Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Bible study group goes global

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In 1975, Lee Campbell prayed. She prayed hard for a Bible study that would unite the women of the Washington, D.C. area, one that would be open to everyone.

By September of that year Campbell had started Community Bible Study, a non-denominational group that met at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. Now, 33 years later, CBS has spread to 60 countries around the world, with more than 126,000 members worldwide.

The 33rd year of Community Bible Study in Bethesda kicks off Sept. 2, with the dramatic presentation of "Women of the Bible," a one-woman show depicting different Biblical figures. The event, which starts at 10 a.m. at Fourth Presbyterian, is also an opportunity to learn about CBS.

"I hope it's clear that we want anyone and everyone to come and join us," said Peg Kupelian, a group member from Rockville.

Associate Executive Director of CBS Pat Robertson–no not that Pat Robertson– was a member of the original class at Fourth Presbyterian. With a 20,000-square-foot headquarters now in Colorado Springs, Robertson said it's amazing to have seen the transformation.

"Looking back on it, D.C. was an ideal place to birth the ministry," she said. "People from all levels of society would come and be blessed at our group, then would move somewhere else, or back to where they were originally from."

In the early years, Robertson said group members would get calls about starting their own groups across the country. By 1976 groups had started in Virginia, the first West Coast class began in 1977 in Santa Monica, Calif., and the first international class started in London in 1979.

Classes meet once a week for two hours, and groups throughout the world focus on different books of the Bible. The meetings are an opportunity to review readings that were assigned at the previous week's meeting, as well as socialize and meet with other members.

Classes cover most of the Bible, and each 30-week course comes with a workbook full of questions about Bible passages. Children's classes and classes for prisoners have also developed, and the once female-dominated group has spread to include couples and single men as well.

Despite the broad reach of the group now, the Bethesda class still meets at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on River Road in Bethesda.

Phyllis Cooper, teaching director of the Bethesda class, said it has grown to more than 260 members, who break up into smaller work groups to discuss the week's assignments.

The universal, non-denominational aspects of CBS are partially what make it work, she said.

"People can come and be comfortable," said Cooper, who has been a part of the Bethesda group since 1984. "We're very careful about asking people to not talk about politics, or the church they go to."

But keeping politics out of the discussion can be difficult, when some members are the wives of U.S. Congressmen and even a former president, Cooper said.

"George H.W. Bush went to CBS in Midland, Texas," Cooper, a Potomac resident, said with a smile.

Other participants of the Bethesda group, which includes members of more than 70 churches, say it's the sense of the community that keeps them coming back.

"We keep people in the same group for the entire year, so they get to know one another," Kupelian said. "This gives them an opportunity for people to pray for them, and people are longing for that."