Debbie Reynolds recently stood in the entryway of the Greenwich Country Club luncheon room, surveying the scene of more than 300 people. The Wednesday noon event that filled the room to nearly standing room only was the 22nd annual Greenwich Bible Study (GBS) Luncheon, which featured two speakers who would prove to be motivating: Gretchen Carlson, a FOX News host, and Carla Harris, a dynamo Morgan Stanley Managing Director and gospel singer, named by Fortune Magazine as one of "The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America."
As long-time GBS chair, Debbie had a smile on her face as she noticed most of the attendees were Greenwich women in their 30s, 40s and 50s "How thankful I was to be able to pass this event on to younger people -- two thirds of the crowd were 50 and under," she says.
Debbie created the first Greenwich Bible Study group at Christ Church 28 years ago with about 50 women. That, she says, has led to the creation of what is now some 60 to 70 ecumentical Bible study groups across town, all stemming from her first GBS group that still meets weekly at Christ Church.
"GBS planted the seed," says Debbie. "Over the years, as people learned about GBS, they were given the tools to start their own groups with their friends in their own homes." One recently formed group she knows of has 30 women in it.
Debbie's initial idea for GBS came from a visit to her native California. A friend in Los Angeles took her to a Community Bible Study group (a national organization of Bible study groups) where she saw a church "full of friendly, happy, lovely women." She decided on the spot to come up her own group.
Her concept for a Bible study group was different from what she experienced in her married and church-going life in Greenwich. Instead of discussing "a paragraph of scripture or a religious book," she says, "I wanted to get people to understand the Bible as a whole. The Bible is so full, so true and multi-faceted -- it hangs together from the Hebrew Bible to Revelation. It is God revealing Himself. I wanted other people to be excited about it."
In that first year, Debbie formed a committee of a dozen or more people to help launch her Greenwich Bible Study group. "There were 50 to 60 of us -- we were in our 40s and 50s," she said, "We met every Wednesday, fall, winter and spring. The church that accepted us with open arms was Christ Church Greenwich."
Her group recruited various ministers to teach them on specific bibilical subjects, Debbie says. The numbers in the group grew to 80, then to 100 over the next few years. To further grow GBS, she created an annual, high-profile GBS luncheon with inspirational speakers. The first luncheon attracted more than 200 people, says Debbie.
One of the speakers at the group's first luncheons was the Rev. Neely Towe, the now-retired minister of Stanwich Congregational Church. She ended up partnering early on with Debbie at GBS. "She was a mentor and a partner with me in GBS," said Debbie. She remembers Towe talking on "Esther in the Bible, living in her society, finding similarities to her in our affluent world," she says. She adds, "Neely had the ability to bring in young people. They related to her."
Debbie wanted to engage more young people in GBS. "So I thought, `Let's do a lecture series,'" she says. The theme would be "Becoming a woman of excellence." It was aimed at women under 50 -- women of ages 30 to 40. The young people who knew Neely from church also brought their friends." Seventy to 100 young women came. No older people were allowed, says Debbie, "Unless they brought someone young."
Debbie cited what she sees as the three "greatest successes" of GBS. "The first is finding people so spiritually hungry coming to GBS. The second is having young people coming. And the third," she says "is having helped launch a Catholic Bible study group."
"Bible study is not something the Catholic church did," she said. But one day, Debbie was sought out by the Catholic daughter of a member of Debbie's Bible group -- Julie Ricciardi -- wanting to create a Bible study group. "Ricciardi was able to obtain permission fto do so," says Debbie, "at St. Mary Church." She called her group, "Walking with Purpose."
"This was huge," says Debbie, "The first year there were 100 people. It's been going now for four or five years with 100 people -- with totally young people. And now, she said, "There are 21 branches of `Walking with Purpose' Bible study group across the country."
"It's a phenomenon," says Debbie. "We all feel," she says, "that our Bible study groups have completely changed our lives for the better.
"There's a community we found in GBS that is different from any other community. You can be completely open and safe. It's all about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not picking the Bible apart, but to have the Bible speak to you in a personal way."
At this most recent luncheon, the motivational speakers spoke personally.
Carlson was proud, she said, of revealing her Christianity on camera. "I'm totally comfortable of being a Christian in my own skin," she said. Wall Street executive Carla Harris talked of her "Pearls of Wisdom" for people navigating the work world. "I am authentically His," she said, "and you'll know that if you know me."
Looking across at the room filled with well-dressed young women, Harris had said of the 22nd GBS Luncheon, "That's a big deal," and again, "That's a big deal."
Debbie agrees. "I don't think there's another place quite like Greenwich, Conn. for Bible study. Those people who bring people to Bible study are real leaders. These women are Christian role models in the world."
Debbie adds, "It doesn't matter how much you have -- people tend to have the same problems: jealousy, bitterness, feeling betrayed, all that insecurity. People are the same no matter what their affluence."
In Greenwich, she says, "It's even harder for people ,as they look like they have their act together. Greenwich can be a lonely place. You don't feel you can share things." But, "It's all different in Bible study," she said, "It's loving, nonjudgmental and supportive."
People have been coming for a long time to Debbie's Bible study group. "We come from different places, and we love each other," she said. It's the best day of our week."