Thanks to a loophole in Indiana’s notorious religious freedom act, one countercultural congregation has asserted its right to worship the holy green ghost. But the real surprise is that this merry band of smokers, jokers and non-tokers have built an entirely essential community.
“Hello Internet world, how are you?” a mad scientist of a man says from behind the pulpit shown in a small YouTube window, revealing the interior of a church sanctuary in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Hello Internet people. I love you. Welcome to the First Church of Cannabis. Let’s stand up and give the first prayer. It’s a simple prayer, and you will memorize it for the rest of your life. It is three simple words. These three simple words need to be added to your daily vocabulary. They are: I LOVE YOU.”
The svelte figure portrays both energy and ease as he moves around the raised stage at the front of the church, his shock of white hair lagging just half a second behind, orating with the swagger and conviction of a young Hunter S. Thompson, but without all of the accompanying rage. If Einstein had managed punk bands in a former life, he would look like this man: Bill Levin, Grand Poobah of The First Church of Cannabis, or TFCC.
All of the congregants standing off-screen yell the magic words back at him, call-and-response style like a pep rally, but the whole crowd is also part of the team.
The church’s four-man praise band, the One Love Orchestra, wraps up after ten or so minutes of introductory Phish-esque jams, and Levin, sixty, opens the floor for churchgoers to come share testimonials.
A longhaired man in a graphic tee steps up to the mike and begins describing a saga that starts with the death of a friend and ends with a birth announcement. It’s difficult not to flinch as he includes the word “fuck” in a church service. Everyone simply cheers and repeats the refrain: “We love you!”
Another man jumps into the frame, seemingly straight out of a coffee shop, his plaid-shirt aesthetic executed to a tee. This congregant’s joy to share from the past week is the success of a church-run poetry session, and he recites a poem of his own relating an exceptionally beautiful sexual experience.
Waves of testimonials follow from attendees, sharing joy and pain, mundane and remarkable, each one followed by a church-wide response of unconditional love and support. The scene carries the feeling of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with an eclectic roster of attendees. There are preppy college kids, punks, straight-laced couples, professionals, hippies, middle-schoolers, and even what appears to be a pit bull mix of some kind.
The inclusive group has been meeting since June 2015, when the doors of The First Church of Cannabis first opened, following the passage of a controversial statewide religious freedom law – though it is safe to say legislators did not intend for the new law to usher in a church like this.
TFCC’s main pillars of beliefs include such simple admonitions as “don’t be a troll on the Internet” and “don’t drink soda,” and its official seven pillars could be bootlegged from a generic wellness listicle: “Live-Love-Laugh-Create-Grow-Teach.”
Despite the creation and branding of the “Cannaterian” religion – which embraces the physical and spiritual nourishment gained from the cannabis plant – the people in the pews come from vastly different faith traditions, and TFCC is not simply a dispensary for those looking to get their buzz on, as no smoking is allowed within the church’s walls.
One woman with close-cropped hair and a propensity for tie-dye t-shirts looks as though she might provide a stable prototype for membership. However, despite these hints of counter-culture influence, 49-year-old Cathy Sipe has a bit of a secret: she doesn’t smoke. At all.
To those who know her, Sipe is a measured, no-nonsense professional. As the master electrician at the College of Performing Arts at Butler University, she does the lighting and acts as a stagehand for theater, dance and opera performances. She grew up playing and working in the theater world, raised by “old hippie” parents, and suffering no lack of exposure to cannabis culture. There’s both humor and discomfort in her voice as she admits to her abstinence. Partly for this reason, she decided to stay away from all of the hoopla on the church’s opening day.
On Wednesday, July 1, 2015, the parking lot across the street from the old Strait Gate Christian Church building on South Rural Street looked like a dealership for police squad cars. A helicopter flew overhead. Protestors clashed in the streets. Levin was inside, hugging everyone who passed through the doors and riding a high of accomplishment while leading the Church’s spirited inaugural service.
“I don’t know how the day could have been better,” he recalls. “I was on top of the world, I was King Kong on Mount Everest – I was HAPPY! The protests were just the cherry on the top of my fucking day.”
TFCC has a sign outside reading, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Sinless or not, the church’s neighbors didn’t pick up on the message; several pastors came to protest the new church. Pastor Bill Jenkins of the Church of Acts, which is located just around the corner, vowed to make it his personal and spiritual mission to discredit the church, telling U.S. News & World Report that TFCC was nothing more than a “drug house” and a “bogus excuse to get high.”
Levin says plenty of TFCC’s more conservative religious neighbors still stop by to offer him booklets and ask if he has let Jesus into his heart. Others though, he says, are more willing to have open discussions with Levin and his congregation, and have come bearing gifts of fresh eggs and baked goods along with their proselytizing messages.
