The Holy Smokes Cigar Club is an underground social group blending faith and cigars in Colorado and beyond, where members gather to smoke cigars and discuss everything from religion to life. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

Cigars are temporary, but it doesn’t seem so here. These smokers handle their sticks more like treasured heirlooms. They collect them in cases covered in stickers and trade notes about flavors. They slowly follow the ritual of cigars being chosen and cut and compared and lit up and smoked over an hour or two.

And they know when to slowly slide their cigar from their face and say something silly or profound to a friend across the room.

Cigar smoke lightly fills this Monument backyard hangout, nicknamed the Lion’s Den and outfitted with oversized leather chairs and bottles of whiskey. The conversations create a thicker coat. As per its name, lion fixtures and paintings are sprinkled around the room made for this sort of thing. A welcome sign of sorts notes the house rules: “Abandon all despair ye who enter here.” A wooden cross offers more advice, taken from the first chapter of Joshua: “Be strong and courageous,” the capitalized letters read. “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

The Bible verse isn’t the centerpiece here, just like talking about the Bible isn’t the main goal.

Really, there’s no goal here. At meetings of the Holy Smokes Club, members swear there’s no agenda. There’s also no judgment.

That’s what got Savannah Borden, who is 27, into it. When Borden started dating her boyfriend, he told her about his weekly cigar club. Trying to be supportive, she replied something like, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Then she experienced it for herself. The cigars, yes, and the community that came with it.

“The cigar lets you be real,” Borden said. “It allows you to be vulnerable.”

Borden grew up living what she calls a double life, trying to balance being a Christian girl and hanging out with friends outside her church. She’d fit the mold of whoever she was around.

“I was being two different people for the sake of trying to belong,” she said. “I was trying to be perfect and that started to weigh on me after awhile.”

Sitting in a leather chair with a cigar in hand, Borden feels like she can be her real and messy self.

“No one here is perfect and no one is trying to be,” she said. “This is a place you can take a breath and there’s no pretending. Life is too short to pretend to be something you’re not.”

She sums up the club’s philosophy this way: “We love Jesus and we love cigars. That’s what it is.”

The start of the Holy Smokes Club, which everyone agrees is a madly catchy name, is treated as something of legend by now, even though it only goes back to 2007.

A local nonprofit leader sent out a text to a bunch of ministry and church leaders. That evening, four men met up for cigars and drinks and conversation.

Steve Reiter, a six-year member of the group, has heard and told the story many times.

“Every single guy there said, “I need more of this in my life,’” Reiter says. “Especially as men, we tend to isolate and don’t have a community we can open up to and talk about life.”

An occasional hangout turned into a weekly gathering in Colorado Springs, and that turned into Holy Smokes clubs all over the country. A secret Facebook group for the club has 3,500 members.

And they do try to be secretive.

When a crew from The Gazette arrived on schedule, a man with white, shoulder-length hair and a beard wondered how we found out about the group. “I thought we were a better kept secret than that,” he remarked with a laugh.

The group is underground, Reiter says, in part because not all religious denominations approve of cigar smoking or the paired glass of whiskey or beer. And some members are members, or hold higher roles, at those kinds of churches.

Recently, Reiter has found ways to take the Holy Smokes above ground. He hosts a podcast featuring interviews with members and he started a website where interested people can request to join a local club.

They’re proud of what they’ve created via the Holy Smokes formula. They don’t see cigars as sin.

They point to faith heroes such as Charles H. Spurgeon, known as the prince of preachers, who was criticized for saying to his church, “I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight.”

He followed that up with a letter in the Daily Telegraph reading, “When I have found intense pain relieved, a weary brain soothed, and calm, refreshing sleep obtained by a cigar, I have felt grateful to God, and have blessed His name.”

For John Shepherd, a Holy Smokes regular, it was Christian author C.S. Lewis who turned him onto smoking a pipe 30 years ago. At 59, Shepherd is still a pastor’s kid at heart.

He grew up in a missionary family and went to church, which remains part of his weekly routine. So for a long time, he saw smoking as taboo within the faith community. He’d only pull out his pipe when he was at home alone or around his wife.

And then, someone told him about a place to smoke with others of faith. “Are you kidding me?” he remembers thinking. “There’s a bunch of us?” Now he tells people this is the best “men’s group” or Bible study he’s been part of.

“At those kinds of things, you’re following a script,” he said. “There’s something in this recipe that’s crossing boundaries. It’s all about the relationships.”

Sometimes they talk about Netflix movies or the worst part of their days. And things get deeper. They talk about divorce and disease and losing parents. They pray for each other. They get intense about politics. They laugh about politics.

Mostly, they share their struggles and stories. This is one of the only places Borden has felt free to do so.

“Here, it’s like it’s OK to not be OK,” she said. “The cigar is just a sweet bonus.”

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