Bible study meant to bring BR together for action

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. … When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” — Acts 2: 4, 6

For this Pentecost Sunday, Together Baton Rouge is seeking another experience of language and understanding.

By bringing together people from differing denominational, geographic, economic and racial backgrounds to study the Bible, organizers hope to foster an appreciation and understanding of others’ points of view.

“We are not about converting one another to each other’s point of view,” the Rev. Mark Holland, rector of St. James Episcopal Church, told pastors attending a November meeting where Together Baton Rouge introduced the concept of a community wide, contextual Bible study. “We are about trying to see the world from another’s point of view.”

The Rev. Lee Wesley, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church in north Baton Rouge and Plymouth Rock Baptist Church in Plaquemine, is an executive committee member of Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of churches and civic groups that has been working to address such community problems as crime and poverty.

In the past two years the organization has brought people of varied backgrounds together to discuss and act on their concerns about the community.

Together Baton Rouge volunteers have worked to clean up the Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery, to launch with the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank a mobile pantry to take fresh produce to areas underserved by grocery stores and to advocate for reliable funding and better administration for the Capital Area Transit System.

With this new community Bible study program, the purposes are to “develop relationships across the lines that divide us” and embrace “the call of Scripture to act in the world today,” Wesley said.

The plan is to launch the “Our Faith in Action” study and sign up participants during a “Citywide Pentecost Gathering” at 3 p.m. Sunday at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, 9700 Scenic Highway.

Seating and registration will begin at 2:30 p.m. and the choirs of Mount Pilgrim and Shiloh Baptist churches will begin singing at 2:45 p.m.

The meeting will take place in Mount Pilgrim’s Family Life Center, which is large enough to accommodate several hundred people with enough space to allow for them to break into small groups to discuss the Scriptural account of the Pentecost miracle.

Broderick Bagert, lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge, said he expects 300 to 500 people from 60 to 80 congregations to gather and explore such questions as “What does it matter that people who speak different languages can understand each other?” and “What’s a particular moment in your life when your definition of community changed?”

The point of contextual Bible study, a concept borrowed from post-aparthied South Africa, is to get people of different backgrounds talking about Scripture in context of both what the Bible stories would have meant to those first experiencing them and also how the words and stories might apply to the contexts of those studying them today, Bagert said.

At the pastors’ gathering in November, participants tried out one of the studies with volunteers reading the parts of characters represented in the text, discussing in small groups how they saw the Scriptures applying to needs in Baton Rouge and drawing pictures inspired by the discussions.

Robin Gallaher Branch, a professor of Biblical studies at Victory University in Memphis, Tenn., wrote about the contextual study approach in a December 2012 article for the Biblical Archeology Society’s website, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org.

Her article explores how a study of 2 Samuel 13:1–22, where King David’s daughter Tamar is raped by a half-brother, was used to help South African men and women explore issues of rape, justice and Biblical masculinity.

The effort, she notes, revolved around the words: see, judge, act. “Seeing means looking at the text; judging means the struggle for justice in a system and culture of patriarchy that either ignores or consistently condones violence against women; acting means taking constructive actions in one’s life and society,” she writes.

For the Baton Rouge study, the plans is to organize groups of a dozen each, including two facilitators, to meet once a month for six months beginning in July. Participants can sign up during Sunday’s gathering by indicating on a card the times when they could meet. Those who can’t make Sunday’s gathering may sign up by emailing contact@togetherbr.org.

A Together Baton Rouge committee working on the Bible study program will assign people to the groups of 12 with a goal of giving each group a diverse mix of people from varied denominations, neighborhoods and races.

Bagert explained that facilitators will use questions to guide the discussions, but not force an interpretation.

A committee of about 40 Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists have worked to develop the studies, which will explore such passages as Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (Sabbath), Mark 12:38-44 and 13:1-2 (Widow’s mite), Matthew 14:22-33 (What do we need to have the courage to get out of the boat and face the winds?), Acts 2-1 (What does Pentecost challenge us to do today?) and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (Recognizing the body).

Funding for the Bible study project comes from Trinity Episcopal Church Wall Street in Manhattan, N.Y., which list on its website a $30,000 special opportunity grant to Together Baton Rouge to develop with the Trinity Institute a program called, “One City, One Body: Building the Beloved Community through Contextual Scripture Study.”

The money went toward meals, training and some materials, Bagert said.

Trinity recommended Scripture passages and the Baton Rouge committee picked ones with applications for community building, vision and action, explained Dianne Hanley, a member of St. George Catholic Church and executive director of the St. Joseph Spirituality Center.

The committee wrote the Bible studies itself and tested them with the gathering of the pastors in November as well as in denominational gatherings earlier this year, she said.

The testing demonstrated to the pastors and their churches that the study is not about teaching a particular denomination’s theology, but instead an opportunity for people to share out of their own experiences with Scripture, Hanley said.

“When we come together, we are really sharing more of what is the Scripture experience in my life,” she said. “How does this Scripture speak to my life?”

“You can’t really dispute that,” Hanley said. “You can’t say, ‘That’s not what it is doing in your life.’”

The results, Hanley said, should be a coming together for action.

“I think one of the goals for me in my heart is we will begin to think of responding in the world together as opposed to doing individual acts which we all do,” she said. “This will be creating relationships which will cause us to respond together, which is what is needed when you are attacking bigger problems, problems that require political will.”