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SCRIPTURE-LITTLEROCK Sep-9-2008 (1,190 words) With logo posted Aug. 21 and photos posted Sept. 9. xxxn

Huge Catholic Bible study program began in diocese with few Catholics

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the early 1970s, few people would have chosen the statewide Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., with Catholics making up about 2.5 percent of the state's population, to be a hotbed for Catholic Scripture study.

But there the Little Rock Scripture Study program took root and flourished, and over the years it has spread way beyond the diocese.

"We're the oldest, and certainly the most widely used Catholic Bible study in the entire world," said Catherine "Cackie" Upchurch, director of the Little Rock Scripture Study for the past 10 years.

"But it's almost an embarrassment that we're only 34 years old. I think we have a long way to go for people to be literate with the Bible --- and have a spiritual encounter with Christ," Upchurch told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Little Rock.

The diocese -- whose Catholic population today is 113,000, or about 4.1 percent of the state's population -- was ripe for the program because, as Upchurch put it, "we have no Catholic colleges and universities, for example."

"We have very few laypeople with graduate degrees in theology or some study related to church ministry; I was one of the first," she continued. "We didn't have people spread out throughout rural Arkansas to be teachers in that traditional didactic sense who would teach locally."

The intent of the Little Rock Scripture Study's creators, according to Upchurch, was to provide a Scripture study for, well, Catholics in Little Rock and the surrounding environs in central Arkansas, since that's where Catholicism was most concentrated in the predominantly Protestant state. The program was launched in 1974.

"They figured that out of eight or 10 parishes there might be 50 people who'd want to come. As it turned out, 150 showed up. They were stunned," according to Upchurch.

Ditto masters -- the prevailing paper reproduction technology at the time -- worked overtime to meet the need for program material.

It wasn't long before Catholics in western Arkansas said, "We want something in our part of the state," said Upchurch, who used the Little Rock Scripture Study herself in western Arkansas right after she graduated from high school in 1975.

Upchurch said charismatic prayer groups, Catholics at military bases, and an increasingly mobile society helped spread the Little Rock Scripture Study beyond the state's confines. "Word of mouth spread it the first four, five years," Upchurch said.

"The people at Liturgical Press, where we were ordering Collegeville Bible commentaries, started asking, 'What's going on in Little Rock? We're sending them pallets of commentaries.'"

After "a little courtship," the Little Rock Scripture Study struck a deal with Liturgical Press in Minnesota nearly 30 years ago.

"We still develop the materials here, working with staff. We still use the Collegeville Bible Commentary, and other commentaries when it's a more thematic approach, and then we develop the study guides and the lectures, and then Liturgical Press does the publication end of it," Upchurch explained. "They do most of the shipping and they work with us to develop our marketing. It's been a real good relationship."

The Little Rock Scripture Study has helped raise Liturgical Press' profile and sales. In fact, the Little Rock Scripture Study is the first option callers hear when they dial a toll-free number for Liturgical Press, (800) 858-5434.

"We do receive quite a few orders, so we do try to make it as prominent as possible and easy for people to order," said Liturgical Press marketing director Michelle Verkuilen, who added, "Little Rock Scripture Study is one of our longest-standing and most important partnerships. It provides us significant revenues to allow both entities, Liturgical Press and Little Rock Scripture Study, to further our respective missions."

Over the course of a year, Upchurch estimates 10,000 small groups of varying sizes are using the Little Rock Scripture Study in the United States.

Worldwide, she has no estimates, but "we have groups in 54 countries" and have established working relationships with two different organizations to develop the Little Rock Scripture Study throughout Australia and most of Oceania. A Malaysian group, she added, is translating materials for use on the Chinese mainland.

What makes it so popular? Upchurch credits the Holy Spirit.

"Little Rock Scripture Study (participants) feel their competence growing" as they study Scripture in small groups, she said. "I really think it's a response to the Spirit. After the Second Vatican Council, there was such an impulse to try to engage people on that level, and a lot of Catholics realize this hunger. I think it's the work of the Spirit."

At Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville, La., Catholics have used the Little Rock Scripture Study since 2002.

"The faces change a little bit (over time), and the studies, too," said Rebecca Leedy, who coordinated the program at the parish for three years. The parish's study of Exodus was delayed one month in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit.

"Exodus was quite apropos, given the way people had to leave and how we were dispersed afterwards," Leedy said. "It was a powerful study. ... I know Catholics aren't always comfortable delving into the Bible, so this is a great place for them."

Beverly Plosa-Bowser liked the Little Rock Scripture Study so much that after she moved from California to her new parish in Colorado Springs, Colo., she asked the pastor about implementing it. After she made a presentation to the parish council and it approved the Little Rock program, she was asked to coordinate it, so she did. "Everybody else is busy," she was told.

"I was a cradle Catholic ... and it gave me an opportunity to renew my adult faith," she told CNS. Her husband, whom she met in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process -- she sponsored him and they married five days after he joined the church -- also valued it as a way for them to grow together in faith, Plosa-Bowser added.

Upchurch said the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and five or six other California dioceses are big users of the Little Rock Scripture Study, along with the dioceses of Providence, R.I., Worcester, Mass., and Harrisburg, Pa. She also senses an uptick in interest with the Pauline year and the upcoming world Synod of Bishops on the Bible.

Still, "there are people who will never want to take part in small groups," Upchurch told CNS, so the Little Rock Scripture Study has developed materials for individual use and for parish-bulletin publication that covers ground similar to the multiweek small-group format. The program's Web site, www.littlerockscripture.com, offers a range of materials that can be ordered.

Upchurch doesn't consider Renew and other Bible-study programs competitors. The real competition, according to Upchurch, is for people's time.

"There are only so many hours," she said. Even in Little Rock, parishes are currently using Renew's Why Catholic? program. "It's a cyclical thing," Upchurch said, but that's OK. When they're done, she added, "they'll be on fire for wanting to do something a little more interesting and a little more deep."


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