At New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore, dozens of African-American ministers applauded as the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates assailed the impact slot machines would have on the state's poor and working-class communities.
"The idea of putting slots in communities where there is the least resistance ought not to be tolerated," said Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, who, judging from the enthusiastic response, was clearly speaking to the choir.
But a few miles away, a leader of one such community was singing a different tune: "Without slots, we got nothing," said Jean Yarborough, who lives near Pimlico Race Course.
As Maryland begins anew the debate over expanding gambling, deep divisions persist within the black community. Many African-American leaders fear the pathology that critics say is sure to accompany the opening of casinolike slots emporiums: more bankruptcies, broken families and crime.
But others view the machines, and the money they will bring, as an economic boon for fragile neighborhoods.
The view of the African-American community could be pivotal in the debate, which returns to Annapolis next week when the General Assembly reconvenes. Prominent among the areas proposed for the gambling devices are sites in Baltimore and Prince George's counties, home to the state's largest populations of blacks. That makes the votes of black lawmakers vital to getting a slots bill passed.
But opinion within the black community is far from united.
Tobe Johnson, professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said that the views of African-Americans on gambling are shifting as legal games of chance have spread across the country.
Historically, he said, gambling has "to some extent been a way of life" in the black community -- since long before states began sponsoring lotteries and other forms of gambling.
"A large cross section of blacks played the 'policy rackets,' or the numbers, every day -- from Harlem to Mississippi," Johnson said.
But views changed as states got into the gambling business to pay for broader government programs and services, Johnson said.
Many blacks regard lotteries and other forms of state-controlled gambling as "largely a transfer of money from the underclass to the middle and upper class," he said.
"Ministers and others have come to see this as another level of exploitation of the black community," Johnson said.
Strong opposition was expressed at the New Shiloh legislative breakfast meeting this week in the Mondawmin neighborhood. As leaders of churches in the city and in Baltimore and Howard counties, they could become a potent lobbying force against slots.
"I'm totally opposed," said Rev. Olin P. Moyd of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church on Reisterstown Road. "If slot machines come, it will spread like a disease. We have to find another way to raise revenues. "
Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the preachers can play a crucial role in the slots debate by rallying their congregations.
"They can get up in the pulpit and make sure people are aware of hearings," Jones said. "They impact quite a few people."
Jones, a slots opponent, organized Busch's meeting with the ministers. She encouraged them to make their presence felt in Annapolis on issues such as slots.
"You truly are the eyes and ears of the people," Jones told the preachers. "You have a fundamental grasp of what people want in your community."
The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, who heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity, said, "Make no mistake, the alliance will still be in the forefront in the opposition. We're still adamant, and we'll still be in the forefront of this fight."
He derided black elected officials who support slots as being out of touch with the community.
Those who live in poverty-stricken areas, Perkins said, don't want to add to the ills, such as rampant drug addiction, that afflict their neighborhoods.
The Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches is opposed to slots.
"Any organization worth its salt would be against anything that would exploit the community," said Henry Hailstock, president of the NAACP's Montgomery County branch. "Show me anywhere they have slots where it has uplifted the surrounding community. Unfortunately, the person that is going to suffer is the person of color."
For Yarborough, who heads the Park Heights Networking Community Council, the issue is about money to improve the community.
"I'm going to tell you straight up, I want money put into Park Heights," she said.
She lives on Palmer Avenue a block from Pimlico Race Course, one of the potential sites for a racetrack casino, and is co-chairwoman of a group that helps decide how to spend about $500,000 in local impact fees that the track, under state law, pays each year.
Johnny Clinton, who owns the Park Heights Barbershop, is another strong slots supporter.
"As a business person, I would love to see slots come into this community," he said. "I think it would increase my business. Anything that can help this community, I'm for it."
Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat who supports slots, said that he shares concerns about the social ills of gambling.
But, he said, the state needs slots money to help pay for education improvements and human services programs.
Besides, Davis said, many Marylanders feed dollars into slot machines at racetrack casinos in Delaware and West Virginia -- and likely will soon be doing so in Pennsylvania.
"It would be foolish to allow those funds to go to those areas," Davis said. "The political reality and fiscal reality is that we have no choice but to move forward with slots here in Maryland."
Busch carried a different message to the ministers, assuring them that the passage of slots was not "a done deal" and that there are other options for lawmakers, such as raising the sales tax, to fund programs.
"The people who are saying you can't fund education without slots are insulting everybody with any kind of education," he said. "You just have to have the political will."