On the thirteenth of July, I found myself standing next to a massive television propped up on a two shelved trolley, guards at the door, in a room with a dozen inmates seated in a horseshoe shape around the small space I now occupied. I had agreed to host Alpha at the local prison in the community of Stephenville, NL.
My friend, Delores, a lady who was a little older and a lot more experienced in trusting Jesus and this field of ministry, reached up and placed a hand on my shoulder to get my attention. She didn’t have to say a word, but with the smile on her face and the short motion of nodding towards the remote, she showed me that she’d been here before and everything will go fine, just take the next step.
Pressing the play button, the screen came to life with warm music and kind faces. Everyone in the room was immediately engaged with the speaking duo on the screen who wanted to break the ice with a simple question. We paused the video, shared our own responses with our guests, and watched the self-erected wall of separation dissolve into laughter and common ground.
Sometimes, the inmates would revise their words in fear that their cussing would get them removed from the program – other times, it allowed us to see the authenticity of their responses. The background from which each person had brought their answers to the table was so different from their peers, and certainly more unique than my own.
From a single session, I immediately saw the beauty of the design of the Alpha program. The bars on the windows faded out of view, the scars and tattoos people bore no longer emanated pain or fear – suddenly, we were a family of our own choosing who had a conversation at the table.
All it needed to become a redeeming reality was a gentle push, which came in the form of a video curriculum and a kettle of hot water. Alpha in the local prison transformed from a program available for signup, into a dinner date that also fed the hungry soul. We were privileged to host Alpha every Friday morning or so for nearly three months, during which nearly two dozen people had come from a population of sixty to be part of the conversation.
Imagine if you could translate that demographic into cities of thousands! We asked things like “Is this life all there is? Who is Jesus? What even is a sin?” The conversations always made room to branch off into personal insight – Why should my questions matter? What role do I have in history? Is there a way to undo or grow from my wrongs? Does God really have a plan for me? Then we took in the climax of every session, the hope that God is not finished yet.
The answer to many of these questions are found inside the covers of a Bible, but in many cases, I’ve seen that the Good News was best shared at the table instead of the pew. Everybody needs to eat, but it’s harder to point out the hunger in the soul than in the stomach. Alpha is a tool that allows the spread of Good News through the hands of ordinary people, sharing their extraordinary stories, making room for questions and being willing to look for answers together.
Through alpha, I got to witness the New Testament church revisited by sinners, seekers, and saints breaking bread together. Now seeing our program conclude, I realize the conversation hasn’t. I have inmates who, upon their release, have come to the church to shake my hand, to ask for further prayer on next steps, to offer to contribute to the work we’re trying to accomplish in the same dark places from which they’ve been brought out.
We’ve adopted Alpha as an outreach effort on select Sunday evenings through the next year, and our presence in the prison has grown further for Christ’s kingdom. Alpha is simply faith in conversation, which allows us to invite people to saving faith in the same way my friend had shown me – trust Jesus, I’ve been where you are before, and I promise it will be fine, just take the next step.
Gerad Noble is Next Gen & Outreach Pastor at Zion Pentecostal Church in Stephenville, Newfoundland where he lives with his family. Whether leading a youth service, running Alpha in a Prison, or having a conversation over coffee, Gerad is “doing his best to be part of the proof God loves you.” – Gal. 2:20