for churches and organizations. Rauscher noted that in its prime bingo would raise as much as $45,000 in a single year.
But bingo has been more than a money-maker. It has been a cultural touchstone. For nearly a century, odds were high that if you made a week-long visit to Anywhere, U.S.A., you could find a bingo game, letting you participate in a something universal while experiencing the distinctly local.
That alone is reason enough to hope bingo finds a way to survive. It is a paradox of our times that as we become increasingly connected through the ever-available and instant worlds of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, we often become more isolated. We create an insular world of people we friend and websites we visit, erasing the common places we once shared.
Weekly bingo is one such place, and the community and country would likely be better off if we find ways to reverse its fortunes. Perhaps modernizing the experience with some digital flash, or updating the prizes to lure a younger crowd, or doing a better job of spreading word that a night of bingo can help a church or organization you want to see thrive.
Here’s hoping some bright minds and avid fans figure out how to revive the venerable game. After all, hitting the right combination would be the best reason yet to yell …