As pastor of the St. John’s Lutheran Church in Abbottstown, PA for the last eight years, Shawn Berkebile has always considered it his duty to help “the least, the lost and the helpless.”
That includes medical marijuana patients.
Berkebile – or the “pastor for pot”, as he's known these days – certainly didn’t come to this realization overnight.
In fact, before coming face-to-face with one family’s desperate plight three years ago, Berkebile barely considered cannabis a medicine at all.
“Marijuana was always something I didn’t really associate with,” Berkebile told Civilized.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I’d one day be advocating for medicinal cannabis, I would’ve said no. I didn’t think our country was even close to being ready for that.”
That all changed when Berkebile was approached by the Sharrer family, whose nine-year-old daughter Annie was suffering from severe epilepsy.
The Sharrers – members of Berkebile’s congregation – explained how their daughter was doped out on a cocktail of powerful medications prescribed by a plethora of medical experts. Slowly but surely, amidst the endless hospitalizations and constant threats of organ failure, the little girl was dying.
At that moment, Berkebile knew he had two options: he could express his sympathy and send the Sharrers on their way, or he could act on his duty to help the least, the lost and the helpless.
He chose the latter.
“As a pastor we speak for the voiceless. Jesus always cares for the marginalized and those that society has given no chance to speak,” said Berkebile.
“Annie couldn’t speak for herself, so I felt it was my calling as her pastor to be her voice.”
In the years that followed, Berkebile became just that. After an exhaustive effort to educate himself on the benefits of medical marijuana, Berkebile began speaking at town halls and to the media, attending rallies and orchestrating letter-writing campaigns about cannabis. He even joined forces with advocacy groups like Campaign for Compassion.
At first, Berkebile admits, his new mission was undeniably nerve-wracking.
“No one in the church had ever spoken publicly about cannabis – recreationally or medically... That’s kind of why I was nervous, because I was doing something that was against the cultural norm,” said Berkebile. “But I knew that medical marijuana was not a bad thing, that it was actually providing a lot of care and relief to a lot of people.
“I knew that my voice as a pastor had some power, that when I used it wisely in the political arena, people tended to listen.”
Listen they did – including many members of the St. John’s Lutheran Church congregation, who “made sure Annie got the medicine she needed” via letters campaigns and other advocacy methods; an effort Berkebile called a “strong spiritual drive.”
In 2016, the work of advocates like Berkebile paid off, as the Pennsylvania legislature voted in favor of implementing a medical marijuana program.
But perhaps more importantly, he watched as cannabis “gave life to the lifeless” in little Annie – and so many others like her.
“Cannabis is a medicine that is offering hope to families that have lost hope,” he said.
“That’s enough for me to know that more people need access to cannabis, not only in Pennsylvania but across the country... and we are so far behind in our use and practice of this medicine.”
Berkebile is far from finished with his medical marijuana advocacy. These days, he spends a lot of energy on efforts to deschedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act through groups like Clergy for a New Drug Policy.
“Better federal cannabis legislation would be such an incredible feat because it would allow the best of the best to actually start doing good research,” he said. “I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg as far as what the plant can do to provide care to a lot of people.”