"Did you know that someone at your church is selling cigarettes??"
That was the question the tech asked me after church today. I had stopped her to tell her about some incidents the ladies had shared about "men in vans" propositioning them on the way to the bus stop. I wanted her to carry the message back to the facility, so they would call the police and request a stepped-up police patrol. What I got was, "Did you know that someone at your church is selling cigarettes??"
Funny, yes, I did know that ... but let me explain... (This is a situation of darned if you do, darned if you don't...)
About 2 years ago, we began offering a Sunday school class called the New Day class. It is 12 step style in nature, with the intent to provide a class where individuals can explore their spirituality in the context of recovery. (That's church speak for it's a class for the rehab ladies.)
When we first launched the class, we began picking up a particular client group from the rehab facility that had more privileges than the other ladies. They were permitted to go places without being escorted by a tech (think prison guard). Yet what we discovered is that many of the women were so anxious about waiting for someone, anyone to show up that might offer them a cigarette, they would stall out on going to class.
So what did we do? We started providing the cigarettes. One cigarette before class, one cigarette after (and for those of you who have not bought cigarettes lately, that is a generous gesture on the part of the volunteers who were teaching the New Day class). Soon, "Where's the cigarettes?" became the question of the day. The volunteers began to question their own actions, wondering if giving women cigarettes ... especially women who were pregnant ... was such a great idea. Somehow, it became selling the cigarettes for 25 cents a piece. The money was placed in the offering plate. This went on for another 6-8 months, but the same dynamic kept showing up ... "Where's the cigarettes?"
Recently, the volunteers decided they were tired of dealing cigarettes. This was NOT the ministry they had signed up for. I agreed. We were not really doing the ladies any favors in the long run. So naturally, the first Sunday we no longer provide cigarettes, everyone is making noise about selling cigarettes.
I was out by the smoke cans looking for a young woman who was supposed to be baptized. Another woman approached me instead. "Are you the lady who sells the cigarettes? I REALLY need a cigarette today!" No, sorry, it's not me, I say.
I walk inside. My daughter is selling kolaches. She calls me over. "Mom, one of the ladies asked Ms. Judy if she sells cigarettes. She said someone at the church is selling cigarettes...." I groaned, rolled my eyes, and told her not to worry, I would explain later.
As the service was starting, it appeared that lots of people were missing. I wandered out to the smoke cans. There they were, getting those last few drags.
And finally after church, the coup d'etat from the tech ... "Did you know that someone from your church is selling cigarettes?"
Did I know that? For the record, we were selling cigarettes, but we're not any more. And for the record, I have no idea if selling cigarettes or not selling cigarettes is the right action. I have no idea what Jesus would do. I have no idea if the concept of sanctuary ... accepting people as they are ... means providing them cigarettes. I have no idea if this is the equivalent of giving them a cool cup of water. I have no idea what it is like to be addicted to nicotine or any other chemical substance. I have no idea of the hell someone is going through when they can't find anyone who will give them a cigarette.
What I do know is that love is more powerful than anything else.
One of the women who has embodied an attitude of entitlement to the nth degree about this whole cigarette situation, who has complained and grumbled, who has lagged behind when I have tried to steer the women to Sunday school or worship, who has gotten under my skin, who has acted out and cussed and said things "in my presence" that she probably should not have, who has begged, "Please, Ms. Tammy, don't get me in trouble" when I point blank asked her, what is going on with you today? -- this woman needs to be loved. And so during the "passing of the peace" in church today, I made my way to her, gave her a big side arm hug and told her, I love you, Betty. "I love you too, Ms. Tammy," she replied.
I don't know how that encounter made Betty feel, but it made me feel as if all was right with the world. I needed to tell her that I loved her, to exercise love toward her, because I was succumbing to a lot of other thoughts and words and actions that were quite the opposite of love.
All this fuss about cigarettes. It's kind of silly when you think about it.