Written by Father Jon Thomas
A tall man in the center of the room excitedly shared news about development projects in Atlantic City. Nothing about the news was vague. He named names and cited figures. The audience listened with equal excitement. The man was Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian but the audience wasn’t from the city. Most of the people were from other parts of the county. They had come to a restaurant in Somers Point to listen to the mayor of the famous but challenged resort.
There’s hope in Atlantic County that the resort’s improving fortunes will benefit the area with more jobs and more tourism. When four casinos closed in 2014, thousands of people on the mainland lost their jobs. Now, the tide is changing. Last year, the Showboat reopened as a non-casino hotel. In 2018, Stockton University and South Jersey Gas will open a campus near the Black Horse Pike’s entrance to the city and the old Trump Taj Mahal will become Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Anticipating the turnaround, several smaller commercial and residential projects are already in the works.
Since July 2015, the city’s Catholic churches have been united as a citywide parish. That’s when two other young priests and I came to the city. We learned that the Catholic Church has been an important part of Atlantic City for more than a century. Catholic schools prepared generations of residents for success and charitable outreach cared for others still struggling to achieve it. At one time, five parishes shined the light of Christ throughout the city. As pastor of the citywide parish, I shared my vision that the church expand its role in the city through prayer, service and advocacy.
I was honored to offer the invocation before the mayor spoke at that crowded dinner in Somers Point. In the last two years, I have also offered the invocation for the mayor’s State of the City address. The parish has hosted special Masses of Solidarit
y with Working Families and for the Business Community. A prayer for the city written by a councilman and the city clerk, both parishioners, is included in the petitions at every Sunday Mass.
It has been a joy to see parishioners formerly of different parishes come together to dramatically improve our charitable outreach. Distributions of Christmas toys and Easter baskets are better than ever, providing not only gifts but beautiful experiences for hundreds of needy families, thanks to new ideas and combined efforts. At an upcoming luncheon, parish staff will join the staff of the city’s Catholic Charities office to discuss how our service to the community can be complementary and more effective.
Although we locals are excited about our future, we know that headlines about Atlantic City in regional papers are often dour. Admittedly, a real problem that doesn’t usually make the headlines is human trafficking. Human trafficking is essentially modern-day slavery. Most of the victims are trafficked for prostitution. When Bishop Sullivan first spoke to me about my new assignment, he asked that the parish raise awareness about this tragic attack on human dignity. Two parishioners and I recently attended the New Jersey Interfaith Summit on Human Trafficking in Cherry Hill. On our way home, we passionately discussed our advocacy strategy.
Excitement about a changing tide in Atlantic City is real. So is our Christian hope that God’s blessings can overcome urban decay and desperation. We Catholics may be proud that our church is part of the change.
Father Jon Thomas is pastor of the Parish of Saint Monica, Atlantic City.