2017-08-10 / Local & State

Meet PA’s Unlikely “Pastor For Pot”

By Joel Shannon YORK DAILY RECORD

ABBOTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) – What would they think?

His congregation. His representatives. All those people in the town hall.

He didn’t look like a rebel. And he didn’t look like a stoner – because he wasn’t one. (He still isn’t).

He wore his white collar - he regularly does in public. He was just as baby-faced then as he is now, about three years later.

He didn’t look like the “pastor for pot” – even though that’s what some have called him.

Annie was on his mind.

He was worried, for her and for her cause.

He worried that his actions would bring division, not unity.

He worried about the opposition he might face.

To be honest, he was a little worried they'd run him out of the church.

That didn’t happen.

Three years ago, when Annie’s family came to speak with Shawn Berkebile, he hadn’t touched the plant in years.

Frankly, at that point in his life, he didn’t think much about marijuana any more.

When he was younger, he thought it was a drug – a bad one – and that people who smoked were stoners and potheads. They were the deviants.

Things started to change in college.

He smiled looking back. He was part of a music fraternity. Pot was just a part of the culture.

He partook socially, on occasion.

It didn’t ruin his life.

But he moved on, past those social circles. He graduated and went to seminary, just like he planned. He met his wife working at a church camp; he had three kids. He became a minister in sleepy Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, population: 1,011.

And because he was a minister, Annie’s family needed to talk with him.

They were devoted members of his church, and they had a confession to make: They were about to break federal law. And they weren’t about to hide it from their pastor.

The reason for the crime was simple: Their nine-year-old daughter was sick and needed help.

Struggling with severe epilepsy, Annie’s quality of life was terrible.

She and her parents were “medically and pharmaceutically at the end of our rope,” recalled Annie’s mother, Angela Sharrer.

Annie was doped out. She'd been hospitalized twice and was in fear of having major organ failure.

The medicine that doctors had been using to control her seizures had turned against her.

Berkebile had seen her struggle first-hand. Recently, he had visited her in the hospital and saw the fragile girl. Her mind wouldn’t shut off – she was wracked with sleep deprivation and suffering from life-threatening pancreatitis.

Without reliable medication to control her seizures, Annie was constantly in peril. It wasn’t unusual for her lips to turn blue mid-seizure because she often stopped breathing.

Her parents were desperate, and said they were going to try medical cannabis for Annie.

Berkebile listened. He didn’t judge. He knew that they were doing what they thought was best, even if it was a state and federal crime, at the time.

“I would do the same thing if I were you,” Sharrer remembers Pastor Shawn saying.

But Berkebile wanted to know more. So, while Annie was getting treatment and her parents were ramping up their medical marijuana advocacy efforts, he educated himself.

He learned about marijuana’s medicinal benefits, that it was less harmful than alcohol. And he learned that his denomination didn’t have a position on the plant.

He found that people who benefited from marijuana’s healing effects were some of the most vulnerable imaginable: cancer patients, vets struggling with PTSD, Annie.

And Annie did benefit. As her family experimented with different strains of the plant, she got better and better.

“They saw success. I saw success. So we started to see Annie in church more often,” Berkebile remembers.

She’s not healed. But she’s better.

“You can see that there’s joy, there’s happiness. But you can also see really big suffering, especially when she’s having a bad day. And when she’s having a bad day, her parents are having a bad day,” he said.

She’s having fewer bad days now. And those sitting next to Annie and her family in the pews took note.

You wouldn’t expect St. John’s to be a hotbed for medical marijuana activism - you just wouldn’t.

It’s a 257-year-old congregation. “Everyone’s related to everyone,” Berkebile mused. He didn’t hesitate in describing it as “extremely conservative.”

It’s located in Abbottstown, a town so small that its most notable landmark is its traffic circle.

But under Berkebile’s leadership, the congregation has grown dramatically. Bishop James Dunlop cited Pastor Shawn’s energetic leadership style in a May 2017 award presentation.

He’s the kind of pastor who stops and talks to the construction workers outside the church.

He strives to be a peacemaker, so the idea of taking up a controversial cause like marijuana wasn’t easy.

But it was necessary.

Annie’s treatment coincided with a political movement in Pennsylvania to legalize medical marijuana.

After seeing how the plant’s healing effects can help those in need, Berkebile knew he couldn’t remain silent.

“I was scared out of my mind when I started. . I was scared that I was going to get judged or potentially run out of the church for going into a very divisive . topic,” he recalls.

But the spirit was calling.

He was intentional and careful with his approach, getting the blessing of his bishop, building support in his home church and then becoming a public advocate.

He thought it would be an uphill battle. He thought he would encounter fierce resistance, both political and religious.

He was wrong.

“There’s been no opposition,” he said.

The only notable exception was one lawmaker who didn’t agree - strongly, a disheartening start to his advocacy. But Pastor Shawn persevered.

He spoke to reporters, attended rallies, led letter-writing campaigns, met with representatives, organized other clergy advocates and encouraged all to educate themselves on the topic of medical marijuana.

And through his work, he sensed what he saw as the true opposition: The power of the federal government. He also speculated big pharma and big money slowed the spread of medical marijuana, at both the federal and state levels.

But no one with a white collar stood on the other side of the picket fence, in his experience.

That’s because medical marijuana is about compassion, he says.

That was on full display during the April 2014 town hall Berkebile spoke at.

It was early in his public activism, and speaking openly about the topic with legislators and congregants in the room was unnerving.

He was sure someone would take the microphone and judge, scolding him for his support of a federal crime.

But unity dominated that night. When stories like Annie’s were told, people listened.

“When . you can see pain and hurt and suffering, who’s going to object to that? When you have veterans and they're coming back and they're struggling with PTSD . who’s going to object to them receiving medical care the way that they need to receive medical care?'' he said.

Annie won.

Two years after that town hall, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill establishing a medical marijuana program. Right now, the Department of Health is working to implement the plan.

Pastor Shawn wasn’t run out of his church.

Instead, congregants joined him in the cause, taking part in the lobbying efforts, including a write-in campaign.

And instead of scorn from church leaders, he got a commendation – a recognition of his advocacy work.

In May 2017, a room full of his peers clapped as Bishop James Dunlop recognized Berkebile.

“Well done, good and faithful servant,” the bishop said.

“This is the beginning,” pastor Shawn said a moment later.

Pastor Shawn learned a lot when he became the “Pastor for Pot.”

Most importantly, he learned that in his community, people listen when a religious leader speaks. Lawmakers listen.

For two years, he was Annie’s voice to the powerful, since she couldn’t speak for herself.

And in the process, he found others without a voice.

“There’s a massive amount of black men that have been incarcerated for small, petty drug possession and that’s destroyed community after community; congregation after congregation. And that needs to change. So if I have a voice of privilege, I'm going to take it.”

He’s still searching for the right policy position, but he’s an advocate for drug policy education – for lawmakers and voters to think about the implications of the war on drugs upon communities.

It’s about compassion, justice and love, not drugs to Pastor Shawn.

Abbottstown, Pennsylvania and its quaint traffic circle might seem removed from the nation’s heroin crisis. The residents there might not talk a lot about the implications of decriminalizing marijuana or how U.S. drug policy may disproportionally affect already marginalized populations.

But that’s going to change, if Pastor Shawn has any say in the matter.

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