With a cigar in one hand and the Good Book in the other, each member of a local Bible study group gathers weekly in Conyers to take a walk through the scriptures while enjoying a good smoke.
The men call themselves the Holy Smoke'um Bible study, and they meet every Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Got Cigars? Tobacco Mart at 1360 Dogwood Drive. Charles McLendon, a Conyers businessman and one of the organizers of the group, said the Bible study was an extension of a group of regular customers who typically can be found at the store on their lunch breaks smoking cigars.
"We talk about the challenges they have in their relationship in Christ, and their common experiences," said McLendon, who is an ordained minister. "The church is not the building, but people meeting in the name of the Lord."
McLendon, who speaks a careful meter in a baritone voice, explained that the Bible study is open to anyone interested, with the purchase of a cigar as the price of admission. He said that's to help out Tobacco Mart owner Lemma Amedie defray the cost of keeping the lights on and having an employee close up afterwards.
The group first met in April when they began studying the book of John.
"That's because John highlights an individual's relationship with God compared with the church as a whole," McLendon said.
At first, the group was a handful of men and McLendon believed it would not last long after they finished their study of John. However, two months later, the men are still meeting and still working on John.
"At some point, we wanted to make clear to everyone that there shouldn't be any sense of obligation to attend, and that if there was a desire to continue we would, but if we were done with it, then so be it," he said. "The response was to keep it going."
The group has maintained it's core participants. It's a diverse collection. Men in their mid-to-late 50s study the Bible along side those in their early 20s, McLendon said.
"Everybody is equal because each is struggling with their walk with the Lord," he said.
Frank Penley, who has seminary training, begins the study by reviewing the text and describing the historical setting. McLendon then leads the discussion.
"He sets the pot, and I stir it," McLendon said.
Simply put, the men like to talk and smoke cigars. The study group breaks up at 9:30 p.m., but McLendon said the men linger to talk afterwards. Discussions tend to go on in the parking lot after the shop is closed.
Watching the men is evidence that the act of smoking a cigar lends itself to discussion. Cigars take a while to smoke, so there's plenty of time to talk.
That's about how the lunch time regulars operate when they gather at the shop. McLendon smiled when he said the lunch time regulars call themselves "The Fellowship of the Ring Gauge." The name refers to the scale used to measure the diameter of a cigar. The idea for the Bible study group grew from The Fellowship.
The Fellowship is informal and attracts lawyers, bankers and other businessmen, but also truckers and some blue collar workers. Though folks come into the store each day for a smoke, Friday afternoon is as close as it comes to a regular meeting of The Fellowship, as the cigar enthusiasts get an early start on the weekend.
McLendon said The Fellowship's diversity is what makes their conversations interesting, whether it's about sports, national affairs, religion or life in general.
"It's like a fraternal organization without all of the trappings," McLendon said, with an unlit cigar perched between his fingers. "We prefer to call it a 'fellowship.'"
Jay Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org