May 3 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

8-alpha

How we faced up to our fears and renewed our Faith

Richard Purden attends a reunion of a group of Catholics involved in the Alpha programme, and discovers how it inspired a 75-year-old to skydive, converted one woman to the Faith, and gave others a new-found confidence in their abilities.

It was back in the winter of 2017 that I received a letter informing me that an Alpha course was being run at my parish.

A number of parents in my son’s class at school were invited and a letter was sent out explaining that Alpha doesn’t seek to ‘recruit’ people to the Christian Faith but simply to ‘share who Jesus is and why people follow him.’

It was seen as one way for parents to re-connect with God and help them prepare children for the Sacrament of Reconciliation before Holy Communion later this year.

 

Meeting others through God

Rather than just going through the motions in a perfunctory way, the letter suggested that this was an opportunity to meet with others in the community and discuss our relationship with God and what that meant for each of us.

Inherited beliefs didn’t have to be passed on simply because of tradition: it was a chance for parents to reflect on the meaning of their Faith.

The Alpha course I attended in Edinburgh was chaired by Siobhan Fee, 28, a stay-at-home mum and full-time church volunteer. Before starting with the group she admitted having reservations about leading it.

“I was a 1990s Catholic,” she explained. “We weren’t taught anything [about our Faith] and last year I would have argued that I couldn’t have lead this group, but God knows what you are capable of.”

 

Growing in confidence

A number of participants admitted a struggle with confidence in discussions after Alpha sessions, as well as feeling like an outsider when committing to Faith as a young person.

Siobhan said that many young people in her generation ‘can’t believe that you believe in something that is to them outdated and old fashioned.’

“They will ask ‘how is that relevant?’ but what people can’t argue with is what has happened to you,” she said.

“I’ve watched people in the group go from being timid and not being able to speak to becoming more confident and making friends.

“Alpha brought together Catholics of different ages and stages of life. We’ve got to know people that we might just see on Sunday at Mass where there’s not always the chance to talk or get to know someone.

“At Alpha we are not being preached at; it’s all built on relationships with each other.”

 

Welcoming friends

Siobhan later invited her friend Louise to the group. “She had not been brought up in any faith, but she loved it,” Siobhan said.

“She has had some personal challenges in life, and faith was irrelevant and viewed as something irrational that people with no hope cling to.

“Her partner was a cradle Catholic who didn’t enjoy his experience of church and couldn’t wait to not be involved.

“He was very much a box-ticker. Her exposure to faith and the Catholic Church was very negative and it took a few invitations.

Siobhan said Alpha offers people an easier route back to Faith.

“You can’t really take people to Mass because they have no idea of what is going on but Alpha is a good opportunity to bring someone to explain what our Faith means, and eventually [Louise] agreed to come.”

 

Discussion

Siobhan said that at first Louise would discuss her feelings about Alpha on the car ride home, but later became more comfortable speaking in the group.

“For Louise, the group became a safe place,” Siobhan said.

“Eventually she began to open up within the group and the change was noticeable. She didn’t feel judged because she didn’t believe in God or because she wasn’t married and had children.

“Eventually, the unpacking session happened in the group and not in the car home. We were all moved by the stories of other people in the environment, I remember another mum talking about her son, who has Down’s syndrome, and how he impacted her Faith.”

 

Strength in Faith

Frank Quinn, 72, is a retired educationist and a volunteer with SPRED, a Catholic group that helps people with learning disabilities. He shared how Alpha had impacted his life over the last year.

“Alpha taught me to reflect and think differently,” he said. “I was brought up in a conservative and traditional Irish Catholic home.

“The power and prestige of the Church came close to putting me off but over the years I came to understand the real value and strength of my Faith.

“When I came to this group it taught me to be at ease with my vulnerability. I was always worried about being more articulate and coming across strong—I didn’t want to make an eejit out of myself.

“When I listened to the challenges and debate I just thought ‘be at ease with your vulnerability, Jesus loves you, He is your friend and who would want anyone but Jesus as your best friend to share and be at ease with? Don’t complicate things.’”

 

A ‘refreshing example’

I joined the Alpha course myself, and I found Frank’s words to be a refreshing example.

Over many weeks I found that we never heard the same story twice and it was inspiring to hear men such as Frank being open about their own personal vulnerabilities.

In wider society, the expectation is more often to present the strongest version of yourself while hiding any weakness.

