This church’s holy rollers put their faith in marijuana

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
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Lansing — The church has no dogma, rituals, precepts, sacraments or theology.

Its members are mostly agnostics and atheists.

Even its name sounds nonreligious: First Cannabis Church of Logic and Reason.

What this Lansing congregation does have is a deep, abiding faith that begins and ends with marijuana. Holy smoke!

“I never thought I would see something like it in my life,” said Cheri Friess, a member from Lennon near Flint.

Jeremy Hall, 34, who began the group in June, first tried to show skeptics how similar it was to other churches.

He then realized he wanted to be nothing like other churches.

The way he describes it, the First Cannabis Church sounds more like an advocacy group. It wants to change the image of stoners by doing good deeds around the city.

“We have been demonized in the eyes of the public as miscreants and law breakers, ignorant and unmotivated. Well we say NO MORE!” he wrote on a church flyer.

The holy rollers cleaned a south Lansing park in July. Before starting, they got “medicated,” did the work and then ate — having worked up an appetite one way or another.

Some residents are less than joyful by the cometh of Michigan’s first weed church.

A citizens group already alarmed by the growing number of marijuana dispensaries in Lansing fretted the church would draw more pot smokers to the city.

“This is just another way they can do whatever they want,” said Elaine Womboldt, founder of Rejuvenating South Lansing. “We don’t want to be known as the pot city of Michigan.”

Four dispensaries are located within two blocks of the church.

After receiving a complaint, Lansing City Attorney Joe Abood contacted the church in June to learn how it would operate. City officials said they don’t have a problem with the group as long it follows the law.

This isn’t Hall’s first experience with an unorthodox religion.

His mother is a Young Earth Creationist, a fundamentalist Christian group that rejects evolution, takes the Bible literally and believes the universe is no more than 10,000 years old.

Hall attended church three times a week and wasn’t allowed to own a radio because it played the devil’s music, he said.

Growing up in Ypsilanti, Hall rejected the group’s beliefs and other religions he studied. But he liked some parts of faith: the fellowship and way members helped the dispossessed.

What if you took God out of it, he wondered. What if there was a group where you could be spiritual without following a specific religion.

“There has to be other people who think like me, are like me,” he said.

Musing about starting such a group, he became ordained in 2001 through the Universal Life Church.

The online church describes itself as the only religion that ordains anyone who wants to be. There’s no charge or training, just paperwork.

Hall never got around to starting a group. He eventually moved to Tennessee, married a woman with three kids and, in 2010, his wife was diagnosed with lupus.

Two years later, the family moved to Jackson so his wife, Regan, could take advantage of the Michigan law allowing the medical use of marijuana.

Hall became Jackson County coordinator of MI Legalize, which failed in its attempt to put a proposal on the November ballot that would allow recreational pot use.

He also dusted off his old idea of starting a non-religion religion, this time centered on the drug.

The mission is serious

First Cannabis Church isn’t the first marijuana church in the U.S.

The First Church of Cannabis formed last year in Indiana in response to the state’s religious freedom law. Leader Bill Levin named himself Grand Poobah and enacted commandments called the Deity Dozen. Number One: “Don’t be a (blank).”

While Levin has some fun with his creation, Hall is more earnest.

He positively rhapsodizes about the benefits of cannabis.

The plant can be used in so many parts of our lives: shelter, food, clothes, fuel, paper, plastics, he said.

He gasped in amazement as he described how it could save the world.

“It’s a miracle,” he said. “It can save humanity. Cannabis is something to be put on a pedestal, to be revered.”

With his long beard and utter belief in marijuana, Hall can come across as a little hippie-dippie. He has been smoking the drug for 18 years.

He’s not afraid to laugh at himself.

He said he started a church because it sounded better than “cannabis cult.” The church’s poster proclaims: We Believe in a Higher Power.

But its mission is serious. The church wants to change the image of stoners, one good deed at a time.

