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People gather in Blackduck to read New Testament out loud

Volunteers from churches in Blackduck and surrounding communities are spending three days reading the entire New Testament at the Wayside Rest Park. About 50 volunteers are signed up to fill 128 reading slots. From left, sisters Bonnie Padron and Kathy Rosenberg follow along with the reading in their Bible on Friday with Mark VanTassel in the background. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

By Christen Furlong

BLACKDUCK — At a table, on the far edge of the Wayside Rest Park gazebo, the sun shone on the back of an 82-year-old man sitting alone Friday with his Bible opened to the first page of the New Testament, waiting patiently for 9 a.m. to arrive.

Max Cheney was waiting to hear the Word of God.

Six churches — Alvwood Evangelical Free, Blackduck Free Evangelical, Faith Lutheran, Hope Lutheran, Cavalry Covenant and Tenstrike Community Church — partnered this weekend to publicly read aloud the New Testament from start to finish in 12-hour intervals throughout the weekend.

"I think it’s just wonderful that so many churches are joining together to take this opportunity to read God’s Word," volunteer and Faith Lutheran member Lynette Strong said. "It’s just a blessing to us if no one else."

As 9 a.m. approached, Cheney — cancer survivor, former pastor and Korean War veteran — ambled to the front of the gazebo where four ladies sat at a folding chattering happily while two microphones loomed in front of their faces, echoing their laughter. Cheney laid his palm on the table, leaned forward to accommodate for his lack of voice and said, in soft, rasping words, "I will be praying for you as you read."

Cheney was in attendance to listen only, but felt compelled to step in should the organizers need another volunteer, he said. He had refrained from outright volunteering because of the current harshness of his voice.

"I came to pray for those who are reading," he said, "My voice is not too good but if they need a replacement, I will read."

No two people participated for the exact same reasons, but many came to spread faith or pray. For Faith Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Tom Reagan, it was also the freedom spreading the Christian faith in public and a calling from the text itself.

"There are two scriptures that pushed us to create this reading: Romans 10:17 & Isaiah 55:11," Reagan said. "Those scriptures say that faith comes from hearing the Word of God. We want to show that the Word is powerful and influential and that God can create faith when people hear."

In essence, the event is that simple. The churches gathered volunteers and throughout the weekend they plan to take turns reading a few chapters and will not stop until 9 p.m., each night.

Reagan and the Rev. Tom Bonar from Alvwood Free Evangelical were both key organizers in bringing the community Christian churches together at Wayside Rest for the reading, which was two years in the making and took approximately six weeks to plan.

"So often, people think that (different churches) don’t get along," Bonar said. "We want to show them that even if he’s got that label and I’ve got this label, but we’re all believers in Christ, we can come together and do something in unity."

Between the churches, almost 50 volunteers signed up to read the New Testament at Wayside. Strong, followed by Lorraine Paulsen, Beatrice Krueth and Sally Lee were the first four on the list. As the day passed, volunteers came and went, each taking their turn.

"I’m blessed to (take part in this event). It’s a great opportunity to read the Word of God anytime," Strong said. "I think it’s very important to speak the Word of God. I would like to have seen more people come out to hear it, but God will bring the right people."

As Strong mentioned, the event was small. After two hours of reading, less than 10 people lingered near the gazebo. But event organizers were not expecting to draw crowds. Instead, it was partly the embrace of First Amendment freedoms that motivated Bonar and Reagan to organize the public reading in addition to the main mission of spreading God’s message to the community.

"We have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion," Bonar said. "Today, we are exercising all our freedoms."

"There are many countries in the world where you couldn’t do this, In fact, you couldn’t even have a Bible," Reagan added. "We are kind of celebrating being Americans in one sense because we can have a public reading of the New Testament. People don’t think about that very much because we have so many freedoms that we take for granted."

That freedom radiated from Cheney who sat, still praying, nearly three hours into the event. The veteran had overcome overseas service and three types of cancer, which have removed parts of his intestine, ear and eyebrow.

"I’ve had several inches removed from my intestine and part of my ear removed from carcinoma. But it’s my wife that really needs to be prayed for. She’s battling cancer, too, and she’s in a lot of pain," Cheney said. "We have to be positive and we must all be on the victory side of Christ."

The event continues today from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 1 to 9 p.m. Sunday.