(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)
Since 2004 (and not including 2016 figures), over 20,000 people have participated in Alpha courses in Ireland. This includes 6,000 young people and there was a 40% increase in students attending Alpha Youth courses in 2016, so the figures will be considerably higher.
The Alpha course is a series of interactive sessions that explore the basics of the Christian faith. It provides a safe space for people to ask questions and wrestle with doubts without being criticised or condemned. Alpha is now being run in 169 countries worldwide. At the start of 2017, Alpha Ireland is hoping to encourage many more people to take the course.
Bear Grylls is the face of a global campaign to promote Alpha, and he describes his faith as his ‘greatest adventure.’ “The truth is, the first step is always the hardest. That’s the one that takes the most courage, but I’ve learnt not to run from that fear and just do it,” he said. “My Christian faith can be a little up and down like any relationship. It has struggles and it has doubts. I remember crawling onto the summit of Everest... But finding a simple faith that empowers my life? To me that’s been my greatest adventure.”
For more information about Alpha, visit www.alphaireland.org.
Recently, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams spoke to people whose lives have been changed after taking part in an Alpha course. Here are their stories:
Theresa Cronin, from Blarney, Co. Cork, is a former schoolteacher and mother of five who is now working as an Alpha youth worker in Cork. This is her story:
My story begins when I did my first Alpha course almost 13 years ago. I come from a traditional Catholic background. I was looking for a bit more understanding because I was teaching religion in schools and couldn’t answer the questions the students were asking.
I joined an Alpha course, and it blew me away. My life changed from being someone who believed because it was the right thing to do, out of a sense of duty and fear, to being totally committed and wanting others to know about Jesus too. It wasn’t that I was coming from a point of being a total non-believer but I was still very much in the dark and didn’t realise it.
For me, as a history teacher, the evidence and arguments that support Christian belief were presented in a way that meant I could defend my faith. It gave me security. The best part was the Holy Spirit Day. When I prayed to be filled with the Holy Spirit, I had an immediate sense of love and joy. From that day, I can pinpoint my desire to tell others.
During Alpha, I encountered Jesus for the first time. I might have known about Him before, but after Alpha, I developed a real, personal relationship with Him. He became my best friend. Jesus is a person I speak with, who I can depend on and who I can turn to. I’ve come to know Him and recognise His voice.
After the course, I stayed in a Growth Group. I didn’t want to lose the sense of fellowship and community we had built up. I love the ecumenical nature of the group - it is all about Jesus, and the differences between churches doesn’t come into play. We are one family.
Over the years, my husband was affected by the change in me. He did Alpha and began to seek Jesus himself. Now, I wouldn’t be as anxious as I used to be. I definitely have a lot more patience and courage to step out and do things. That is what I see personally that has changed in my life.
I was due back at work last September, after a career break of nine years having my children. I had been praying for about two years, “Lord, where do you want me; what do you want me to do?” This job, as an Alpha youth worker, kind of fell out of the sky. I decided to give it a try and I love it!
Young people are often angry at the church but the idea of having a personal relationship with God has opened their minds and for some of them, their hearts. It is what they are searching for.
It is my heart’s desire to get the message across. As one of my young people said, “Alpha speaks my language.”
Losing his wife to cancer, bringing up his two children as a single dad and then facing his own cancer diagnosis, Aidan Duggan’s world has been shaken to the core over recent years. In the midst of pain and confusion, the dramatic change in the life of friends led him to join an Alpha course, a choice that was to have a profound impact on his life. Here, he shares his journey:
I was born and bred in the sticks of Grenagh, County Cork, from a normal family, with a pretty strong Catholic faith. We grew up with an image of the sacred heart on the wall, we regularly prayed together before bedtime, and we went to mass every Sunday. It wasn’t really a choice or decision; it was just what everyone did. God was to be feared a little, as you kinda had the feeling if you stepped out of line you’d be struck down or something crazy like that.
After leaving college, I got a job in Waterford Crystal, and the world was officially my oyster. After two years, I headed off to Australia with my friends Marion and Noel. Marion and I had shared a house in Waterford, and for me, it was love at first sight, although it did take me some considerable time to convince her. We literally had the time of our lives in Australia, and eventually Marion agreed to go out with me.
After a few more years, we decided to get married and moved to Newry in Northern Ireland, where Marion was working. Marion had a very strong faith, much stronger than mine, and I witnessed what an important role it can play in someone’s life. Not sitting around praying all the time, just small things.
When we found out Marion was pregnant, it was an amazing feeling. Unfortunately, the joy turned into tragedy after six months as we lost Stephen in a stillbirth. This was horrific, and we both really struggled to deal with it. It was like our perfect little world was shattered. However, when you share a difficult experience like that together, it can bring you closer, and that was certainly true for us. When we later went on to have our daughter Aoife, we were a tight unit, and it was hard to top our happiness. Getting pregnant with our son Conor was just the icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, almost eight months into the pregnancy Marion was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Our world literally collapsed around us. Nothing can prepare you for moments like that. Conor was born six weeks early to allow Marion to receive cancer treatment and so started the fight. Even during the worst of moments, Marion would ask God to help her cope and get visible comfort from her prayers. I’d regularly have a conversation with God, pleading with Him to heal her and take away this dreadful illness. Eventually, after six months of constant chemotherapy, she passed away.
I was so devastated. Right up to the end, I firmly believed there would be a happy ending. I couldn’t even pray or anything. I was furious with God and I questioned His very existence.
