Women remain faithful to Bible study for decades
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
SEMINOLE -- Before Dr. Celia DiMarco got a business partner, she closed her office every Thursday.
"That's my Bible study day," she says simply.
Linda Jensen started attending the same Bible study when her daughter, Lauren, who soon will be 14, was 2 months old.
The commitment of the two women is typical of the loyalty that has kept the Bible study they attend in session for the past 35 years. This year, the class, which is open to women of all faiths, is meeting at Seminole First Baptist Church, 11045 Park Blvd.
Karen Davis has headed the Bible study for the last two decades and thinks it could be the oldest in Pinellas County. About 150 women are enrolled this semester, said Mrs. Davis, who also leads a Tuesday morning Bible study at North Dunedin Baptist Church. Child care is provided at both locations. In Dunedin, there also is a class for homeschoolers. The sessions run from September to May.
One recent Thursday morning class started punctually, as the women, divided into several groups, proceeded to discuss the assigned reading from the Gospel of Luke.
The Bible classes have both helped her to know God and changed her life, Dr. DiMarco said.
"It's just that peace that comes over you. For some reason, I'd always thought of God as distant. All of a sudden, the Bible became real to me. God's the only one that has all the answers to life's questions," she said.
The wife and mother of two has been attending the Bible study for 11 years and has been a group leader for nine. She said she enjoys helping others know the Lord and increasing her own knowledge as well.
"No matter how many times you go through the Bible, you always find something new," she said.
The Bible study's group sessions are followed by a half-hour lecture Mrs. Davis gives to the entire gathering. A former teacher, Mrs. Davis was asked to head the Bible study 20 years ago when a former leader moved. In the years since, she has studied Greek and Hebrew to increase her own understanding of the Bible. The lessons she prepares are used in 21 states and have been translated into Spanish and Chinese. In Pinellas County alone, about 10 groups use the material.
"I supply them to men's groups, women's groups, Sunday school groups," she said, adding that she does not regulate how the lessons are used. She does, however, prefer that they be used for group rather than individual study.
"My policy is that the Bible speaks pretty well for itself. I don't think I have to be there with an answer book to tell them what to think. God can speak for himself."
Willianna Abrams, known as "Anna" to her friends, has been attending the Bible study for nine years. Each week, she said, the class takes home a list of questions Mrs. Davis has prepared in conjunction with the assigned reading.
"We have to be ready to answer them when we come back the next week," she said.
"Sometimes the questions are quite difficult, but I feel it's worth it."
Mrs. Jensen agrees.
"We get homework and have to do our own discovery, so I've learned a tremendous amount and grown spiritually because of it. I think I have a better handle on how to live as a Christian," said Mrs. Jensen, adding that she uses the Bible to guide her daughters.
"Depending on what my girls are going through, I kind of know where to go to. It's really a manual for life and how to live it," she said.
Carrie Callahan, a mother of four, also has benefited from the sessions.
"It's really an awesome Bible study. It's nice because it is nondenominational, so there is no prejudice there. Everyone can voice their own opinion. You learn from others. I think the Holy Spirit is definitely working there. I wish it was closer to me," the St. Petersburg resident said.
But she added, "You know what, if it was Sarasota, I would go."
Newcomer Patricia Choi sees God's hand at work in the relocation of the Bible study to Seminole First Baptist Church, which she attends and where she leads an English as a second language ministry.
"I really saw it as a lifeline from God," the wife and mother said.
"I see this as a cord that keeps me from being washed away by all the daily routines. We lead a very active life, work and family obligations. I feel that I don't want to run on empty."
"I think there is a hunger for this," Mrs. Davis said of the Bible study.
She said the two groups she leads are different in some ways. The Seminole Bible study class has a higher number of older women, while the Dunedin class tends to have younger women, which is evident from its large nursery.
The diversity within the groups keeps discussions interesting, Mrs. Davis said.
"Increasingly, we get women who have never been to church at all," she said, adding that it is not a drawback to participation.
"We are not impressed with how much you know."
Mrs. Jensen, a brand new group leader, explained how the discussion sessions work.
"We just facilitate the group, so that it flows and that everybody is included and that all opinions are welcome," she said.
"You can't say what church you're from. You don't talk politics. You're not allowed to sell Tupperware."
Along the way, though, the women have been selling the class to their friends and neighbors.
It's how Dr. DiMarco got started.
"I had a friend of mine who had been talking to me about the Bible study. I told her, 'I've got other things to do,' " the Clearwater pediatrician said.
"I am very grateful to her now. It's the best thing she ever did."
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