It was September 1999, and Beth Shadid, then 39, had recently given birth to her fifth baby, Caleb, after losing both her fourth child, Micah, at birth, and her brother, Jim, to lung cancer in 1998.
"The past year had been extremely hard for our family, with two deaths back to back," says Beth, who has three other sons now ages eight and under. "So when fall came, we were celebrating Caleb, our surprise gift of new life."
Throughout those difficult times, Beth had grown close to her neighbor Dina, a mom of three. "Dina attended both our son's funeral and my brother's memorial service," Beth says. "She was so kind and sympathetic. Our friendship really deepened, and I felt comfortable opening up to her a bit about my faith in Christ. She'd seen the strength I'd drawn from it."
Dina, who'd never attended a Bible study before, knew Beth had been involved in various women's Bible studies throughout the five years they'd lived across the street from each other. So Dina asked Beth if she was planning to join a women's Bible study that fall. "I didn't think I could possibly pack up my newborn, plus my three other active little boys, and attend a weekly study," Beth admits. "I recommended a women's Bible study at a local church in case Dina was interested in attending one on her own. Then I said, 'But I'd love it if someone got something started in our neighborhood!'"
Surprisingly, that "someone who got something started in the neighborhood" turned out to be busy mom Beth—with the able assistance of Dina. Right off the bat, Dina was so excited about the idea of bonding with other women in the neighborhood that she suggested she and Beth start their own group. Before long, Beth, who'd never envisioned herself a facilitator of a neighborhood group with her busy, growing family, became exactly that. "I'm not a teacher or leader," she admits. "I've been in church a long time and have a strong faith, and I love the idea of being able to share that with others. Yet I don't see myself as articulate, so I wouldn't naturally put myself in this position. But there's something about having come out of pain, as I had, that makes you say even more, 'Okay, God, if this is what you want me to do, there's nothing more important in life than being available to you.' As I prayed about starting a group, it felt like the right thing to do."
So Beth and Dina brainstormed ways to make a group convenient both for them and the other neighbors they hoped might join. "We decided we'd take turns meeting at each other's home every other week. We thought we could at least handle that," explains Beth. "We also decided to be casual about the whole thing and let moms bring their kids. I volunteered to check out hiring babysitters from a local Christian college so we could keep the kids in a play area in the same house."
But there was also the question of study materials. Realizing some of her neighbors, such as Dina, may never have studied the Bible before, Beth asked a few mature, trusted Christian women what might constitute an appropriate study to kick off the fledgling group. One suggestion that struck a chord: a workbook called Living in Jesus' Name, one in a series of study guides from well-known author John Ortberg.
"Basically Dina and I decided, 'Let's ask some neighbors if they'd like to get together and have coffee.' We'll tell them, 'Here's a book idea. What do you think?'" says Beth. Then Dina and Beth called around the neighborhood to see who might be interested in participating. Four—including a couple committed Christians—responded positively.
"Everybody was easygoing about what to study," Beth says, "so when the six of us met for the first time that October, we started working through Ortberg's study book, which clearly walks you through what it means to be a Christian. It's filled with lots of practical teaching and spiritual exercises."
A little more than two years since its launch, the group's still going strong. In fact, that initial circle of 6 has grown through word of mouth to 18 members, with 12 regular attendees. "We'll have someone come who's been absent several weeks, and she'll say, 'I've missed this so much!'" says Lisa Barry, a fellow believer and one of the charter members who frequently opens her home to the group.
What do the women do when they get together every other Friday morning from 9:30 to 11:15 A.M? "We chit-chat for the first 30 minutes," says Beth. "Then we sit down, open our lesson, and talk about whatever jumped out at us that week. Sometimes I don't have the time to prepare for the lesson beforehand as I'd like. That's when I throw my hands up and say, 'Okay, God, this has to be from you. It can't be from me, because I don't feel ready.'"
While group members bring their Bibles to the meetings and talk about spiritual topics (currently they're working through another workbook entitled Gifted to Serve, which discusses spiritual gifts), Beth and the other core members work hard to ensure no one feels uncomfortable or offended during the meetings, since the women attending vary in their level of interest in matters of faith. The first year, says Beth, they didn't even pray together. "Just this last year, we've started closing in prayer, and usually Lisa Barry does that for us," explains Beth.
The group's slowly evolved into part Bible study, part book club, part cross-cultural awareness, part old-fashioned support group for the women who attend. During the summers, which pose a challenge to regular attendance because of kids' schedules and family vacations, the group opts to read condensed versions of classics such as Les Miserables or Cry, The Beloved Country instead of Bible-related materials. Beth, who has a heart for cross-cultural ministry, occasionally invites some of the women she encounters through other international organizations to speak at meetings. Last year, Beth, Dina, Lisa, and the others helped a Sudanese refugee and her two daughters adjust to their new life in the United States by assembling and delivering a "Welcome Pack" of basic household necessities—sheets, towels, plates, canned goods, and personal care items. And last December, Beth and the group organized a holiday gathering that included husbands—a first!—to help two orphaned Sudanese boys celebrate their first Christmas in America.
"This group meets many different needs," says Beth. "On one level, I sincerely believe we all want to learn more about the Bible, to explore what life is really about. But it's also about women doing life together in a safe environment. Just getting together as women helps you realize you're not alone in your situation, that we all have struggles with disciplining our kids or challenges in our marriage. It's wonderful to be able to share not only the pain in life, but the great joys as well. It's just such a fun group of unique women! Our sense of community has been one of its biggest blessings.
"When my husband, Hythem, and I learned at 22 weeks that our baby Micah wouldn't survive after birth, we didn't know how to pray. So we simply said, 'God, do something great through this.' As we prayed that prayer, we sensed 'something great' could be others coming to know Christ through our experience.
"While I don't know if this group's a direct answer to that prayer, I've had many opportunities to share my faith, to let others know how great God is," adds Beth. "As we've grown together, I've seen other women become more open about how God's revealing himself to them. I know that for Dina and a few others in our group, their faith has become personal over the past two years. And I've been encouraged to walk with God daily, to keep looking for his presence in my life every step of the way. There's this exciting sense of God at work—all I did was jump aboard!"
For more information on "12 Women" groups, e-mail Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone her at 615-781-4965.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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