At six o'clock on a Thursday morning in March, the sun hadn't yet made it above the horizon in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, but the basement door of Biblical Theological Seminary was open and a trickle of men in jeans and sweatshirts were making their way toward the coffee maker and the table two-deep in doughnuts. Forty-five minutes later, the doughnut supply was greatly diminished and 120 people sat, cups in hand, as the latest installment of "Breakfast with Biblical" began.
The group has grown steadily over the dozen years that Biblical has offered its early morning Bible study, now held twice a year for eight weeks at a time. It has become one of Biblical's most solid ties with its community, drawing businesspeople, retirees, pastors, and even a few students to spend time at the school on a regular basis, get an understanding of the school's teaching, network, and eat doughnuts (a few bagels and some orange juice are supplied for the health-conscious).
Thomas Skinner, the school's executive vice-president (who has since moved to Alliance Theological Seminary, a Christian and Missionary Alliance school in Nyack, New York) warmed up the crowd on this morning. First, he asked for a round of applause for a man seated at a side table, and the group gamely complied, although they hadn't been told why they were applauding. Turns out he had been first to register for the school's upcoming golf tournament. Visitors were introduced, announcements made, and prayers offered, then the day's speaker was introduced. "You'll love him," whispered a regular to a visitor.
Thomas V. Taylor is an emeritus professor at the school, and a frequent "breakfast" speaker (other speakers are current or retired Biblical faculty). Most of the assembly seems already to know about the recent accident that totaled his beloved truck: he reassures everyone that he's all right, and asks if anyone knows where he can buy a truck.
Then he's off and running on a forty-five-minute Bible study on the unity of the church that contains more humor and more pathos than a Garrison Keillor monologue--and is peppered with deeply reasoned theological insights. He has no particular interest in the ecumenical movement, which he views as too bureaucratic; and anyway, he says, "If God is our father and the church is our mother--and I know that a few people have been converted by sunsets, but most of us come to God through the church--then our unity is genetic."
He tells a few stories about his own colorful family members and how they are family none the less. Later, he talks about meeting a Greek Orthodox monk at a Christian bookstore, the fellowship they shared in the aisle, and of their parting, when the monk, "grabbed me, kissed me on the cheek, kissed me on the other cheek--I'm not used to being kissed by anyone but my wife, except once when we had a dog."
He manages to get through the whole study without mentioning his own denominational affiliation.
The crowd is transfixed, except for a few who are deep in laughter at one of his one-liners. When he's done, a woman at the next table says, "Isn't he something? It isn't much that'll get a mother of six like me out the door at this hour." Her husband is a Biblical graduate, and the breakfasts keep her connected to the school. Others have come for other reasons. An engineer at a local anesthesia equipment manufacturer was brought by a friend six years ago--now he and his boss are regulars. The group is overwhelmingly male--on this morning, there were half a dozen women on hand, and one was the mother of David Dunbar, the school's president--but it ranges in age from teens into eighties at least, and there is clearly as great a range of socio-economic status as Hatfield can offer.
"I estimate the breakfasts cost the school $2,500 a year," Dunbar said. "It's a small investment that yields a great deal of goodwill."