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In the fall of 1985, 39-year-old George W. Bush joined the Midland, Texas chapter of Community Bible Study and became one of 120 Midland men who began a rigorous study of the Bible. This evangelical Christian class was a turning point in Bush's personal religious journey. Two members, Mark Leaverton and Don Poage, talk about the day Bush arrived, what they observed over the months that followed, and the impact that the class had on Bush years after he left Midland.

photo of leaverton

He was a founder of Midland's Community Bible Study (CBS) class and is now associate teaching director of a men's CBS class in Austin and president and founder of FreeWay Ministries, Inc., a ministry to college students at the University of Texas. Here, he talks about the first time Bush came to CBS and his memorable encounter with Bush the following year.

Mark Leaverton

What first drew you, and so many of the men of Midland with whom we have spoken, to Midland back in the 1970s?

The [oil] boom was like the Gold Rush. Unbridled optimism. People came there because they thought that they could earn a lot of money, get involved in something exciting. … And you had some really incredibly talented people that were there. A lot of professionals. For a small town, Midland had so many professional people. But as with any kind of great success, a lot of excesses. I can remember a guy, about 35 years old, celebrated his wife's 35th birthday by chartering a 727 around the United States for the birthday. … A Rolls Royce dealership came into Midland. Lot of kind of silly things like that. The draw of the money.

How long did that time last?

… [I]t lasted until 1983, when the First National Bank of Midland collapsed. And that was really the beginning of a precipitous slide in the oil and gas business in Midland. The price of oil, which had stayed at $3 to $5 a barrel, was up to $40 a barrel. And all of a sudden, the price started sliding. And then eventually slid way back down to about $8 a barrel.

As things started to slide, a lot of fear set in. … A lot of marriages broke up. People started having pretty serious emotional problems. It was a real wake up, as to what was really important in your life. So it was a scary time for all of us, it really was. … And people started asking questions.

It's really interesting. Because we started getting together -- the Bible study that preceded Community Bible Study -- and we started praying on Monday mornings at 6:30, in about the middle of '83. There were about eight of us and it was a very interesting bunch of guys. … I was 33. And I'm telling you, you're dangerous when you're 33, you think you know everything, and most of the guys were in that age group. Thirty-three to 35. So we met every Monday morning at 6:30 and just asked God to show us, "What do you want us to do?

How would a Bible study session unfold?

CBS is divided into 30 weeks, so that you have, say, the Book of Luke and you take the chapters in Luke, divide it by 30. And it would roughly come up to be a chapter a week. … And you would, of course, have your homework lesson which you would do individually. Every person in the study would do that. You would come to CBS and your little small group, called a core group, was about 15 guys. You had a core leader. You went through all the questions that you had answered at home, by yourself and if you wanted to give an answer, you could. If you didn't, that was okay. Nobody was forcing anyone to say anything. So everybody shared their answers. And sometimes answers were right on the mark. And sometimes they were totally off the mark. But that's okay. Everybody got to express what they believe that passage said.

And then after the core group, the whole group would come in. And the teacher -- I was one of the teachers -- would teach on that particular passage of Scripture. And the main purpose of the teacher was not to take the passage and regurgitate the passage. They'd already studied it. They knew it. They understood the basics of it. What my job was, was to apply it to their lives. It's the old question, "Okay. So, that's what Luke 4 says. So what? What does that have to do with my life? Is it just history? Is it just information? Is it just something that I can say, 'Oh, that was a nice thought?' Or, is it something that can affect the way I live my life?"

That was my goal and it's the goal of all teachers in CBS -- to be able to teach in such a way that when someone left, they looked at their lives a little differently.

Why do you feel this format has the ability to really transform somebody's understanding of Scripture and their ability to apply it to their lives?

The whole key is a small group. Relationships are built. People are able to unmask a little bit. Guys have a hard time being transparent and vulnerable. It's a place where you can express the way you feel about things. You can be controversial. There's no party line. So, it's a unique place. It's a safe place. It's a place where you can be yourself. …

The first time that President Bush came to the class, do you remember that?

… I think he probably came in 1984 to our Bible study that preceded Community Bible Study (CBS). He was the vice president's son. I mean, he was an important guy. But he was a very regular person. He was not the kind of guy that when you saw him, you really felt like you were around somebody who was really important. He was like everybody else out there. He was trying to figure out how to make a living in the oil business, just like all of us.

And when he came, I thought, "Isn't that wonderful? Here's a guy who has so much in his life. And yet, he has a need, just like I do." And I'm sure that's exactly what he was feeling. He was there not because Don Evans or Don Jones -- the two guys who brought him -- were there, but because he had a need. Something was missing in his life, and these guys were saying, "George, you need to come check this out." And it's a real tribute to him, that he did.

