Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Medical Marijuana and the Risks of Faith

I was glad to learn of the Obama administration's decision regarding medical marijuana, shifting resources away from the investigation and prosecution of medical marijuana users, growers, and suppliers.

In 1996, the California attorney general's office ordered that all medical marijuana dispensaries in the state be shut down.  Knowing that this would increase the suffering of those who relied on the drug to ease the pain of illness, several other progressive pastors and I were invited to turn our churches into medical marijuana distribution sites.  I was invited see what that would entail so went to an "undisclosed location" (or so we thought) to see how the drug was given out.

The following day, I woke up to grab the morning paper and read on the front page of the SF Chronicle: "Rev. Karen Oliveto is considering allowing her church, Bethany United Methodist Church in Noe Valley, to be used as a medical marijuana site." Oh no! I had made no decision, said nothing to my congregation, and now they were all learning this bit of "news" along with their Saturday bagel and coffee.

Needless to say, I was more than just a little nervous about what Sunday morning would be like. The first thing I did was apologize to the congregation and correct the zealous journalistic reporting. I then promised to send each congregational member a packet of information about medical marijuana and the legal risks involved. I also asked them to pray every day for discernment about what we as a community should do.

The following Sunday, we gathered after church to discuss whether or not we would become a distribution site.  One by one, members stood to voice their opinion: "Well, it is illegal...but what would Jesus do? Didn't he break laws if it meant relieving suffering or healing the sick?" "I wish, before my Harold died, I could have eased his pain with this drug. I hated to see him suffer so..."  "It is illegal, and we could lose our church assets if the government came after us, but doesn't God ask us to put people first?" 

It looked like we were coming to a consensus when suddenly Inez, one of the community's "grandmothers", raised her hand and stood. "Just hold on here a second."  Uh-oh, I thought. Here comes the controversy. "Do you hear what we are saying? 'Sure, they can come and use our building.' What's so Christian about that? We need to be here, when the sick come for their medication, and offer hospitality. We need to be here and love them as they receive the marijuana." So every Tuesday afternoon, an 84 year old woman would lead a band of church folks as they welcomed the sick into our building and helped them access medical marijuana.

It was a transformative experience for our community, one that we often turned to as an example of extreme faithfulness.  We are called to take great risks as a people of faith. In fact, if we aren't taking risks, we probably aren't being very faithful.  Because living our faith out loud is countercultural.  It is nothing short of revoluntionary activity.

I learned an important lesson from this experience.  People in the pews are hungry for a lived expression of faith that makes a mark in the world, that calls them to be their very best selves as individuals and as community, and that calls them to step out and risk it all as a disciple of Jesus.  The Gospel demands nothing less.

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