Bibles for breakfast
ASPEN, Colo. Ralph Melville moves deliberately, hoisting a caldron of coffee and lining Danish pastries onto a hot plate in the kitchen of the Aspen Community Church. Still, he is quick with a welcoming smile and a handshake.Melville, longtime owner of Mountain Chalet Aspen, is at the church by 7 a.m. most Tuesdays to do his bit for the Aspen Ecumenical Group, a men’s Bible study that has been meeting at the church for more than 45 years.”We’re a group of believers, nonbelievers and make-believers,” Melville says.All men, regardless of faith, are welcome at the meetings. There are no sign-up sheets, no dues to join and no secret handshakes.The day’s leader simply sets out a breakfast spread of cereal and snacks for members, who trickle in between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.Participants drop a voluntary donation in the bowl – Melville suggests something between $3 and $5; the cash goes to help the church.And then the group chooses a book from the Bible and reads a chapter each week. They’ve been doing it the same way for decades.
“Like iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another,” says Jim DeBerge, quoting a piece of scripture. DeBerge, a Pitkin County jailer, has been a member of the group for 20 years. Now in his late 50s, DeBerge is one of the younger members (a fellow member jokes DeBerge could be his grandson).”If everyone agrees with each other, it’s not that much fun,” DeBerge says.”All discussions are conducted with great civility and respect,” adds Michael Stranahan, busting a grin and a knowing laugh.Things sometimes get heated, Stranahan says. But as the volunteer leader for the day, Stranahan moderates the discussion and makes sure members each have a turn to speak without interruption.Things sometimes get heated, Stranahan says. But as the volunteer leader for the day, Stranahan moderates the discussion and makes sure members each have a turn to speak without interruption.The men practice many faiths; Catholics, Episcopalians and Evangelical Christians sit side by side with Pentecostals, agnostics and Jews. And each man reads from his own translation of the Good Book, which makes for an interesting variety of interpretations.Every member is there for a reason, some for fellowship and shared ideas, others as a calling.For Mike Stanberry, a member of the group since 1998, it was a traumatic experience that turned him to religion.”When I was 21, I had terminal cancer; the Lord healed me,” Stanberry says.God revealed himself to Stanberry at the age of 11, he explains, but he ran and tried everything he could to “not become a Christian.”Today he is a strong believer.”I’ve seen miracles,” Stanberry says, adding that the voices he hears tell him to repent, and that attending the men’s meeting is part of his mission.”This is one of the few places in the world we have an interdenominational debate,” says Bernie Young, the sole Jewish member of the group. “We can pretty much agree to disagree.”Young’s experiences in battle during World War II drove him to spirituality – he calls himself a “born-again Jew.”Young, like Melville, is a senior member of the group, and helps carry on the long-held tradition of getting to the heart of spiritual matters in this little-known gathering of Aspen men.
The Aspen Men’s Ecumenical Group was started in the early 1960s when Tom Sardy, a former Pitkin County commissioner, local mortician, longtime lumberyard and hardware store owner, and eponym for Sardy Field, was barred from St. Mary Catholic Church by a priest who disapproved of his marriage to a Protestant, Melville says.Disillusioned by his experience at other local churches, Sardy invited a handful of men for informal discussions at Arthur’s Restaurant on Main Street.”It was just a discussion group and didn’t have a lot of focus to it,” says George Madsen, one of the founders of the group and a former part-owner of The Aspen Times.But early members soon became tired of talking about “women, dogs in the street and bad roads” and turned to spiritual matters, Madsen says.The men moved their discussion to the ground floor meeting room of the Community Church in 1961 or 1962 and have been meeting every Tuesday morning since, Madsen says.Early groups asked basic questions: Everything from “What was happening when Jesus was around, and why was he crucified?” to “How far do you go with your sweetie before marriage?” Madsen says.For the answers, the group turned to one another and “just started going through the Bible,” Madsen says.”Friendly debate, that’s the heart of the thing,” Madsen says. With four guys who “really know the Bible,” the meetings are a chance for others to learn more. And some men are just there for a good breakfast, Madsen notes.When Elmer Beamer, a transplant from Cleveland, Ohio, joined the group in its early days, he introduced a format used in religious meetings of members of the United States Senate (meetings the president of the United States would attend regularly), and the group began to focus on specific books of the Bible guided by a moderator.”It’s about studying the Bible,” Madsen says, adding that discussions are not debates, rather, they are about how people view specific chapters.The men have weathered change over the years, but Madsen stresses: “We always bring the guys who want to wander back to the Bible.”Sardy, who Madsen says was not active vocally but a guiding force for the group, died in 1990. Since then, new members have stepped up. Meetings have varied in size from as many 50 in the 1970s to the present group of six to 16 that ebbs and flows in size with the Aspen seasons.The group advertises the meeting in local papers, but Madsen says they “haven’t had too much response to that.”The British Broadcasting Company featured the men in a documentary film in the late 1980s, and the group played a small role in a documentary by Frederick Wiseman in 1991, but they mostly fly under the radar.”It’s sort of a good beer session without the beer,” Madsen says.And it is men-only simply by tradition, members agree.”That was Tom Sardy’s rule,” DeBerge says.
DeBerge opens a recent meeting with a prayer giving thanks for life in the Roaring Fork Valley and the freedom to gather. After the group reads a chapter of Romans in the New Testament, the conversation is fast and furious.”The whole chapter is about righteousness. About faith,” Young says.A passage about circumcision raises debate about Jewish law among early Christians, and Stanberry jokes that all people, both men and women, practice circumcision.The men pause.”Circumcision of the heart!” Stanberry bellows. (He later jokes that a group of scientists lifted blood off the Shroud of Turin and found that Jesus’ blood type was “Be Positive.”)The conversation then turns to Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and one member takes a moment to tell the story of the Old Testament prophet. Others weigh in about the humanity of Old Testament figures.Then a woman walks in the room looking a little confused.Alcoholics Anonymous holds a morning meeting at the church on other weekdays; the woman sees the men and the Bibles on the table and pauses.”I think I’m in the wrong place,” she says.”Maybe not,” one of the men jokes, telling her she is welcome to stay but pointing her to St. Mary Catholic Church for the Tuesday AA meeting.The men continue on without skipping a beat.The debate is heated, but not personal. When time runs out at 8:30 a.m., there is no ill will. All of the men pitch in to stack chairs and clean up, continuing the conversation in clutches of two and three.Stranahan says it’s easy to spot someone spouting ideas they heard from their pastor or priest the Sunday before, but says the real focus of the group is speaking from the heart.”The best part is when people say, ‘This is where I’m at,'” Stranahan says.”We love each other,” Young says, putting an arm around Stanberry, though the two have their differences.Madsen says it would be hard to be part of the group if you were a hard-and-fast atheist, and members probably need to have some sort of moral ethics to make the cut.”We don’t want people to come and argue with us all the time,” Madsen says. But anyone bringing good ideas, insights and understanding is welcome, he says.Plus, “so many have gone away,” Madsen says.Members have died, and others have moved away. But the group muddles on. The coffee gets made every Tuesday at 7 a.m., and someone is always there with a handshake.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Imagine Glenwood and The City of Glenwood Springs is slated to host a virtual town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11.