Levin has chosen the route of loving his enemies, at least outwardly. During the service, he praises Indiana Governor Mike Pence for inadvertently facilitating the rise of this new religion based on love, compassion and acceptance.
“I love the man,” Levin said with his characteristic half-moon smile. “Mike is the angel who allowed cannabis into this state through religious sanction, and, to me, he is a saint. Our governor stated that religion was the most important thing in the state, and I’d like to thank him for it.”
Like most things Levin does, his praise of Pence is partly sincere, partly facetious, and entirely subversive. Pence had no intention of ushering in the United States’ first congregation of Cannaterians by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in March 2015. The law, which states “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” was widely seen as a move that would enable businesses to decline service to customers based on sexual orientation. A bakery specializing in wedding cakes is, by the tenants of Indiana’s RFRA, legally allowed to discriminate against designing cakes for same-sex couples on the basis of religious objection. (After nationwide protests, Governor Pence signed further legislation intended to provide protections for LGBT customers, employees and tenants.)
Notably, unlike some of the twenty other states that have adopted their own version of RFRA, Indiana’s legislation does not include a clause specifically excluding the use of illegal drugs in religious practices. The twinning of these two issues, religion and drugs, stems from a 1990 Supreme Court case in which The Native American Church argued for members’ right to use peyote as part of their spiritual practice, specifically citing the fact that Catholics are allowed to administer wine illegally to minors on account of religious protections. Indiana, however, did not choose to include any additional clauses clarifying the state’s stance on drug use as a legitimate part of the exercise of a religious practice.
Levin, spotting an opening, seized this opportunity with the entrepreneurial and freedom-fighting spirit of a beatnik zealot. The former punk band manager and aspiring politician has been the creative force behind a variety of ventures in the past, from digital advertising to a party bus business – and is also a longtime pro-cannabis activist. Since obtaining a minister’s license online in 2010, Levin has had the idea of preaching tucked away in the back of his mind, but the idea to open TFCC didn’t come to him until news of Indiana’s RFRA sparked the idea.
Arguing with the same reasoning as The Native American Church decades ago, Levin and his fellow Cannatarians have a pending civil suit against the state, which claims that the laws against marijuana possession place a burden on the church’s exercise of religion, violating both the state and U.S. constitutions.
This case could have nationwide repercussions, at a time when both RFRA legislation and the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes spreads throughout the states. Another religious group, THC Ministry, has been fighting for legal recognition in eighteen states since its founding in Hawaii in June of 2000. Members of the aspiring church have been indicted by a Federal grand jury on drug charges. The fate of TFCC’s lone outpost could mean an explosion of official cannabis-based religious practices in the U.S., something the leadership at TFCC says it will actively provide legal and monetary support for as they are able.
While TFCC has been granted legal recognition as a religious entity in Indiana, its members’ ability to partake in their sacrament is still being abridged. As the church wages a holy war with the state government, an interesting phenomenon has been unfolding within its walls, where it’s clear that the community is forming around something more profound than political activism, and broader-ranging than getting high.
While the use of cannabis is central in the church’s spiritual practice, it isn’t used to promote any single deity or religious tradition. As church member Gerry Gobel – a professional comedian – describes it, the importance of the sacrament is its ability to act as a sort of “spiritual accelerator.” It’s grease on the wheels – a supplement to aid spiritual introspection and self-actualization. Gobel, 48, says this is scarier to most people than simply reading through a few ancient verses, singing a hymn, or declaring allegiance to a restrictive religious practice.
“Having a spiritual moment shouldn’t be about conforming or being impressive to other people,” he explains. “It should be about you and exploration of the self. And that scares the shit out of people, because do you really want to find out who you are? Maybe you suck. Maybe you just need a little clarity as to where you stand in the universe.”
Standing up straight at 4-foot-2, church member and University of Indianapolis sophomore Samantha Ridgley certainly felt as though she’d found herself and a place of comfort and support when she finally made it out to The First Church.
Though she had been immediately interested when she heard about TFCC on the local news, she had missed the inaugural service for two reasons. The first was a pervasive sense of social anxiety, which she figured would become especially rabid among the hundreds of curious attendees, not to mention the hordes of police officers. The second was that she didn’t have a way to get there. Shortly before the church’s opening, she wrecked her car after leaving a head shop. She didn’t have the money to shell out to get it fixed, citing her status as a “broke-ass college kid.”
Ridgley hopes to graduate with a degree in art therapy, and she spends the majority of her days designing posters, taking classes, walking her roommate’s blind terrier around town, and smoking weed in her room. She’s lighthearted, fast-talking, and remarkably self-possessed and self-assured at 21 years old; she says she’s always felt a bit more mature than – and disconnected from – her peers.
Ever since kindergarten Ridgley has had to see a doctor every month to keep an eye on her scoliosis and test her bone density. Doctors also check for the spinal, neck and hip problems that her dwarfism puts her at high risk for. At age twelve, she had to have spinal surgery that left her with 26 screws in her back. She estimates that she has more x-rays than actual photographs from her childhood.
