by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — A lot people use the weekend to catch up on household chores, run errands or just sleep in. But there’s a group of men in Topeka who use the early morning hours on Saturdays to work on their spiritual lives.
Every Saturday morning, about 15 men gather at 6:30 to study Scripture. Known as the Defenders of St. Michael (after St. Michael the Archangel), or simply Defenders, seven of these men have been meeting at this same time every week since the spring of 1999.
The idea for the group originated with the annual archdiocesan Men Under Construction retreat. After the retreat in 1999, a small group of men from the Topeka area came back to their hometown, inspired to start a men’s group. They wanted it to not only help them grow in their faith lives, but also to become better husbands and fathers. One of those men was Everett Spellman, a member of Christ the King Parish.
“For years I desired guidance from older men and camaraderie from men my age,” said Spellman. “I wanted to know more about the Catholic Church and about the Bible. I knew there was more to life than what I was experiencing.
“Finally, I asked another man if he’d start a Bible study with me. We chose a time and place to meet, placed an announcement in the church bulletin and sent a few personal invitations, and the group was formed.”
Initially, the group used prepared study guides available from Promise Keepers, an international Christian evangelical movement whose mission is “to ignite and unite men to become passionate followers of Jesus Christ through the effective communication of seven promises to God, their fellow men, family, church and the world.” Using the study guides, Spellman said, helped to focus the group on particular passages.
In 2004, however, the group wanted to look for a different format. That’s when Dr. Bob Conroy, another Christ the King parishioner and a member of the group almost since its inception, volunteered to create a new study guide based on the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church and utilizing the Sunday Mass readings.
Now, the study guide is sent to the group via e-mail each week and is also made available on the group’s Web site. Group members then prepare for the weekly meetings individually and come ready to share their thoughts.
Each week’s program includes:
• A prayer to the Holy Spirit for wisdom as the group begins its meeting
• A warm-up exercise or a chance to share how God has worked in each individual’s life since the last meeting. For example, the warm-up from the Aug. 5 study guide asked participants to “share an example of how God inspired you over the last week.”
• An introduction that briefly summarizes the overall theme of the particular week’s readings
• Discussion questions about the first, second and Gospel readings
• Closing thoughts — Each week’s study guide contains a section in which the themes are repeated and summarized in a short paragraph. For example, the Aug. 5 study guide emphasized the importance of preparing for eternity.
• An action step in which Defenders are asked to apply in their own lives what they have learned at the weekly meeting. The Aug. 5 study guide encouraged Defenders to be generous and give a little bit more in terms of money, time or other gifts.
• A brief synopsis of the life of a saint, in which the saint’s Christian virtues are held up for Defenders to emulate in their own lives. The Aug. 5 study guide focused on Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her love for the poor.
• A closing prayer
It takes Conroy at least two to three hours to prepare each week’s session, and he relies heavily on an extensive library of books, study guides and biblical commentaries for information and inspi- ration.
Yet Conroy said it’s time well spent.
“I love completing my study guide as I learn so much each time I prepare the three-page guide,” he said. “I love the Scriptures, and this labor of love helps me get ready for the Sunday liturgy each week.”
Members, in turn, said they not only learn a lot about the Scriptures, but have also learned a lot about each other and life as well.
Danny Thomas, a Methodist who attends a church in Kansas City, said the group has taught him a lot about the commission God gives each person on earth.
“Although we may not want the job,” said Thomas, “God has and does commission each of us to be the Lord’s hands and feet here on earth doing something no one else on earth can do.
“If I am the one talking with another person on the street, at work or at church, and that person shares a hurt or concern, right there and then I am the only one who can listen with ears like God. I am the only one who can talk out loud representing God to comfort that person right then, right now.”
Like Thomas, Christ the King parishioner Kenneth Becker said the group has helped him to become a better man by making him more aware of opportunities to serve God and others.
“God is speaking to us constantly, but we are not listening most of time,” he said. “[It’s] like a radio that isn’t tuned in correctly to the station — just hearing a lot of static and not clearly making out what was being said. I know my participation in Defenders of Saint Michael has helped me adjust my dial so I hear a lot less static and I am listening more attentively.”
“I also learned there are no coincidences in our lives,” he added. “When things happen, we have choices to make, and these choices are opportunities for us.”
“The most important lesson I learned from my participation in the men’s group is the degree to which I need other men in my life,” said Spellman. “Each man who attends the meetings provides a unique insight and blessing to the group. The biblical knowledge of some men creates a desire to study the Bible. The struggle of other men reveals how God has blessed my family, while also teaching me compassion for my brother.”
“Each man is in a different stage of life and has wisdom to offer,” he continued. “I learn from the vocal and the quiet men in the group. I also realized I’m not the only person dealing with the problems and emotions I face.”
It’s within this group, noted Spellman, that he’s found the courage to face his greatest challenges.
“When I’ve faced my fears and shared with the group,” he said, “I usually discover other men have dealt with the same issues. This understanding brings peace and comfort in my struggle, while at the same time deepens my friendship with the men in the group.”
“I have gained a deep awareness and appreciation of my need for other men to hold me accountable for living a Christian life,” he concluded.