Eric Van Scyoc takes a satisfying puff of the cigar he's just lit. Smoke drifts upward, mingling with that of the other fellows seated around the table.
He checks his watch, sets down the cigar and invites the others to open their Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew. Another session of the Smokin' Bible Study has begun.
If you just did a double take, you're not alone. The idea of a cigar lounge Bible discussion has been raising eyebrows since Van Scyoc (pronounced "van syke") started the group nearly three years ago. It meets the first and third Wednesday of each month at Cigar Cigars in Rocky River.
Van Scyoc, pastor of the nearby St. Thomas Lutheran Church, says most people aren't sure what to think of his unorthodox Bible study at first. But so far he hasn't gotten any pushback from his parishioners.
"I'm not promoting smoking," he points out. "My aim is to remove barriers to exposing people to the Bible."
The study attracts a range of participants: Protestant and Catholic, regular churchgoers and those who fill the pews less often. Sometimes guys who've just stopped by the lounge for an after-work smoke will listen in too.
"I remember one man in particular who said, I've learned more in the last 45 minutes here than I have in the last 50 years sitting in church,' " Van Scyoc says.
One benefit of the cigar lounge setting is that it puts folks at ease. "People have been willing to ask questions that might be embarrassing to ask in front of a large group or in another environment," the pastor says.
Van Scyoc says the Bible study had its genesis in 2009. While shopping at Cigar Cigars, he met owner George Kariotakis and mentioned that he was a minister. Kariotakis had recently purchased the business and set up a back-room cigar lounge. "George said, You ought to have a Bible study back there,' " Van Scyoc remembers. "He said it jokingly, but I said, If you'll let me, I'll do it.' "
Kariotakis not only agreed, but also offered the lounge's A/V system, allowing Van Scyoc to incorporate visual aids and video in the sessions. He says the study isn't a guys-only thing either; women occasionally attend and contribute to the discussion.
Of course, the bigger question is: Can you still attend if you don't smoke?
"Not smoking is allowed," the pastor says with a grin.