By Meredith Flynn
Legal pot use will be a growing challenge for Illinois churches
When Illinois lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana in June, many lauded the fulfillment of one of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign promises, and the potential for millions in tax revenue to aid the financially ailing state.
Others, like Pastor Steve Ohl, grieved the decision’s potential impact on Illinoisans. Ohl is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Greenview; he also leads an addiction support group.
“When I was into drugs and alcohol, there was a void in my heart and I was trying to fill it anyway I could,” the pastor said. Ohl urged pastors to recognize many people in their pews and communities are struggling to fill their own heart-voids, and the road to recovery will probably be harder with easier access to pot.
Illinois becomes the 11th state to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana use on January 1, 2020, so now is the time to look to states where pot is legal, for both the impact on communities and the ministry challenges for churches.
West Coast examples
Pastor Dave Seaford is well-versed in marijuana culture and its effect on a community. In the Emerald Triangle of northern California, Humboldt County is a pot mecca, with a climate right for growing and the nearest police force more than an hour away. When the hippies left San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Seaford said, they came here to build communes and grow their own marijuana.
The region where Seaford has ministered over the past five years was a center for illegal pot prior to California’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2018. Today, legal business is booming, and people come to Humboldt from around the world to “trim product” and otherwise benefit from the industry.
But life in the region is hard, said Seaford, who pastors First Baptist Church in Redway. The Netflix series “Murder Mountain” chronicles life in his county, where drug users scream to themselves on the streets, and stories abound of pot workers being held in shipping containers, some never to be heard from again.
Redway used to be logging and fisheries, Seaford said, with a quiet, easy, joyful lifestyle. It had its own culture apart from the marijuana industry. “How quickly that has turned.”
Illinois is unlikely to become the next Emerald Triangle, but Seaford warned Illinois pastors to prepare now for the coming challenges, and new opportunities for life-changing work.
“This is a terrible place to live,” he said of his community. “But it’s an incredible place to do ministry.”
The heart of the matter
Derk Schulze’s time in the Emerald Triangle began in 1980, when he moved to Arcata, Ca., to attend Humboldt State University. Marijuana is a catalyst for how people in the region live, think, and worship, Schulze said. His decades in the region are evident as he explains the network of cause-and-effect scenarios that led to the culture he ministers in today.
First, old industries collapsed, pushing some small-scale farmers toward the pot business, which grew as an illegal enterprise until 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Little by little, the culture shifted until acceptance of marijuana use was widespread. Once the state’s medical marijuana policies were in place, doctors in Arcata freely gave out “215 cards” (named for the statute that legalized medical marijuana) to anyone who came in with a complaint, Schulze said.
Medical professionals couldn’t keep up with monitoring the effects of the drug on patients, and officials were overwhelmed to the point of not enforcing pot possession laws if the person in question had a 215 card. They did, however, enforce federal drug trafficking laws. Jails were overcrowded, leading politicians to push for the legalization of recreational marijuana, which also promised more tax revenue.
In 2018, recreational pot became legal in California. Schulze said the arrival of the new law forced local farmers out and brought in groups looking to make a big profit. “Murder Mountain” is a sensationalized view of what has happened to his community, Schulze said, but, “It’s not a safe situation. You don’t get out of your car in certain areas.”
Marijuana is so entrenched in the culture, the pastor said, that churches can’t afford to take a temperance view on it “because the law just makes for more lawbreakers.
“The law’s not going to solve it either, because it’s a worldview heart issue,” Schulze said. “People are just as vigilant and set in their thinking about being pro-marijuana culture, as a Christian is for the kingdom.
“We have to address the heart.”
His church decided to set up their parking lot as a sanctuary for the many travelers in and to Arcata. One day, a yellow RV painted with the word “Miracle” arrived bearing a couple with a young child. The woman was pregnant with what she said God had told her were twin girls. She had a boy instead, and Schulze’s church ministered to the couple—both marijuana users at the time—and built relationships with them based on biblical truth. The couple came to Christ, and the man was later called into pastoral ministry.
The couple wouldn’t have been received at any other church in the area, Schulze said, because of the way they smelled, dressed, and talked. But his church was willing to get to the heart of the matter.
“We can proclaim the gospel and the good news, and true freedom, because that’s what a lot of people are looking to have by smoking marijuana,” Schulze said. They’re looking for deliverance, he added, from pain, anxiety, and a lack of true joy.
“We have a better salve, and that is a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.” Schulze encourages pastors to have conversations with proponents of marijuana, to try to uncover the underlying motive for what they do.