The good works will range from individual efforts, like paying for someone’s meal at a drive-in, to group ones, like holding a toy drive for the poor.

Each time the church does something positive, it will give the recipient its business card and ask them to do something good for someone else and pass along the card.

Explaining the church’s philosophy, Hall referred to a quote by a well-known atheist.

“Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer,” said Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Part of Hall’s marijuana makeover is to refer to the drug only as cannabis. The other names have negative connotations, he said

Services with a smile

The church’s monthly meetings are held in a mostly vacant strip mall next to a McDonald’s.

It borrows the space from a farmer’s market that sells marijuana. The busted glass door is covered by plywood.

The inaugural service in June drew the curious, the faithful, the hopeful. They came from as far as Traverse City, Grand Rapids and Detroit.

Most were in their 20s. A few wore tie-dyed T-shirts, some sprouting pot symbols.

“Hello, beautiful people,” a woman in a wheelchair cried out as she entered the building.

The hopeful were disappointed to learn the advertised free joints were given only to those with medical marijuana cards.

Perhaps because of that, attendance at the meeting last month dropped from 50 people to 27.

One of the faithful was Jayson Durham.

In 2014, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that broke his spine in two places.

The pain and then pills kept him bedridden, he said. The only thing that got him moving was marijuana.

Durham, 36, moved from Ohio to Ann Arbor earlier this year so he could take medicinal pot.

“I can’t stop talking about it. It gave me my life back that Ohio took from me,” he said. “You can describe me as a spiritual refugee from Ohio. Is that poetic?”

He said police, instead of worrying about stoners, should go after real criminals, like drunk drivers.

Before the service began, Kevin Skouby asked for his free joint, saying he needed it for anxiety.

Skouby, 53, who has a medical marijuana card, said it’s easy to get one at the farmer’s market.

“A real nice doctor gives medical cards,” he said.

The church limits smoking to a back room.

Skouby and other cardholders nestled there before the service as smoke sometimes wafted into the main room.

“That’s a room I like to walk in and out of,” said Durham.

The main room had a donation jar where people could give the remains of their smoked joints. The roaches were to be mixed, repackaged and given to the needy.

Several tables held cookies, coleslaw, bread, bagels and a half dozen boxes of Little Caesars pizza. Marijuana-infused food was kept in the backroom.

Other churches bring food to services but the First Cannabis Church may be the first to pronounce them as munchies.

An amp played a tinny rendition of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.”

Don’t bogart the love

The services consist of just a talk by Hall and a moment of silence, where members can pray or meditate.

The moment of silence was added after a Catholic woman at the first meeting suggested opening it with a prayer thanking God. She said it would make the proceedings more spiritual.

Hall told her a prayer might offend agnostics or atheists, who seem to comprise the bulk of the church, including its leader.

During his sermon, Hall encouraged church members to be more open-minded with people they disagree with.

By being less argumentative, it would reflect well on them and, as emissaries of the church, reflect well on it, as well.

“You guys are pioneers,” he told members. “We’re just as valid as that huge church down the street. We’re more valid because we’re in the community, donating food, supporting people.”

As Hall spoke, a woman in her 50s snored loudly in the second row. A person sitting behind her sneezed loudly several times but the woman didn’t stir.

Chris Riesbeck, a friend of Hall’s, told the church he has formed a business group to make the marijuana industry more professional.

“I fell in love with this industry,” he told a reporter. “Cannabis is my second passion. Cannabis and food is a great combination.”

Before the first service in June, a lone protester stood on the sidewalk in front of the church.

Rhonda Fuller of Lansing held a sign that said the only people who benefit from marijuana are those making money from it.

“It’s about money, not you,” read her 50-word sign, written in small letters. “It’s misery for everyone else.”

Fuller, a Quaker traditionalist, said basing a church on weed was unconscionable.

“Anyone can call anything a church,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Christianity — but neither does most churches.”

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