He's written and spoken about that time as a very powerful time and a place of personal transformation. Can you tell us a bit about what you might have seen with him?

A situation I remember, after George Bush had been in CBS for about a year and a half, my wife and I went to the Yucca Theater, which is a little downtown theater. There was a live production on and there were these little tables you could sit at. I sat down [with] my wife and then George and Laura Bush came in and they sat at this little table with us. And I would not consider George Bush to have been a good friend of mine. I'd visited with him on numerous occasions. But I wouldn't consider that we were good buddies or friends, from the standpoint of hanging around with each other.

But he sat down next to me, Laura and George. And I leaned over to him, and I said, "George, how have you been enjoying CBS?" Really kind of conversational. I wasn't trying to get deep with him, you know, at this play. And he looked at me, and really just very strong eyes, and feeling in his voice, he said, "CBS has changed my life."

And I was really taken aback by the fervor. The way he said it was not just saying, "Oh, I really enjoyed it. It was a nice Bible study." It was something deep. And he talked about the fact that when we had studied about Nicodemus … and he had asked Jesus about life. And Jesus told him, "Nicodemus, you've got to be born again." And that little story really impacted him because he told me at that point, he said, "You know, I realized through studying that I had to be born again." And it was pretty obvious what he was saying to me, at that point, was that he'd had a real encounter with Jesus, in a very real way.

I've heard many stories about how he actually came to faith. But I know that CBS was a part of that. And really, with CBS, what really changed him, and what changed me, too, is the Scriptures. They're alive, and they're powerful. And reading them makes a difference in your life. Really impacts you.

Could you describe the evangelical community in general in Midland at that time in terms of the number of believers' churches and kind of just the atmosphere and the environment?

Midland, Texas is one of the most amazing places on earth. It is not the most beautiful part of the world. Some of the strongest Christian leaders that I've ever known live in that town. And of Community Bible Study on a national basis there are a disproportionate number of people from Midland on the board and in national leadership. Probably has a little bit to do with the can-do attitude that people from Midland have. And that involves the oil business. You've gotta be a real optimist to be in the oil business. It's very risky. You can gain millions and lose millions on one well.

But the atmosphere in Midland is wonderful. There's a desire to introduce people to who Jesus is on a local level and on a national level. And there's a confidence there that God can use me to do that. I don't have to go to seminary. I don't have to be the smartest person in the world. I just have to be a man who's yielded to the Lord. And he will use me in the way that he uses so many of those people from Midland.

You saw George Bush many years after that CBS class. Can you talk about that encounter?

… When I moved to Austin in December of 1998, I was asked by Community Bible Study to interview then-Governor Bush about his experience at CBS. So I went to the capital. And I had not seen George Bush since that night in the parking lot in 1986 [just before he left Midland and went to Washington to work for his father]. And I was really curious to see, what kind of guy is he going to be today? What was I gonna hear when I asked him these questions about his experience at CBS?

And when I walked in and was waiting for him, there's a funny story. There was the Texas State Teacher's Association. He was doing a little public service announcement for them. ... The Texas Ranger guys were talking into their little microphones saying, "Tell the governor to watch out for all the cables that are on the floor." It's like when you become a politician you all of a sudden can't walk on your own, you know? So he walks in the door, and he turned to me and waved. And he got this little glint in his eye. And I knew exactly what was getting ready to happen. He walks out there and takes about two steps and plays like he is tripping over one of the cords. And of course everybody absolutely comes unglued. Like he's gonna fall down. And then of course he just starts laughing. And I thought, "Well one thing, he's still the same guy that he was when I knew him in Midland."

But the most telling thing was when I started asking him the question. And the first question was, "Tell me the difference that CBS has made in your life." And I got the same response that I've gotten that night at the Yucca Theatre. And he said, "[It] changed my life." And then he just started talking. He was the same guy-- that I saw that night in 1986, except the faith was a lot deeper. It resonated. I was really stunned to hear the depth of his walk with God. And it just flowed out of every pore. And his words were of a man who knew intimately his father in heaven. And he was convinced that he was a child of that father. And he said, " I still read the scriptures every day. And I learned that from that time in CBS where I had a disciplined study of God's word."

When I left there, I just was so thankful to see here's a guy who could have, so easily, been pulled away from that faith and in other directions. So many temptations that we all face anyway. I saw just that genuine guy whose faith was not just something he believed, it was who he was. And I think that's the most telling thing I can say to you, is that over 12 years later, that man was the man that he had been before, but even deeper.

photo of poage

One of the group leaders in Midland's Christian Bible Study class in the mid-1980s, he had George W. Bush, whom he had known since their childhood Little League days, in his study group. Poage now is program director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling Program at Midland College. Here, he talks about what George Bush was like in the bible class and, as the months passed, the changes that he saw in the future president.

