by Moira Cullings
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — In 1974, Catherine “Cackie” Upchurch participated in her first Little Rock Scripture Study (LRSS).
Only in high school at the time, she could never have predicted how the experience would change the course of her life.
“I thought it was life giving,” she said. “I didn’t know we could read the Bible and get so much out of it. It was such a new opportunity at that time.”
Years later, Upchurch became the director of LRSS, a role she held for 20 years.
Her Scripture series appeared in The Leaven last fall and will be published again this year.
“I think the Scriptures have rubbed off some of the rough edges in my life,” she said, “and, at the same time, sharpened some other things that needed to be in better focus — what my value system is, how I order my day [and] the commitments I make.
“It’s given me a sharper sense of who I’m called to be and how I can contribute to building the kingdom of God.”
Making her own way
Upchurch has always been a trailblazer.
She studied theology in college and focused on patristics — the study of the writings of the Church Fathers — in graduate school, which was rare for a layperson at the time.
“There was no one I knew when I was in high school that studied theology unless you were a priest or a Sister,” she said.
After graduating, Upchurch taught theology and worked as a campus minister at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock. During that time, she began volunteering with LRSS on weekends.
After she was asked for the second year in a row, she said “yes” to joining the LRSS team full time.
“It seemed to me to be a natural progression in my life,” she said, “because the Bible became more and more important to me as I began to understand it better and appreciate it better.”
Upchurch started out as associate director of LRSS and eventually took on the director role. She was the first layperson and the first woman to do so.
She was involved in many groundbreaking projects that took her all over the world. Most notably, perhaps, she helped create LRSS’s study Bible, which was published in 2011.
The journey was a roller coaster for Upchurch, who recently retired but keeps busy through various writing projects.
“At the time, I think the biggest challenges were finding my footing,” she said.
But she didn’t worry about being accepted within the field. Instead, she sought to confirm the credibility of her own faith.
“The challenge for me was not to focus on what the limitations might be,” she said, “but instead where the doors were open and what the possibilities were.”
Becoming a biblical scholar
Catholics don’t have to memorize Scripture passages to become better acquainted with the Bible, said Upchurch.
“Biblical literacy is more about becoming at home with God’s word,” she explained.
“It’s learning to recognize its themes and maybe some of the patterns of experiences with God,” she continued. “Biblical literacy is about creating that level of ease with making our way through the Bible.”
That literacy also helps people grasp the original context, culture and language of the passages they read.
Because of the abundance of resources that exist today, it’s a “prime time to access the tools of biblical scholarship so that we can become more at home in that way,” said Upchurch.
Those tools can be particularly helpful, she said, since the Bible is not arranged chronologically.
“It’s a library of books that’s put together, and some of them are grouped by genres, like the Letters of Paul and the Psalms,” said Upchurch. “It reflects all these periods of history, so it’s hard to keep it straight.”
Upchurch said putting in the effort to comprehend the Bible is worth it.
“If we really take seriously what the word of God talks about — in its full context, not just isolating passages here and there, but getting a sense of the fullness God reveals in Scripture — we’re going to be different as a result,” she said.
Moving the masses
Colleagues like Amy Ekeh, current director of LRSS, are inspired by Upchurch’s relationship with Scripture.
“Cackie reads Scripture as a conversation, a push-and-pull [and] an experience that values questions, searching and even tension over pat answers or distilled truths,” she said.
It’s no surprise to Ekeh that Upchurch has spread the truth of Scripture far and wide.
“For Cackie, the sacred truths of Scripture are as real as taking a walk with a friend or listening to an old family story,” said Ekeh. “They aren’t ‘out there’ or ‘up there’ — they are as close to us as the air we breathe and the people who cross our paths every day.”
Peter Dwyer, director of Liturgical Press, has also worked with Upchurch over the years. He’s moved by the ease with which she teaches Scripture.
“The curiosity and wit that feed her scholarship also feed her creativity —whether promoting Scripture study, working out covers or ad designs or brainstorming new programs,” he said.
“Cackie has contributed enormously to biblical literacy among Catholics through her work as director of Little Rock Scripture Study, commissioning, editing, writing, filming and teaching in person in most of the dioceses in the United States,” he added.
Living the faith
If dedicating her life’s work to Scripture has taught Upchurch anything, it’s that God is all around her.
“You learn to see God’s hand and hear God’s voice in a lot of ways,” she said, “because you see that emerging in these stories of these people in Scripture.”
Upchurch hopes more Catholics will take advantage of the graces they can receive by reading the Bible.
“I think on the one hand, we don’t know that it’s really going to be relevant or meaningful enough,” she said, “and on the other hand, we’re afraid it might be.
“And if it is, we’re going to change. And change is never easy for anybody. And to be countercultural is definitely not easy to be.
“But if we’re biblical people, we really will be countercultural.”
Start with what you know
By Catherine Upchurch
Special to The Leaven
When you read the Bible, you are never alone. The Spirit of God assists you and the community of God’s people accompanies you.
The Bible was written in a very different time and culture than our own, but we share the same human condition (experiences of jealousy, fear, joy, love, forgiveness, etc.). Those common human experiences help us enter into the world of the Bible.
We have more access to excellent Catholic biblical scholarship than any other generation in history. Footnotes, cross-references, atlases and commentaries help us to appreciate the original context of a passage and to ground our understanding there first.
You may find some surprising insights by first spending time with the parts of the Bible that are most familiar (a Gospel or the Book of Exodus, for example). Then move to the parts of the Bible that are less familiar.
The Scriptures tell us over 350 times to “be not afraid.” God is assuring you that he can handle whatever fear you have of delving into the Bible — fear of feeling ignorant, or being challenged, or simply making the time.
Be confident: A faith-filled reading of the Bible will lead to an encounter and deeper relationship with Christ and with the people of God.