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A matter of faith; Bible study group has met weekly for 40 years to discuss Scripture.

Byline: Donna Boynton

NORTHBRIDGE - Ken Prior grew up in a time when Catholics and Protestants didn't mingle. He was 12 years old when he invited a Catholic friend to his Sunday School Christmas party, and his friend's parents wouldn't allow him to attend.

"I was 12. I didn't know," recalled Mr. Prior of Douglas. "I didn't know (Catholics and Protestants) didn't communicate well."

Now 81, he sits among Catholics, Protestants and others from different Christian faiths every Tuesday morning as part of the Men's Community Bible Study that has been meeting for 40 years at Whitin Community Center. Together, they read Scripture not with the eyes of Calvinists or Episcopalians, but as men looking for deeper meaning in their lives.

"To just be there with the guys is a beautiful sharing experience," said Austin "Bud" Tierney, 70, of Uxbridge, the leader of the Bible study group. "It's understanding part of who we are - we are men of the flesh. We are men of the spirit, and the wholeness of who we are is a combination of the two."

The group allows the men to break down whatever barriers they have to gain a better understanding of who they are as individuals, as family men, as professionals, and how they incorporate their spirituality into their daily lives.

They are guided by a saying from St. Francis of Assisi that is repeated often in the group: "Go out into the world and share your faith, and sometimes use words."

A detailed history of the group is hard to come by; it started as a retired men's Bible study group, and many of the original members have since died. What remains is an anecdotal oral history of the group that was started in 1969 by a few men, among them Jacob De Young of Whitinsville, from the Pleasant Street Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church who were retired from The Shop in Whitinsville, according to member Ray Bangma of Whitinsville.

The idea behind the Bible study - for men of different Christian faiths to meet - was just as important as the setting.

"If they were to just go to the Pleasant Street Church or the Presbyterian Church, a lot of people won't enter a different church," said Mr. Bangma, who faithfully brings the coffee and doughnuts each week. He has been a member of the group for 20 years. "They needed some place neutral, so they have been meeting for the past 40 years at the Whitin Community Center."

Gary Wood, director of the Whitin Community Center, said the center has always been linked with the numerous churches in town and is proud to provide a neutral setting for the group.

"We're like Switzerland," said Mr. Wood. "We provide a neutral and accepting place for these guys to have an open and honest discussion about what the Bible says; you don't see that often. ... This unites the different churches in town. And that is what makes Northbridge a unique town, having so many churches per capita."

The Bible study roster of the past contains a list of well-known local family surnames - Baker, Vander Brug, Youngsma, Wiersma, Vander Baan, Postma, Hagsma, and Koopman.

The group is not affiliated with a specific church, and is led by laymen who are studied in the Bible. Mr. Tierney, the current teacher, is a graduate of Zion Bible College in Barrington, R.I. The members meet every Tuesday from 9 to 11:30 a.m., and come from across the region - from Blackstone, Grafton, Worcester, Douglas, Uxbridge and beyond. While it started as a retired men's group, Mr. Tierney has expanded the membership to any man who would like to join.

It's not just the different perspectives they bring, but different backgrounds as well.

"Every Christian Church background has something that is a little bit unique to contribute from their own experiences and theological strong points that they are familiar with," said the Rev. Stanley Vanderklay, the interim pastor of Pleasant Street Christian Reformed Church. "On one hand, it gives people an opportunity to share what is important to them and to have the opportunity to be stretched by other people's insights. When you get together and study the word of God, you find out how much you have in common."

"We all open the same Bible; we all read the same word; we all talk the same language," said Norman Blood of Uxbridge, a born-again Christian. "I am not a preacher, I am not a scholar, but I believe in God's word."

Frank De Haas of Blackstone led the group for 10 years prior to Mr. Tierney. Mr. De Haas, a graduate of Providence Bible Institute, said meeting every Tuesday is not about giving up time, but about sharing in spirituality.

"I'm a person who thinks I should go to church every Sunday, to live by God's word, and walk close to God every day," said Mr. Bangma, adding that it is the spiritual diversity that has led to the group's longevity. "People bring different ideas that strengthen your opinion. You see the unity, and the different perspectives that each person brings of the Gospel."

"It's wonderful to see the body of Christ come together," said Joe A. Anzivino of Grafton.

Mr. Tierney said the class is not about converting others.

"It's not about going to school and learning to be a salesman," he said. "We are saying this is how we live. It isn't a Bible study in the sense that it is a training camp; it's about men being spiritual men. It's about men trying to figure out how, as men, how we can be whole, and be better citizens of the world."

Contact Donna Boynton by e-mail at dboynton@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Men's Community Bible Study has been meeting weekly for 40 years at the Whitin Community Center, a setting they said that encourages participation by those of different denominations. (2) A study group participant reads the Bible. (3) Gary Wood, left, is presented a donation by Frank De Haas.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/DAN GOULD
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 11, 2009
Words:1015
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