“We have to get to the root. We have to extract the hidden sin, the hidden issue. We have to identity that, and when we do that, the gospel speaks to that.
“Then, you get transformation. Not conformity.”
Offer real answers
Despite their challenging environment, Pastor Seaford’s church has seen numerous spiritual victories. People are trusting Christ and being baptized, some of whom were previously part of the industry. But marijuana has so permeated the culture that a lot of people don’t want to live there anymore. FBC Redway has seen more salvations and baptisms in the last five years than at any point in their history, Seaford said. But most people don’t—or can’t—stay.
The church’s most effective ministry is its partnership with a local shelter. They offer theology classes through the Eureka Rescue Mission’s discipleship program, trying to get to the spiritual need at the root of drug use. The focus is on apologetics, a specialty of Seaford’s.
Some people assume the addled brain of a drug user can’t handle deep spiritual truths, the pastor said. The opposite is true. “We need to present the truth of the gospel, and we need to do it at a level that their questions are genuinely answered,” he said. “These guys want real answers.”
Of course, detox is a real need too, which is why FBC Redway works with the rescue mission. Seaford encouraged pastors in Illinois to seek out similar partners. He also urged church leaders to prepare for ministry opportunities by shoring up their own theological training.
“I believe it’s absolutely essential that we’re prepared to give people real answers,” he said. “Many times, they’re in the situation they’re in because they had no spiritual hope to begin with.”
Bryan Hall entered the rescue mission’s residential program 14 years ago, after many years of drug use that started with pot in junior high.
He was radically saved 25 years ago, Hall said, but fell back into drugs multiple times over the years, punctuated by several arrests and stints in jail. It was an act of honesty that ultimately led to his deliverance, Hall said. Led by God to confess to a crime he had committed, he was inexplicably granted probation instead of a mandatory sentence. He started at the mission soon after, weeping on his first day in the program when a chaplain taught from the Bible.
Hall is now executive director of the Eureka Rescue Mission, a non-profit completely supported by private donations. He directs the mission’s ministry to homeless and addicted people, including partnering with Seaford to offer Scriptural truth through systematic theology classes for men and women.
The answer to reaching addicts is really easy, Hall said. “It’s got to be love.” The only way to reach somebody in drug addiction is developing a loving relationship with them.
“I think that the reasoning behind a lot of drug use, marijuana, is that people are just trying to feel good. They live on feelings, not conviction,” Hall said. Some people come to Christ and keep smoking pot, but over a period of time, he said, they set it aside. “It’s sanctification.”
The theme of the mission’s work is changed lives, and they’re seeing that happen all the time, Hall said. People are getting jobs, going to church, and loving the Lord. They’re becoming salt and light in a very challenging culture.
“It’s really amazing to see someone who just wanted to get clean and sober start to come alive in Christ because some of their questions get answered.”
Be ready to help
In Gunnison, Colo., a small college town of 6,500, legalization of recreational and medical marijuana use in 2014 has made an already pot-friendly culture even more challenging for churches. “We have a significant degree of poverty in our community, which our church feels called to alleviate,” said Pastor Tom Burggraf. “As we try to help families financially and spiritually, it is rare we find someone stuck in long-term poverty that is not also suffering from addiction to alcohol or drugs.”
Burggraf, a bivocational pastor who is also on staff at the local university, says it appears that legalization has increased use among those already on drugs. But from his involvement with young adults, Burggraf cites increased first-time drug use. “It’s another substitute-savior that is now more accessible to those searching for rescue in places where it cannot be found.
“We are investing heavily in Celebrate Recovery,” he said.
That tactic may be an answer for many more churches soon. Steve Ohl already leads a Celebrate Recovery group at Living Faith Baptist Church in Sherman. He got involved when he was a member there, before accepting the pastorate in Greenview.
Celebrate Recovery is a Christ-centered, 12-step program focused on helping people deal with “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.” The ministry started in 1991 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Ca. Groups now meet in 35,000 churches around the world, but each has the same DNA: large-group worship, testimonies from people whose lives have been changed, and discussion time in smaller, gender-specific groups.
“When I was struggling, the main thing I needed was somebody to be there for me, to just listen to me and not to judge me,” Ohl said. “I knew that I was having a struggle, but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to get the help I really needed.”
Over the past four years, Ohl has seen people get that help through Celebrate Recovery. One member accepted Christ and was baptized at the church.
With legal pot coming to Illinois in less than six months, Ohl urged fellow pastors to research recovery groups and programs in their area, so they have resources to steer people toward when they need help.
“There’s going to be somebody sitting in their congregations struggling with this,” Ohl said, “and pastors need to be ready when they come to talk to them about it.”