Things began to change when the kids were getting to a certain age and I realised I wanted to bring them up with some faith because Marion would have wanted that. I honestly hadn’t a clue where to start. That’s when I thought about the Alpha course.
What got me into Alpha was seeing the effect it had on the lives of my friend Theresa and her husband. They seemed so content and happy. I thought, “I wouldn’t mind a piece of that.”
It was very awkward at first. I went through that door and I expected to see a group of old people - after all, the vast majority of people at mass are either very old or very young. I thought it would be very religious with lots of praying but Alpha wasn’t like that at all. The people were all like myself and none of them would have been trying the “holier-than-thou” sort of thing. None of them made me feel inferior. The food was amazing too.
It was a great experience right from day one. Worship music was a part of it. I remember standing up and thinking, if anyone saw me now! It was so alien but the music was so uplifting and positive. It is funny how things change. I’m just finishing my second Alpha and standing singing along is totally natural now.
Nothing jumps out particularly about the course, but things started to make sense. I love talking and discussing things. I’m a bit of a devil’s advocate and I like to argue things out. We had a real sense of camaraderie between us.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the end of August 2016. It was a huge shock. I went into hospital on my birthday and had an operation soon afterwards to remove the tumour. Having been through the experience with Marion, in some ways it made it easier but it was also more shocking. I thought, “Am I going to face the same thing?” That had been six months of hell. Could I face that extreme pain and mental anguish she had gone through? After a couple of weeks of depression and thinking I was going to die, my wound healed and I began to get my head around it. Slowly things began to change.
I had a massive wave of support from the Alpha group. People came out and prayed with me. If ever there was a eureka moment, it was then. I went from being low to thinking, “I’m going to make the most of it.” I can’t explain it except that I’m handing it over to God.
Okay, in theory you should be living like this irrespective of a life-threatening illness. I’ve no idea what the future holds; now I just have to look at the here and now. My counsellor thought I was on steroids because I was so positive!
I’ve had six weeks of radiotherapy and now I’m about to start chemo. In all this, Jesus is my best friend. He is there 24/7. There are times when I feel carried along in His arms, sitting on His shoulders. It is an amazing feeling. I wish I could share it with everyone. At every turn, He is there. Even thinking of the negative I find solace - even if it all goes pear-shaped, He will be there.
Annette Evans is the Alpha Youth Coordinator for the Midlands and is based in Tullamore, County Offaly. This is her story:
About six years ago, I did Alpha myself. The priest announced at mass that we would be running a course. I didn’t have a clue what it was. Alpha’s slogan says, “There is more to life than this.” I was at a point in my faith when I was thinking just that - there has to be more to life than just going to mass.
I decided to do Alpha and I didn’t even look it up to find out more. I brought my mother, father and brother, and we all did the course together. There was a whole sense of community, which I was really looking for - sitting in a small group, watching the videos, getting to know people and talking through things. There’s usually food involved too!
You build up a relationship with each other. It gives you that sense of belonging somewhere and feeling safe to talk in a non-judgemental environment. You get to talk about God and the journey that you are on.
The course taught me that I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus, even though I had always believed in God. My life going forward changed completely. For a lot of people, they think they are giving up something to become a Christian. I don’t feel like that at all. You don’t have to give up anything to become a Christian - your life becomes more fulfilled.
I think that I depend more on God through different situations. I don’t mean that my life became easy. Everything was still there - all the pressures of family life and work life - but you see things from a different perspective. Now, I talk to God and talk through things with other Christians rather than trying to get through it on my own.
For the last three years, I’ve been the Alpha Youth Coordinator for the Midlands. I’m running an Alpha course at the moment in my living room, with a group of 18-year-olds. They have dinner first and then we watch the film series and chat. We were waiting until after Christmas to finish the talks, but they did not want to miss out on meeting together, so they are still coming to my house every Friday night!
Dominic Perrem from Shankill, County Dublin, is married with four children. He was introduced to Alpha when it started in the late 1990s.
I’ve been involved for most of my life in a committed Christian community. I was raised as a Catholic in a charismatic group and gave my life to the Lord. In the 1990s, I saw Alpha as a way to reach out to others.
I was dating a girl in university and she wasn’t a Christian. I was trying to evangelise this lady by bringing her along to an Alpha course. That didn’t work out so well. I thought the course was brilliant but it’s probably not wise to combine a romantic interest with evangelisation!
When I went to London a year and a half later, I started to run the course with students there. Alpha, I think, is one of the simplest and most effective tools for introducing someone to the person of Christ - a great combination of apologetics and evangelism.
When I moved back to Ireland, I got involved with looking at the follow-on from Alpha. What do people do when they have finished the course?
All my life, I’ve lived alongside other Christians in a close-knit community but that experience is being lost in the wider church; in many churches, the close connection we have as Christians has been lost. Too often, people stay anonymous to one another and go through the motions of faith. We need to have real relationships and learn to share life together. Alpha is a great way of starting the process of getting people to share their lives.
Christian life is not just about liturgy or courses; it is a daily, hourly call to be a disciple of Jesus. So how do we give people the opportunity to grow?
When people have experienced that first taste of God’s profound love for them during an Alpha course, the temptation is to keep on running more courses. What is more important is that you continue the momentum of the Christian life - praying together, studying the Bible, supporting one another in fellowship, serving the wider church and starting to tell others about Jesus. These are the pillars of the basic Christian life. These are not things we learn in a book… we need to follow Christ in our hearts, and we need others to support us.