When it comes to effective public-relations campaigns, California's Sisters of the Valley -- the "weed nuns" -- take the cake.
Well, now that I think about it, that would probably be brownies, not cake.
The problem, of course, is (a) these nuns are not real Catholic nuns and (b) their love of traditional religious garb make them look like nuns. In the past this has been confusing to journalists, especially those looking for a novelty story, as opposed to a piece of fact-based religion coverage.
One of the all-time classic stories stirred up by the PR efforts of the sisters ran at Newsweek (surprise, surprise). That led to a blog piece by Catholic Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS News professional who, before moving to the altar and pulpit, won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards. The blunt headline:
Newsweek, Go Home. You’re Drunk. Those Aren’t Nuns.
Now, the lede on the Newsweek did say that the nuns were "self-proclaimed" -- but the visuals probably overwhelmed that one moment of clarity (which wasn't explained very well) for most readers.
So now, Reuters is back with yet another "weed sisters" report, which has been distributed by Religion News Service. In terms of factual clarity, this piece deserves attention. It is a step forward, in terms of "weed sisters" PR materials. Here is the overture:
MERCED, Calif. (Reuters) The Sisters of the Valley, California’s self-ordained “weed nuns,” are on a mission to heal and empower women with their cannabis products.
Based near the town of Merced in the Central Valley, which produces over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States, the Sisters of the Valley grow and harvest their own cannabis plants.
The sisterhood stresses that its seven members, despite the moniker, do not belong to any order of the Catholic Church.
“We’re against religion, so we’re not a religion. We consider ourselves Beguine revivalists, and we reach back to pre-Christian practices,” said 58-year-old Sister Kate, who founded the sisterhood in 2014.
OK, that's three separate references that draw a bright green line between the Sisters of the Valley and mainstream Catholic religious life -- in both senses of the word "religious." I don't see how anyone could read the top of this story and be confused on that point.
So consider that a mild compliment for basic journalism.
Now, I would like to encourage journalists to dig a bit deeper the next time they are presented with an opportunity to report on the "weed nuns." Consider the very next passage in this Reuters story:
The group says its Holy Trinity is the marijuana plant, specifically hemp, a strain of marijuana that has very low levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in the plant.
Members turn the hemp into cannabis-based balms and ointments, which they say have the power to improve health and well-being. ...
“A sister becomes a sister through a commercial relationship and earning a wage or a commission and we want to grow this way because we want to free the women, we don’t want to make them more dependent,” said Kate, whose real name is Christine Meeusen.
Say what? What does it mean to say that marijuana is the Holy Trinity?
Believe it or not, I am not joking. I would really be interested in knowing more about the "religious" side of this group's life. When Sister Kate says they have built their little order on "pre-Christian practices," what does that mean in terms of liturgical specifics?
The bottom line: Do they have religious rites? What happens in these services? What are their scriptures? Are there formal liturgies and, if so, what do those rites say? Do the women take vows and, if so, what is the content of those vows?
In other words, I would be interested in seeing what would happen if a reporter made a serious effort to cover the RELIGION side of this story and others like it.
Last year, there was a USA Today report (which I missed at the time) that actually visited a service of one cannabis-fueled congregation, which resulted in this overture:
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Services at the Coachella Valley Church begin and end with the Lord’s Prayer.
In between, there is the sacrament.
“Breathe deep and blow harder,” intoned Pastor Grant Atwell after distributing marijuana joints to 20 worshipers on a recent Sunday. “Nail the insight down, whether you get it from marijuana or prayer. Consider what in your own life you are thankful for.”
A man wearing a “Jesus Loves You” baseball cap and toting a shofar, piped up. “Thank you, God, for the weed,” he called out. “I’m thankful for the spirit of cannabis,” a woman echoed from the back. “I am grateful to be alive,” said another young woman, adding that she had recently overdosed -- on what, she did not say -- for the third time.
The small room, painted black and gold and decorated with crosses and Rastafarian symbols, filled with pungent smoke after an hour-long service of Christian prayers, self-help slogans and inspirational quotes led by Atwell, a Campbell, Calif., massage therapist and photographer.
Despite its mainstream Christian trappings, the Coachella Valley Church describes itself as a Rastafarian church, which is tough to define.
You get the picture. I still would be interested in knowing more about the doctrinal content of what is going on. It's amazing how much clarity can be found in prayer, hymns and even creeds, if a congregation uses texts of these kinds.
So, we are seeing a few steps forward on this, uh, growing trend.
The bottom line: The more journalism the better. In this case, that would mean asking some basic religious questions. You think?