 

Bird’s eye view

Letting go of fear was something that also entered the conversation for retired nurse Grace Kay, 75, where you could sense something had lifted from her as the weeks went on.

“I don’t fear anything now,” said Grace in a quiet, softly spoken voice. “Nothing at all. I think everyone should have a bucket list. I want to get it all done before I go and one of the things I decided to do after Alpha was a skydive.

“When you jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet, and the canopy opens up, you experience God’s earth from a bird’s eye view and it’s completely different from being on a plane. I didn’t feel afraid sitting on the edge of the plane; it was fabulous.”

At the recent reunion, Grace also showed the group a tattoo on her ankle of a white dove holding a green olive branch in its beak.

This was done as a reminder of the Holy Spirit encounter she had experienced within the group.

 

Holy Spirit

Clare Roller, 75, also spoke about her experience with the Holy Spirit and continues her involvement with Alpha despite admitting her reluctance at first.

Clare was in her early thirties having just had her third child with her German husband, Wolf, when she first encountered the Holy Spirit.

“In that first encounter, I was completely blown away with an understanding that I was loved as I am and that I didn’t have to strive to be different or be someone else.”

Clare added that hearing people’s testimony at Alpha meetings had affirmed her own Faith.

“We encounter Jesus again and again—it’s not a one-off experience,” she said.

 

Overcoming anger

After being a participant in the first Alpha, Clare has become more involved in praying with others in subsequent groups.

It was during a meeting with another group that Clare shared a difficult relationship she had.

“I spoke at Alpha about how I tried to pray for this person and that I would always get side-tracked and start to feel quite angry.

There was this sense that I enjoyed being angry with the person. When I shared this with the group I was suddenly flooded by the Holy Spirit. It was as if a lump of ice had melted as we prayed for this person.”

 

A different experience

Alpha was a different experience for Maureen Quinn, 67, a volunteer for SPRED, who spoke of but explained: “I’ve never fallen away from my Faith journey.

“I’ve enjoyed the experiences as I’ve gone along to Lenten groups and the conversations I’ve had in SPRED which has had a massive impact on my life.

“I had seen the Alpha billboards for years and never questioned what it was about. It was a great experience and I enjoyed the friendships and sharing each week. I have definitely become much more confident to stand up to talk.

“I can get up now at SPRED and I don’t need notes—that is the Holy Spirit and that is wonderful.

“I’m more confident in relationships and God is much more human for me. I can talk about God and Jesus in our lives and think more confidently. I don’t feel I need to apologise or feel that everyone is looking at me.

“Often at Mass on Sunday morning, we forget what we’ve heard five minutes after the service but to talk things through was helpful. I’m more interested in the Bible now and I sit and read it on a Sunday.”

 

Outsider

At St Gregory’s in Edinburgh’s Inch area Maureen Wellbanks, 71, is a welcoming face in the community, opening the chapel doors for Mass on a daily basis and serving tea and coffee in the church hall at various meetings.

Her early experience of church life mirrors Siobhan’s, who said she felt like an outsider when committing to Faith as a young person.

It seems that for many people today the feeling of a call to go to Mass can sometimes be a lonely and isolating experience.

“I was brought up in St John Vianney’s and in fact, the church wasn’t even built when I was there,” she said.

“I was never a confident person and used to go to Mass in a hall across from the local chip shop. I was the youngest of six and went to St John’s [school] in Portobello.

“My friends would say they were not going to Mass. My first thought was that my mother would kill me [if I didn’t go] but looking back I didn’t want to not go.

“These friends are still away from the Church today and they can’t believe I’m opening up [the church] for Mass all these years later. I said to them, ‘come to an Alpha,’ but they haven’t come yet.

“I found the experience to be something so comfortable and a place where it was easy to share.”

 

Heated debate

No two Alpha groups have been the same since the Edinburgh parish cluster began to run the groups in January 2018.

Some meetings can get heated with strong differences of opinion and when people discuss issues of deep hurt.

Clare Roller explained that one week there were ‘a lot of deep family hurts discussed with stories of people harbouring resentment in some cases for many years.’

“In one group we prayed for one woman who was able to let go of a very deep hurt and that was a very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. It was a big thing in this particular family,” she said.

God tells us that he is ‘the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.’ For many of us who took part in Alpha, there was a sense of encountering Jesus in the community.

For others, it was a new beginning or a chance to begin again in a place where God was glorified and at work.

 

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