For the love of God — and cigars

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Local News - By Gor­don Rago Staff writer

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

STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF

Bob Branc, cen­ter, hosts Holy Smoke Bi­ble Study in­side his home in Ch­e­sa­peake. The in­for­mal group gives mem­bers a place to open up.

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