For the love of God — and cigars
CHESAPEAKE — The whipped cream flowed from canister to pumpkin pie. Hot coffee was poured into mugs. Others chose a cold bottle of Yuengling or a glass of red wine.
Most important, the cigars were lit and everyone’s Bibles were turned to John 11:38 — Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
Another night of Holy Smoke Bible Study was ready to start.
“Here’s the deal,” began Steve Carl, a 61-year-old industrial pipe cleaner from Portsmouth and the night’s teacher. “The Bible, as you guys know, is like a miniseries. So, you know, we’ve got to review last week’s episode before we can move into this week’s episode.”
Smoke swirled in the air around him and the nine other men who sat in folding chairs at a long table in the carpeted garage of Bob Branc, a 68-year-old retired Coast Guard captain who lives in Chesapeake’s Greenbrier East.
Electric heaters helped keep them warm on the chilly fall Tuesday night. A fan that Branc had installed sucked up the cigar smoke, and another fan an electrician had specially installed pulled smoke through charcoal filters so the garage walls and tables wouldn’t turn brown. They also cracked the garage door by a few inches for good measure.
Over the next hour, Carl led the group through the chapter, which focuses on Jesus’ close friendship with Lazarus and the moment Jesus learns of Lazarus’ death.
The men, many of them former military, pondered why Jesus wept and why he was angry. The discussion led into some darker territory. Some spoke about their own encounters with death and grief and how they’ve questioned their faith, or how other life circumstances like divorce forced them to question God.
In this informal setting, the men say they’ve found a place outside of church to open up about their own lives. And talk Bible.
What Holy Smoke is doing is part of a larger trend across the U.S., said Andrew Chesnut, coor- dinator of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. The idea of finding a casual place outside of church to talk religion got a bump in 1981, when parish priests at the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago started Theology on Tap. The group brings in religious speakers, usually at bars and restaurants, and has spread far beyond Chicago.
It’s part of what Chesnut calls the deinstitutionalization of religion. People seek out venues to discuss their faith and spirituality outside church, especially in places without a minister or priest, where they feel more free to speak their mind.
Most groups are predominantly male, Chesnut said. One reason could be that women attend church more regularly than men, he said.
There’s another explanation, too.
“Often, men don’t have social networks that are as developed as women do,” Chesnut said. The Bible study groups can fill that void and provide a sense of camaraderie.
“And they can do it smoking cigars,” he said.
Holy Smoke has met for the past eight years. Branc, an aficionado whose home humidor holds 60 cigar boxes, was a regular at Emerson’s, a local cigar shop. He first began meeting with a small group in a back room, the men drinking whiskey and reading Bible verses. A change of management led them to Branc’s house. Once, they had 27 people at a meeting.
They are not tied to any one church. Mostly they came to know each other either from the cigar shop or being friends with Branc through the Coast Guard. It’s Branc’s hope that other people will start similar groups — they aren’t accepting any new members.
No hymns are sung here. Formal church clothes are likewise absent; the men wear jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. On Tuesday, attendees forked through plates of triple chocolate cake and pie laid out on a side table in the garage alongside the coffee. A refrigerator in another corner was stocked with sodas, water and some beer.
There is not really even one leader. It’s Branc’s house and Carl has prior experience leading Bible studies, but the group rotates discussion leaders.
Branc describes Holy Smoke as an evangelical Bible study. He said everyone comes from different religious denominations.
One of the few ground rules: You are told to “take a puff” if you start talking for too long. Also, no talk of politics is allowed.
“This ended up being my church,” said Bill Windhorst, a 54-year-old retired Marine Corps veteran who served during Operations Desert Storm and Shield. Windhorst stumbled upon the Bible study in 2010 when he moved to Hampton Roads and visited the cigar shop.
Windhorst, who’s originally from Colorado, grew up Roman Catholic. He stopped going to church regularly as he got older but remembers how good it made him feel to confess to a priest as a kid. Holy Smoke provided a similar outlet. Today he’s back attending church, partly because of Holy Smoke, he said. Carl and Branc say that’s happened before, that their group has been a conduit for some men returning to worship.
At 43, Jose Caballero was the youngest attendee last week. He medically retired from the Coast Guard in 2009 after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which Branc also has. Caballero remembers getting an email one day from Branc and the two getting lunch, where Branc told him about the Bible study at his home.
As someone who regularly goes to church, Caballero found the study a way to gain new perspectives on the Bible and how it applies to his life.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Caballero spoke up about his divorce as the group delved into what they learned from the chapter. They talked about conversations they each had with God after a particularly challenging situation in their life.
“I would have bouts with God,” Caballero said.
“Did you win any?” Branc asked him, prompting some laughs.
“Nope. Nope, did not win any. He was quiet the whole time,” Caballero said.
He was reminded of a verse that says, “Be still and know that I am God,” but said he still wanted answers. He later heard a song about similar struggles and was reminded to keep the faith, he said.
After the Bible study, as some of the men helped clean up and finished the last of their cigars, Caballero said he enjoys the ability to open up and share his personal life with an intimate group.
“It’s not good to keep everything bottled up,” he said.
It’s tough, Carl said, for men to become vulnerable.
“People want healing and they want hope,” he said. “You start getting into the Bible, and you start finding out you got hope.”
That’s when Chet Turner, a former regional manager of Emerson’s cigar shop, chimed in.
No matter what happens, he said, he knows he has a path. Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, gor[email protected]lotonline.com
Bob Branc, center, hosts Holy Smoke Bible Study inside his home in Chesapeake. The informal group gives members a place to open up.