Ginny Hayman leads a group at Palmyra Nursing home in a rendition of “He Walks With Me,” during a Bible study session at the facility Wednesday.
ALBANY, Ga. — If you’re one of those “but I’m only one person” types, you might not want to complain to Ginny Hayman.
Forty years ago, Hayman and Gert Burnham, the wives of two newly retired military men, decided they wanted more accountability in their worship of God. After discussing their desire and praying about it for three weeks, they decided to hold a Bible study session in Burnham’s home.
That two-woman session grew into the Ladies Neighborhood Bible Study group that has continued uninterrupted now for four decades, touching the lives of hundreds of women in Southwest Georgia.
“It wasn’t something we really planned; we just felt led by the Holy Spirit to get together to read the Bible and pray, and so we did it,” Hayman said of that first meeting. “We had no idea that it would become something that would last this long.
“I guess God just has a way of arranging lives the way He wants them.”
Indeed. As word spread about that two-woman study group, interest grew like wildfire. Soon the group became too large for home meetings and was welcomed into churches throughout Albany. As many as 73 women attended meetings during any given week, and the concept became so popular, separate meetings were held in East and West Albany and a steering committee was formed to guide the group.
And when Hayman was asked to hold Bible study at a local nursing home shortly after the group started, the neighborhood expanded to include what is now two nursing homes, seven personal care and assisted living facilities, and one retirement center.
“When the Ladies Neighborhood Bible Study group started, there were more homemakers, more women who were staying home to raise children,” Ida Fowler, who became a part of the group in 1976 and is now director of the steering committee, said. “I had five small children at the time, but I was hungry for a closer walk with God.
“Ginny taught us about family, about women’s responsibilities as Christians. My husband (Bob Fowler) could tell a difference in me after a short while, and he said he’d do anything he needed to do to make sure I got to go to the weekly meetings. When husbands start to notice the change in their wives, you know God has blessed what you’re doing.”
When Hayman and Burnham decided to start the neighborhood study group, Burnham unilaterally decided that, since they were meeting at her home, she would host and Hayman would teach. She also invited her mother to attend their first meeting. Two others heard of that initial meeting and asked if they could join the next week. Three more came the next.
Hayman reluctantly took on the responsibility of teaching the growing group. It was a responsibility she was well-suited to handle.
“When my husband was in the military and we were stationed in Greenville, Miss., we were simply churchgoers,” Hayman said. “We were there, but we were not involved. A lady who became my mentor told me I was not surrendering to God.
“When we moved to Loredo, Texas, I joined the PTA and was asked to run the school carnival. My husband then (Claude Swails) asked me what I’d done that day, and when I told him I’d been asked to run the carnival, he said I should do it. I told him I couldn’t because everything they planned to do to raise money was gambling.”
Claude insisted that she get involved (“I could have killed him”), but when she met with PTA officials she told them she’d do any of the set-up, cleanup and grunt work but that she couldn’t run the carnival. The base’s vice commander was impressed.
“The vice commander told his wife, ‘That’s the woman we want to teach our Bible study group because she’s a Christian’,” Hayman said. “They asked me if I would teach Bible study, but I was a shy person at the time and I said no. They asked me to pray about it, but I still said no.
“When Claude came home and asked me about my day, he asked if I’d gotten a phone call from the vice commander. I knew he knew what was going on. He told me, ‘He came by my office today and told me about the Bible study group. I told him you’d be there Tuesday night’.”
Hayman eventually studied with staff of the Billy Graham crusade in Germany, so she was an obvious choice to teach the Ladies Neighborhood Bible Study group.
“A lot of people don’t want the type of Bible study we have,” Jean Youngblood, who joined the group in 1976 and now heads up its nursing home ministry, said. “It’s very personal. We see how Ginny and other women deal with issues in their own lives. You don’t get that kind of learning experience from videos or books or TV.”
The expanding group, many of whose members needed day care to attend meetings, moved their study group to various churches in East Albany. But when word spread, a similar group in West Albany sought Hayman to teach there. So the neighborhood group met on Tuesday’s in East Albany and on Thursday’s in West Albany.
Shortly after the group was well-established, Hayman’s daughter took a youth group to visit a nearby nursing home. She told the manager of the facility her mother would come by to visit when she finished work she’d taken on while her husband was taking classes he would use to get a teacher’s certificate.
“I visited Albany Hospitality Care, and when the folks at Palmyra Nursing Home heard about it, they asked me to come there,” Hayman said. “When the ladies in the study group heard about that, they said they wanted to take part. And it just took off again.”
Groups of elderly patients and disabled younger ones gathered at Wynfield Park Health and Rehabilitation Center on West Third Ave. and at Palmyra Nursing Home Inc. on Wednesday for study groups led by Youngblood and Hayman, respectively. Participants clapped and sang along to familiar hymns and listened to inspirational messages from their visitors.
“This means a great deal to the residents,” Wynfield Park activities assistant Tracy Parker said. “It’s fun for them, and it’s fun to everyone else who takes part. There’s a lot of joy in the room.”
Sandra Tillery, the activities director at Palmyra, offered a similar assessment.
“Meetings like this make our residents feel loved, like part of the community,” she said. “They feel spiritual, and they love interacting with each other and with other members of the group.”
Renee Cone, a “fourth-generation member” of the Neighborhood Bible Study group, is a regular attendee of the nursing home studies. She leads singing on this Wednesday at Palmyra.
“Frankly, I get more out of this than the residents do,” she said. “The reality is they really enjoy this; they want to be here with us.”
Study group member Donnie Smith gets a similar reaction at Wynfield.
“A lot of these folks don’t get many visitors,” she said. “There’s definitely a need here (for the visits). A lot of there people are kind of forgotten, and the Lord expects us to reach out to them.”
Residents certainly seemed to appreciate the attention and the messages they received during Wednesday’s visits.
“I come to Bible study every time I can,” Wynfield resident Alice Caldwell said. “I like to learn different things about God’s work and word.”
“Mr. Palmyra,” Kara York, said he doesn’t miss an opportunity to be a part of the Bible study group.
“I used to drive a truck and have been as far away as California,” he said. “Now I enjoy Bible study with Ms. Ginny.”
The Eastside and Westside Bible study groups combined in 1980, meeting at Sherwood Baptist Church, primarily because Hayman’s then-husband became ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Youngblood took over lessons at the nursing homes while Hayman cared for Claude Swails.
“It’s funny, I was always a shy person, but as I started attending the study groups, I’d find myself saying, ‘If I taught this lesson, I would ...’” Youngblood said. “So when Ginny said she couldn’t be at three meetings a week, I immediately said I’d take charge of the nursing home meetings. They said they wanted me to pray about it, but I told them I didn’t have to. I’ve been doing it for 31 years now.”
The Neighborhood Bible Study group, which takes summers off so mothers can be with their children, held the final meeting of its 40th year Thursday at Palmyra Road United Methodist Church. There were hugs and tears all around as members like Margaret Rowe, who had read a story about the group in The Albany Herald in the 1970s and decided to go for one meeting and ended up hosting subsequent gatherings, Gina Bacon and Helen Carter, at 89 the study group’s oldest member, shared testimony and their common love for the woman who had started this all those years ago.
Hayman cried as Youngblood read a poem dedicated to the group’s founder, and she told the gathering, which even included a few husbands, “I’d rather be here than have all the riches in the world.”
And, Hayman assured the gathering, she’d be back — God willing — for year 41 when the group reconvened in Septemeber.
“It’s just like when we started,” Hayman said. “If God wants us to continue, we will. If He says enough, we’ll stop. We’ll continue to come through those doors as long as the Lord opens them.”