Students studying Old Testament prophets Ezra and Nehemiah read steadily, stumbling over a difficult Hebrew pronunciation here and there. After Heather Manning completed the passage, they began to interpret it with their teacher, the Rev. Joanna White.
"What's a scribe?" White asked, choosing an unfamiliar word. "Wasn't that a very smart, important person who could write everything down? They didn't just pull out their Palm Pilots."
The students, who have developmental disabilities, are part of an outreach effort by St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Sykesville to be more inclusive of parishioners with special needs. They are part of a population that seldom has an opportunity for in-depth Bible study.
White, inspired by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland's disABILITY Ministry, developed the program. It began shortly after Bishop Robert Ihloff encouraged parishes in 1998 to look at their attitudes toward, and inclusion in church life of, the developmentally challenged.
The diocese then formed a ministry committee, which includes a person with a disability; special education professionals who work with people who have learning, visual and emotional disabilities; and interested parishioners. St. Barnabas created a Bible study group, which meets Tuesdays.
After talking about scribes in this week's class, White moved to a broader definition of a prophet after explaining that a prophet is a teacher who explains information in the Bible.
"A prophet is always aware of God speaking inside," White said. "Sometimes, do you hear a little voice telling you to clean up after dinner? Do you help people? Do you think you're a prophet?"
Manning decided that she is a prophet because she volunteers at Copper Ridge, a nursing home where she is kind to people and takes people to church. Her classmate, Nancy Dotar said that she, too, is a prophet because she also volunteers at Copper Ridge and she spoke at a recent parish meeting in support of the Bible study.
"Nancy is very articulate. And she has another talent - she can get herself anywhere on public transportation," White said.
"The class is teaching me things that no one had time to teach me," Dotar said. "My mother tries to teach me a little bit about the Bible each day. And I have a sister who reads the church readings with me. But I'm glad to be here each week. I look forward to these classes. It's an honor to have [White] teaching us.
"I was glad one Sunday in Advent that [White] asked me to light a candle," she added. "I had never lit a candle in church."
Manning concurred. "I like to come visit [White]. I like to read and visit with Nancy. We get a chance to catch up."
According to White, the class helps them feel comfortable with the worship service. "Ours is the only class for the developmentally disabled that I know of in our Episcopal diocese," she said. "I'm not a special education teacher, and I'm not always sure of what I'm doing. But I'm doing it.
"The diocese does a wonderful job of this," she added.
The disABILITY Ministry is planning a performance of praise music by the ensemble Kingdom Come at the Diocesan Convention on May 3 in Frederick. People of all ages - with and without disabilities - will sing and use American Sign Language.
Another initiative of the disABILITY Ministry is a summer camp at the Diocese's Camp Claggett, which Manning and Dotar attended last year. The four-day camp for 185 adults includes a barbecue, talent night, hayride and other activities.
Manning is saving the money she earns working at a part-time job for this summer's camp, and Dotar is waiting with equal anticipation.
The weekly socializing in the Bible study creates a shared enthusiasm, White said. "Everyone here is trying to be the best that they can."
Information about the Tuesday evening Bible study: 410- 795-0767.