“Because of my dwarfism, I couldn’t keep up with the other kids like I wanted to with sports,” Ridgley says. “I’d end up spending a lot of time talking to adults or just listening to them, and I probably picked up a lot from that.”
When Ridgley started smoking marijuana a few months into her first year of college, she wasn’t just the typical young person looking to get high. Pot smoking helped her manage the chronic pain she feels from arthritis above the fused vertebrae in her back – not that you’d pick up on any hints of long-suffering in her bouncy presence. Beyond that, she says it calms her racing thoughts, relaxes her enough to engage with people her age, and opens her mind up to consider entirely new thoughts and perspectives.
So when she got out of class unexpectedly early one Wednesday, she decided on a whim to walk to TFCC and see what all the hype was about.
“I didn’t know anyone who went or was involved at all, so I just manned-up and went by myself,” Ridgley remembers, “which is a lot for me because I rarely go out and do things alone because anxiety sucks and I get quiet and shy.” That first day though, church matriarch Janet Golden-Hogan – a.k.a. Granny J – immediately hugged her at the door. From that point on, Ridgley felt completely at home.
“It was honestly great just being around people who were sharing love and improving the community,” she says. “We’re not just stoners getting high, sitting on our asses – which is great, because if I didn’t have a stoner outlet, that’s probably what I’d be doing all day.”
Ridgley was in love with the hugs, the music, the message of non-judgment and compassion, and how people used the time to get to know themselves and others on an uncommonly deep level.
It was also a plus to her that TFCC is committed to building relationships throughout the community, not just inside its walls. As an example of the church’s philanthropic efforts, Levin has plans to open the church doors to heroin-recovery support groups. Granny J, who fellow pro-cannabis activists have called “the Harriet Tubman of Marijuana,” leads groups of chronically ill patients over the Canadian border every few months for cannabis “treatment.” TFCC also gathers clothes and food to donate to Indianapolis’ homeless population, though that initiative, suggested by local nine-year-old Cannaterian Tyah Willhoite during a testimonial, has been fraught. After collecting 2,700 pairs of socks, Levin says TFCC attempted to pair up with a Christian organization in the area to distribute the donations, only to have the donation refused because of the church’s association with illegal drug use.
Gerry Gobel, the comedian, is also an integral – if unconventional – part of this commitment to outreach, orchestrating the church’s weekly Comedy Grinder events.
“As far as I’m concerned, comedy nights are about healing,” Gobel says. “It’s healing with a dick joke, if you want to put it that way.”
The speakeasy feel, as well as the cathedral acoustics, are a dream for a comedian like Gobel. It doesn’t hurt that the audience tends to have a laughter accelerator on board right alongside a spiritual one.
He only gets on stage after the other comedians in the lineup have had their turn doling out the ancient medicine of laughter, and his set is sometimes jarringly different from those that precede it – more full of rage than of gaiety. It’s jolting to witness such passion come from such a gentle, bespectacled face. His first set of 2016 started with this statement: “I didn’t come up with a set list – this is a hit list. A list of people I’m going to fuck with.” Gobel proceeded to air his grievances against a laundry list of people, ideologies and corporations.
First, there are the Indiana politicians who are dragging their feet on addressing marijuana legislation. Patricia Miller, a Republican member of the Indiana Senate and the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health Provider Services has stated that she will not consider hearing a bill on medical marijuana during her term, which will be ending with her retirement this year after 34 years in the General Assembly. Because of her stance, it will be at least a year before advocates can get a medical marijuana bill to the floor.
Then there’s the police force that spent thousands setting up surveillance equipment and, in Gobel’s view, intimidating churchgoers on its opening day despite the fact that no crimes were committed.
Chief among Gobel’s targets is Governor Pence, who proposed an overhaul to Indiana’s criminal sentencing laws in 2013 to lengthen prison time for certain marijuana offenses. Gobel decries Pence as a “bought politician,” pointing out that pro-cannabis activists have connected the legislation to Pence’s campaign contributions from GEO Group, a for-profit private prison company that runs Indiana’s largest penitentiary.
Then, of course, there are the overzealous tourists who mistakenly believe the church is akin to their personal smokehouse. As Gobel recounts, there were quite a few “frat boys” who showed up on opening day thinking they were going to light up, get some laughs, and go home with a fun story to tell their friends, not even realizing the danger they were putting every other person in. The Indianapolis police had, on questionable legal grounds, issued a warning that if anyone in attendance was caught smoking, everyone in attendance would be arrested.
Lastly, and most potently, there are the doctors and pharmaceutical companies that Gobel says forced one of his dear friends to stop using cannabis oil during cancer treatment, which he blames for his friend’s recent death.
