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Delving Deep: Women’s Bible study breaks barriers, builds faith

DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Brookhaven's Theresa Sones speaks to a crowd of more than 100 women at a recent Bible study at First Baptist Church. Popular with both old and young attendees, the teacher has been leading the Thursday morning group for nearly 25 years.

DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Brookhaven’s Theresa Sones speaks to a crowd of more than 100 women at a recent Bible study at First Baptist Church. Popular with both old and young attendees, the teacher has been leading the Thursday morning group for nearly 25 years.

Drive past First Baptist mid-morning on a Thursday and check out the east parking lot. Full. Chances are, mini-vans and compact cars have overflowed around the periphery on Cherokee and First Streets, too.

There in the church, gathered in a second floor fellowship hall, is a band of women – 100 strong. They’re seated and they’re serious, busy taking notes on tables normally used for Wednesday night suppers. But though the room is brightened by light pouring in through aged stained glass, it’s the flow of scriptural information, pouring from a microphone up front and presented on the big screen, that keeps these women coming each week – that and Theresa Sones.

Back in 1988, Sones was busy raising five children and sharing life with her banker husband, Bill, when a fellow church member approached her about starting a weekly Bible study for women. “I was a baby Christian myself,” the petite blonde remembers, explaining her hesitancy to take on the responsibility. She admits the hard part was learning to speak in front of a crowd. “At first I couldn’t breathe. Even now, there’s much fear and trepidation.”

You wouldn’t know it, watching her use a laser beam to point out dates on a wall-sized screen. She paces the platform, too, while she speaks, and is fond of the occasional arm motion for emphasis. And there is also Sones’ ability to “connect”, even as she concludes the session and speaks of moving into 2 Thessalonians next session.

“It will challenge you all the way to your toenails,” she declares.

A quick survey of Sones’ audience reveals this October crowd is a varied one. There are women in reading glasses, women on iPads. Different races. Young singles, great-grands. But what may not be so obvious is the study’s ability to bridge the great divide of denominations.

While heavy on Baptists, the group’s composition includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics and Methodists as well.

When questioned about the issues such a mix presents, Sones shrugs it off. “I just teach the Bible,” she says emphatically. And the work has truly become a community Bible study, with participants representing more than 30 churches throughout Lincoln County and surrounding areas.

That number includes Thelma Ballard. “I haven’t missed one of these studies since they started in a little room down those stairs,” she says, and at 85, this is no small feat. Ballard doesn’t mince words when it comes to her teacher. “Theresa is simply tremendous. I cannot tell you how much I’ve grown through these studies.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, 20-something Katie Amos agrees. “Teresa’s enthusiasm and love of Scripture draws you in and makes you want to learn more.”

The ability to resonate with young attendees like Amos goes beyond Sones’ strappy high-heeled wedges. “We take the Bible and study it book by book,” she explains, adding that in the 24 years since it began, the group has surveyed the New Testament almost in its entirety. “When you go chapter by chapter, verse by verse, you cover hundreds of subjects – marriage, government, finances. These things are relevant to all of us.”

Leading a study like this requires preparation, and Sones spends hours studying for each session. It’s a commitment that sometimes conflicts with her desire to spend time with her family, especially her 19 grandchildren. But she isn’t the only one doing homework. Members, too, are asked to complete the workbook that’s discussed in small group sessions.

“Women need a safe place to talk,” Sones says. “They focus on their homework and each other, and there are rules in place that keep gossip or anything secular from becoming a distraction.”

In fact, she traces an explosion in attendance five years ago to the addition of small groups.

Joyce Bedsole has spent seven years heading up one of these small groups. “As a leader, I really have to dig to see what I can bring to our time together. It’s truly in-depth Bible study.”

Another small group leader, Terry Fisher, couldn’t wait until she retired and could participate in the weekly gatherings. “I’m especially excited to see so many young women coming,” she says.

Sones is excited by that as well. “Years before I lined up a nursery only to have no children show up because we had no young moms coming to our study,” she explains. “Now we have nine workers to handle all the babies and toddlers because three of our small groups are full of young moms. It is thrilling to my heart to be able to mentor them.”

That’s pretty obvious, even after the study ends. As members leave to pick up kindergartners and dry cleaning, Sones is talking one-on-one with a participant and thumbing through a Bible that looks extremely well-used. Its pages are marked up and highlighted in purples and yellows. Notes line the margins. There are water splotches, too. Lots of them.

Sones tells that her 35-year-old treasure was actually stolen and thrown in a ditch. “When I got it back, I baked it – baked it,” she repeats for emphasis, using her hands to show how much it expanded during the process.

With a passion equal to her popularity, Sones speaks of the purpose behind the Bible studies she’s led every fall and spring for nearly a quarter of a century: “Women today have so many issues. I want to see them get beyond all that and learn who they are in Christ,” she relates.

“The book of Hebrews describes God’s Word as sharper than a two-edged sword, and I want to help women get a good grip on this defensive weapon. I want Him to use me in our generation.”