Don Poage

Take me back to the 1970s. George Bush returns to Midland as a young man and there are the high times in Midland?

Well, I'd graduated college, begun working in the oil business. ... I partnered with various people from time to time. You would put together coalitions of individuals to raise money and drill wells. George moved to Midland pretty much to do the same thing. We had common friends who introduced us and we liked sports, so we hit it off pretty well. He played tennis. He was a very good tennis player. And we shot some baskets. He was a very good basketball player. He was very competitive. And I liked that. That was a lot of fun.

What is it like to be a young guy in Midland. Can you paint a picture for me at that time?

... When you're successful and you're 25, 28 years old, you think you're bulletproof and you're a genius and you can do anything. It wasn't until I started having kids that I started taking a look at my life and realizing, what legacy am I leaving for them?

When George and I more or less reconnect is when his twin daughters were born. My youngest daughter was born the same month. They became friends so we became reacquainted as fathers. And I had known Laura, his wife, since high school, and she and my sister I think roomed together in college. So, they've been friends for a long time. So, we got reconnected in that way.

But we really didn't run around and socialize together. I think I was a lot badder than George. People talk about his drinking and this and that. He wasn't doing the bad things I was doing them. I would have seen that. So I was out of control and at some level realized that I couldn't go on living that way and I wasn't gonna leave a very good legacy for my kids. ...

Let's go back to the early days of CBS. Tell me about the conversations you were having [at the beginning]?

When CBS started in Midland there were a group of men that met over at Bobby Henry's house. I think there were somewhere between 11 and 15 of them. And I got involved with them shortly after that and we started with a curriculum called the Navigator series out of a group in Colorado Springs.

But very shortly after that, we started with a new curriculum called Community Bible Study that some ladies on the East Coast and the West Coast had developed. And it was very just incredibly enriching stuff, and what a great way to study the Bible. ... Seventy-five [men] would come on any given week -- and Midland men are busy. We started on Tuesday nights. We stay away from Monday Night Football. We kept changing things that the ladies put in their curriculum to suit us. Eventually we got right back to how they did it because they way they designed it was right.

It's booming today. It's huge. But it grew from maybe 50 to 75 every week to around 150 to 175 in a matter of two or three years. And it was quite explosive.

It seems like there was a lot of wrestling with the issues in the Bible in the beginning when you were all starting to study the Bible. And George Bush, [in his book], said he was asking a lot of questions and he was very devout to try to understand what the Bible said. Can you talk about that?

I don't remember if it was my first year or my second year that George was assigned to my core group. Every year we'd mixed a bunch of people up. We took guys from different churches, different levels of Bible knowledge -- from little, to some, to great -- and mixed the denominations so you wouldn't have a bunch of Baptists in there and a bunch of Catholics in a different one, and so we mixed it up. That's the beauty of it, because you have a lot of perspectives coming at the very same lesson every week.

The year that George was in my core group, we were studying the Book of Luke. The Book of Luke is the only of the four gospels that is in chronological order. And in fact early in the book, one of the words translated eyewitness as autoptês in Greek. Autoptês, which means eyewitness in English, is actually an autopsy. Luke did an autopsy of the life of Christ and he started before Jesus was even born with the Bible story. And it goes in order. [I] think that was particularly suited to George, because George is an orderly fellow and he likes things to fit. Luke takes a very complex time in history, the three years that Christ was in his ministry and the years prior to that of which little is known, and as best he can he reconstructs the life of Christ. Since it's in chronological order it made sense to me as well. So, guys would look at that and say, "Well, gee, well what about this."

The CBS [lesson plan] refers it to many other books in the Bible, so by the virtue of doing your lesson, you go to all these other scriptures in other parts of the Bible. They invariably rope in the Old Testament, so that you can see how the Jewish Torah is the word of God and the Christian New Testament is the word of God and they fit together.

So it's seamless, but it's challenging because you look at those scriptures and everybody has got their interpretation. And you're in Midland, Texas. A lot of oil men, a lot of other businessmen in there as well. And guys that are in the plumbing business, guys who are carpenters, auto dealers, you name it. But they all had a sense of what the oil industry is and the kind of people that that draws are sometimes very gregarious, very outgoing, very assured of themselves.

