CWNews.org - With its unique fusion of Chinese and Western culture, and thriving casino industry, Macau is one of Asia's top vacation destinations.
Once a Portuguese colony, Macau returned to mainland China eight years ago. Today Macau - like Hong Kong - is one of China's Special Administrative Regions, which means it's technically part of China, but has different laws from the mainland.
Gambling, for example, is banned in mainland China, but revenues from Macau's casinos account for 70 percent of its GDP. Last year its gambling revenues were even higher than Las Vegas, and this year they're expected to surpass the entire state of Nevada.
Millions flock to Macau to try their luck, but not everyone hits the jackpot. At first glance, Simon looks like thousands of other casino workers in Macau. But for him, gambling wasn't just his source of employment- it was his life.
"Whatever I had, I would spend on gambling," he says. "I used all of my salary. Whatever I got went to the casinos. I lost everything."
Simon lost his wife, family, and 2 million Hong Kong dollars. When he didn't have money to pay debts, he would steal to go back to the casinos.
When he saw money in the family, "I stole it. I stole watches, golden rings, and my girlfriend's diamonds and took them to the pawn shop to get money. Sometimes I stole credit cards to get money."
In his desperate state Simon sought help from Macau's Industrial Evangelistic Fellowship, a special ministry for problem gamblers. Today Simon says he is a changed man.
"After I came to the center I totally changed - no more gambling. I don't think of going back to gambling again. I also want to talk to my friends at the foreign casino to get them to break their addictions," he said.
Pastor Jimmy Tan, who runs the center, counsels many people like Simon. He says that compulsive gamblers have a hard time avoiding the casinos.
According to Pastor Tan, "as a problematic gambler, once they lose money, every day they can't sleep and they just want to chase after the loss."
Since he began the organization some four years ago, Reverend Tan has ministered to over 1,000 gambling addicts. He has a very personal interest in this ministry. So many members of his family are also gambling addicts.
As a young child he witnessed several family members pay a high price for their gambling addictions. His aunt and uncle were even hung by a loan shark after they were unable to pay their debts.
Tan says many ex-gamblers depend on the center to help them avoid their past lifestyle. "A lot of gamblers, once they come to our center, they have to face a lot of temptations," he said. "They have to face a lot of influence by their friends."
Simon agrees, "We can't do it alone. We need a center or a church to help us quit gambling."
Several of Macau's ex-gamblers and their families have found extra support at the Macau Evangelical Church, also known as Sheun Tao Church. In just eight years, the congregation has grown from 20 to 3,000, including 2,000 students.
Many of them spend their Sunday afternoons to distribute Christian materials to the masses lining up at the casino buses.
They handed out packets including is a Jesus film VCD, magazine, New Testament, and tracts about the church. One student says that several people who get this packet come to the church.
Included in the materials is a testimony from Mr. Chu, who was once a compulsive gambler and now serves in the church helping gambling addicts and their families.
Chu said, "I continue to help gamblers and give them a firm foundation in the faith, only Christian faith can help people to change. It can help people to leave this behind."
A Cultural Pastime
But leaving the gambling culture behind can be a formidable challenge. Macau opened its first casino more than 160 years ago, and its economy depends on the industry.
Harald Bruning, Director of the Macau Post, said casinos are "part of Macau's identity and heritage. Love casinos or hate them, but Macau without casinos is unimaginable."
Even though Bruning says most Macanese don't gamble, there's an ongoing tension between Macau's casinos and churches.
Pastor John Birkeland, a missionary to Macau for over 30 years, says that its booming casino industry is the biggest challenge to his work.
"It's always been a hindrance to the Christian work," Pastor Birkeland, "because when you get involved in the casinos, then you get involved in triads, drugs, prostitution and corruption. But today with new casinos coming in, it's just expanding and blowing up.
As Macau adds bigger and flashier casinos, their influence isn't going away any time soon, but Birkeland remains optimistic that this growth is a unique opportunity for ministry.
Pastor Birkeland says that "with all the casinos coming in, and all the sin and corruption that goes along with it, I believe that God is going to use it as an opportunity to win people to Christ, and I believe even to use Macau, as He has in the past, to win China for Christ."