In some ways, Gobel blames all of these people for his friend’s death, and it’s them he rages against during the Church’s weekly Comedy Grinder event. He’s not alone among the TFCC congregation in his indignant rage and confusion, though his passion is hard to match.
Sipe, for instance, the middle-aged nonsmoker, has no particular passion for the legalization of marijuana. However, she is passionate about her libertarian beliefs – and about her marriage. After her husband decided to reconnect to his spiritual roots by visiting a Methodist church in the area, she made the choice to join him, simply because it was something they could do together. She says that as she’s watched the majority of her friends’ marriages dissolve – along with her own parents’ – she knew she had to make a commitment to be intentional about prioritizing time and shared activities with her husband, whether or not the particular activity felt natural for her. Still, she felt exceedingly awkward nestled in the pews of the Methodist church. She knew her intentions didn’t line up with the other congregants’ and every warm handshake made her feel more like a fraud. Sipe doesn’t ascribe to the spirituality or sacrament of the Cannaterians either; but the experience, she says, is vastly different.
“Even if I were to stand in front of everybody and testify and say, ‘Your faith has nothing to do with me, and I feel no lack because of that,’ they would still say, ‘Okay, I love you.’ I don’t think I would get that instantaneous and unabashed reaction from any other group if I told them their values were not my values.”
She says that, at TFCC, everyone else is prioritizing the same things as her: togetherness and support, no matter how disparate their faiths or interests are. Plus, TFCC provides a convenient vessel for Sipe to satisfy her taste for political dissension.
“It’s a little bit of rabble rousing that I don’t get to do much since I’m in academia now and I have to be a good girl,” she says. “Plus, going down to the statehouse with a sign? It’s really a waste. I’ve tried it, and there needs to be something more creative.”
Gobel clearly agrees with this premise of creative disruption, and he brings that spirit to the podium every Friday night. By making others laugh, venting his rage, and fighting the “propaganda machine” of anti-cannabis sentiment, Gobel is seeking a sieve for old wounds, and from the pain he still feels so sharply over losing his friend, who was publicly known only as “Otto the Comic.”
“I have to raise some hell, because people need to know that someone’s not afraid to speak out,” Gobel says, pausing to compensate for a case of cottonmouth. “Old stereotypes are calling the shots, and it’s actually killing people. These politicians are owned by Big Pharma, and they’re all peddling heroin and banning this safe drug that can actually cure people.”
Gobel’s friend Otto sought alternative treatments and pain-management solutions after discovering two cancerous tumors in his throat. According to Gobel, Otto began applying cannabis oil to the primary tumor. During his next doctor’s appointment, his physician was shocked to discover that the tumor had shrunk to a negligible size, and cleared him for surgery to remove the smaller, secondary tumor. Following the surgery, Gobel says Otto was given opioid painkillers for the recovery process, along with a threat: if drug tests revealed him to be a marijuana user, his prescription would be revoked, because doctors would assume marijuana use meant he was selling the opioids, which are exceptionally lucrative on the black market.
“I was there when they told Otto that,” Gobel remembers. “I saw the look in his eyes, and I saw they had gotten him on fear. If he didn’t follow their self-serving rules, they were going to make him suffer. And I knew then that they were going to kill him.”
The tumor came back, and Otto died not long afterward, in June 2015.
In his act, Gobel reserves his harshest judgments for Big Pharma. Eli Lilly, a major pharmaceutical company and provider of opioid painkillers, is headquartered in Indianapolis. Gobel says: “Eli Lilly is the biggest legal heroin dealer in the country, and everything they sell will disappear once they legalize marijuana, so they’ve got a vested interest…they’ve bought all of the politicians. So what’s happening is now we’re looking for a religion to set us free because we can’t get free from the government.”
Gobel still believes in the power of laughter, but these days he mostly leaves that up to the acts that come before him on Friday’s shows. As the final act, he ramps it up for his own catharsis, railing against prohibition with all of the hellfire-and-brimstone passion of a Puritan preacher.
“Spread the word,” he says onstage. “That’s all you can do…we have to preach it. If nobody’s preaching it, and we don’t have any kind of emotional connection on this, no one’s going to think this is real, they’re going to think it’s just a bunch of people who want to get wasted.”
It’s possible that some members of TFCC do just want to get wasted. The majority, though, seem to be seeking something higher: be it justice, peace or righteous mischief.
“People of different faiths go to churches for inner satisfaction,” Levin says. “And with the dogma, the guilt, and the judgment that many of the other churches use, I see people coming over and embracing us, because we don’t use guilt and judgment as our cornerstones. We don’t down-talk people, we uplift people.”
* * *
Emily Byrd is a North Carolina-based journalist who typically covers the food and restaurant industry. She is an avid storyteller, a novice kombucha brewer, and a mediocre ukulele player. Email her at email@example.com if you want to chat.