And so they asked great questions. And that made for a very lively discussion. George was just like the rest of them. He asked great questions. But George had a very incisive mind. He didn't ask trivial questions. Sometimes guys would ask him to repeat things and make jokes. George has a great sense of humor, but it was very pointed. You could tell by the way he asked his questions and the way he approached his lessons and the preparation he'd done in his lesson he had done his homework. And he had even done work outside there. He really did seek to know himself. And what we tell him is, "I don't care what your pastor says. I don't want you to read a commentary. I want your copy of the Bible and the Holy Spirit to answer these questions and then you show up Monday night and we'll talk about it."

By the way, we'd moved over to Monday night by then. Up against Monday Night Football and our numbers went up. We prayed about it and we said, "You know what? If the word of God isn't more important than Monday Night Football then we know what they really want to do." And the guys are sincere. And they wanted to come. And so that's another miracle to me as they found that was a priority in their lives.

Did you see a change from [Bush] just in his knowledge and understanding of Jesus? Were you able to have deeper conversations together?

Throughout the year when we're studying God's word, guys change. [For] some it's dramatic and you can see a difference and [for] some it's very gradual. George and I at that time weren't playing tennis together or socializing outside of CBS. And so I saw him every Monday for an hour when he came to core group. He may have missed once or twice if he was on a business trip or something. I don't recall a transformational process because I think he was growing. But we all grew. And so as you grow together you don't notice that someone's dramatically -- well, you know it feels dramatically different.

So people have asked me, "How did you see George change during that year?" I saw him grow. I saw him deepen in his faith and in his walk. But that was not uncommon among the men at CBS. That's what we were there for. ...

I think all the things that George has been through in his life have made him stronger. But his faith -- and I don't know that he has credited publicly CBS for the foundation of being able to study God's word -- but I would suspect that that foundation, just like learning fundamentals in baseball, learning how to ride a bike when you're a kid, it's very important to get it right in the beginning because then you have something very firm to build on. And he has a very firm foundation. I suspect that that has a great contribution to his walk with Jesus Christ and his ability to make decisions.

[This] foundation of knowledge you talk about, is that what he had? [Is that what Bible] study does for you?

It's not just in your head and in your heart. That's what people get thrown off by when you talk about spirituality. Because you can't quantify it. We're always trying to quantify something that's unquantifiable. ...

Can you talk a little about [the president] and being a believer? Because you know him from the early days.

What I can talk about [is] .. I saw that transformative process beginning. Whether he was then quote, "saved" or not, or "born again" or not -- he made a couple of comments in core group that would lead me to believe that he was.

One person I talked to at CBS the other night said, "Living in Midland was like living in the palm of Jesus." It's a Christian community mostly. There's a lot of like-minded people. There's a community that fosters Christian brotherhood. What are your thoughts on that?

I'm probably not a good one to ask. I've lived in Midland all my life and this is all I know in terms of living somewhere. ... Midland's existence began 100 years ago when they built a railroad through here. Ranchers came out and it was a hardy group. It was tough to make a living out here and exist. And then the oil boom came and it attracted all sorts of diverse characters, some of them very unsavory. So I question that "living in the palm of Jesus." I think it's very much like Jerusalem and Israel back in the time of Jesus. There's really good and there's some really bad. And Midland is not probably that much different from a lot of other cities in many ways. ...

Maybe it's because I'm looking at CBS and I'm looking at this fellowship of man, I'm curious about it. It's just an unusual experience being in that room, sitting and actually talking about things that are very emotional. What is it with the men in Midland? Is there something unique here or what would you say? Would you say this could happen anywhere?

[In] Midland [what's] unique about that [are the] many men coming to a Bible study. And presently, there's like 250 men that go to CBS, and I know a lot of them because they've been going since I was there. They are business leaders. They're incredibly talented. And some of them very wealthy individuals. That could be anywhere, any time. They go places and do things. And they get back and they do their lesson and they come to CBS on Monday night.

I don't know what to say about that. Is it like that anywhere else? I haven't a clue. I try not to think that Midland is totally unique, but I think there is something really special about that group of men.

And I thank God, one of the Christian phrases is, "They're anointed." I think God puts His hand on certain individuals at certain times for certain tasks. And if you honor that, the weight of that being, if you honor that, He continues to use you. And when he's done with you, you're still a believer, you just may not have that anointing at that time.

That's a very mystical concept and difficult for some people to understand. And it's like a football program; some teams just seem to win. They fall on hard times, they get a new coach, they get back into the winner's circle. Guys in Midland are hard-charging, hard-driving, competitive guys. And yet, there's no competition for Jesus. He gives freely to all who ask. But it is transformative. And once it gets in you, you're changed.

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posted april 29, 2004

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