40 Years of Study Group Experiences

BusillisMy husband Bob and I were first introduced to The Urantia Book here in Chicago exactly 40 years ago this month. Since then we have lived in 5 states and have attended and/or started study groups in every one of them. I am going to try to describe some of our experiences and something of what we have learned, taught, and just plain enjoyed as study group “groupies.”

As soon as we found the book, we joined a study group at headquarters, and it was there that we met what I consider the best teacher of The Urantia Book that I have ever known. His name was Al Leverenz, and his parents had been Forum members. He was also a friend of Bill Sadler, Jr., and had adopted many of Bill’s teaching techniques.

Al was a real character. He was very emotional and theatrical, but this added zest to his teaching. If we answered a question correctly, he would wave his arms around and say “Yes, yes.” It made us feel very special, and class a lot of fun.

But the best gift he ever gave us was a passion for study groups that has not faded in 40 years. He would say “The Revelators told us to establish thousands of study groups.” Then he would point to each of us as say, “Therefore, I expect each and every one of you to sometime in your lives, to establish your own study group! This one is mine.” And as far as I know, all of us have done just as he told us to do.

That group, by the way, was the Orvonton Urantia Society which just 3 weeks ago celebrated its 50th anniversary. What Al started 50 years ago goes on.

From Chicago we went to Pittsburgh and joined Bea Mouganis’ group which was a new experience. Instead of meeting in a central location, the members of the group took turns hosting the meeting in their own homes which were scattered miles from each other. Every host conducted the meeting as he or she chose; and perhaps the most unusual was a man who sang in his church choir. He would ask us to sing a couple of hymns in which he had substituted Urantia teachings for the original lyrics. Not what we were used to, but a good way to experience the many different ways a study group can be conducted.

One special feature of the Pittsburgh experience was the introduction of the “Welcome Thought Adjuster” party for our young children. There were 5 children between the ages of 4 and 6, and knowing how impressionable children this age can be, we developed a short but beautiful ceremony for those who were 6 years old. We gave each child being honored a large candle, lit them, and told the children this represented the light that was within them. Then we turned out the lights in the room, and the adults each lit a candle from theirs to symbolize how their light could go out into the world. I cannot describe the looks on their faces during this ceremony, as we sang a children’s song about Jesus. The ceremony was very short, but these children are now in their 30s and each has contributed something to the Urantia community as they have been able. And each of them still remember that ceremony. And a ceremony for children aged 5 to 7 has been a part of Fellowship International Conferences since 1999.

Raleigh, North Carolina was our next move, and we knew no one there. However, Marion Rowley at headquarters sent us two names. We called them, apparently they called their friends, and one month later we started our group with 15 people. Within the first week, we accidentally discovered artist John Byron, also a reader, and he and his wife, Carol became one of the nine regulars each week. It took us two years to convince John to paint something from The Urantia Book, and finally he painted each of the five epochal revelations. He then went on to produce what has since become known as the Byron Series of beautiful paintings inspired by the book. My own favorite is his “Journey to Paradise.”

Also in Raleigh we were visited by a basically fundamentalist preacher who saw one of the advertising posters John had put together. He borrowed a book, we believe he copied some things for his sermons and then returned the book. Then we didn’t hear from him until 2 weeks before we left Raleigh. He called one day, and said “How do you know this book isn’t from the devil?” I answered that we had been with the Urantia community for about 15 years, and we felt the members of it were the kindest, gentlest, and most loving people we had known. Then I reminded him that Jesus had said “By their fruits you shall know them.” And that the devil would never have produced those fruits. He had no comment, we moved, and we don’t know how the book affected his sermons.

We arrived in Indianapolis in 1985, with only one name. We knew no one there either, but we put up notices in New Age shops and health food stores. People began drifting into our meetings, some stayed and some left. But by 1988, with the help of three readers from southern Indiana, we were able to host a Midwest Regional Conference.

Once again, we paid special attention to the children, with a special program to entertain them. One day they baked and decorated cookies, and then passed them around during our Remembrance Service on Sunday morning. They seemed awed to be participating in an adult ceremony. It was a joy to watch them.

It was in Indianapolis that we discovered how important study groups are for the social interaction of readers. In 1991 and 1992 we invited all readers in Indiana to a special weekend at a state park for them and their families. These gatherings were not conferences; they were strictly social, aiming at giving people a chance just to talk with each other, as at conferences activities can become so busy that time is not available for  this social interaction.

We also gave 3 or 4 socials a year for the group. Sometimes the party had a theme, sometimes not. Our favorite was the Once in a Blue Moon party. Everyone was to bring some form of New Age activity. My favorite of the evening was when my husband wrapped a white Turkish towel around his head and proceeded to tell hilarious fortunes. All of these activities in addition to regular study group meetings helped the members of the group to form close friendships. As one woman put it years later, we were a family.

We were in Indianapolis for 12 years, but in 1997 we were off to Dallas. There were quite a number of study groups in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and we were relieved that we didn’t have to start one ourselves this time. However, Bob and I and David Glass made it a point to attend every group in the area as often as we could. For instance, we attended Rick Warren’s study group on alternate Thursdays. However, we lived in central Dallas, and Rick lived on the other side of Fort Worth, 52 miles away. Nevertheless, our trips there developed into a routine. Bob got home at 6:00 about the time David was arriving with his fast food dinner in tow. Bob changed clothes and we were out the door at exactly 6:10 along with our dinners and bottles of water. We ate en route to Rick’s during heavy rush hour traffic, arriving precisely at 7:00 as the study group was starting.

One of the benefits of this was the connections between readers who had never known about each other until the three of us visited all the groups and told others about them. By the second year we were there, we held a big party with a potluck dinner at our home instead of the usual formal annual meeting. So many people were enjoying themselves that we inducted 14 new members of our group that night.

From Dallas we went to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take care of Bob’s ailing mother. We were not given any names of readers in the area, so it took about a year before we were able to get a group going there. That group of 8 to 10 people still meets regularly in the Poconos.

And in 2004, we returned to Indianapolis. The original group had disbanded, but we found a few people who were interested in resuming study group meetings. There is now a meeting every Wednesday evening at one of three locations in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Also, Bob and I attend Rick Lyon’s group in Crawfordsville, and another group meeting monthly in Brookston, Indiana.

It seems to us that study groups have two major functions. One of those is the study of the teachings of The Urantia Book. And how important this can be is illustrated by something that happened to me. In 1995, I was asked to do a presentation on the first four epochal revelations at a Midwest Regional Conference in Illinois. It took place in a lecture-style room, with myself at the bottom of a rising tier of seats, and a fair number were in attendance.  I would present my opinions of each revelation, and ask for participation from the audience. We had some very interesting interpretations expressed. When it was over, a woman rushed down the stairs and up to me and said “Thank you, thank you! Now I know why I need a study group!

The other function of a group, and the more important one to me, is the social aspect of the group. Social interactions give the members a chance to practice the teachings of brotherhood and service. This was illustrated by the presence of a particular woman in one of our groups. She had had a rough life, she spoke roughly and aggressively, and she couldn’t read aloud with us because she had dyslexia. However, she continued to come to each meeting and all the social occasions. Sometimes a visitor would ask quietly, “What is she doing here?” and our answer was always that Jesus had said “Whosoever will can come.” One day a few years after she began to attend, she and I were having coffee and she said “I want to tell you something. I am 48 years old, and for the first time in my life I have come to believe that God loves me. I figure if all of you in the group can love me, then God can love me, and nobody will ever take that from me again!”

It is the real, loving brotherhood of the members of a group that is the glue that holds the group together and experientially illuminates the teachings of The Urantia Book.