How to believe in Jesus: take a course
Patrick Freyne attends The Alpha Course, an introductory guide to Christianity
From left: course instructor Camille Niang, from Harolds Cross, Laurens Guilford from Kilmainham, Rudolf Ballon from Rathgar and John Sommerville from Knocklyon, at the Alpha Course in Rathmines. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Gerry Daly, a retired army corporal, found Jesus when stationed in a remote outpost in Cyprus in the 1970s with nothing but a Bible. The intensity of his faith increased on returning to Ireland when praying in a local church. “I got locked in!” he chuckles. “I spent the night there and that had a huge effect on me.”
It’s a wet Sunday morning, and people in search of similar conversations are gathered in a meeting room in Largo House in Rathmines. Outside on the railings a sign says, “Alpha Course, Explore the Meaning of Life. Free, with breakfast.”
The Alpha course is a non-denominational introduction to Christianity devised by atheist turned Anglican vicar, Nicky Gumbel. In the UK it has been hugely successful in bringing agnostics and atheists to Christianity. But this is the first Alpha course to be run by Holy Trinity in Rathmines, a Church of Ireland church that now hosts two separate congregations – one, predominantly older and traditional, and another younger and more loudly evangelical.
I’ve been welcomed warmly by the co-ordinator Camille Niang, a young French woman who came to Ireland with the International Fellowship of Evangelical students. There are six organisers: three young women, a young man, a middle-aged lady and a middle-aged man. There’s tea, coffee, bread, cereal and fruit.
There are Bibles on the table, a drop-down projector screen and, for some reason, a couple of Rubik’s cubes. Pamphlets written by Gumbel are spread around the place. “Is there a conflict between Science and Christianity?” (The answer is “no”). “Is there anything wrong with sex before marriage?” (The answer is “yes”). It’s the third week in a 10-week Alpha course
The nine name-tag wearing participants include Georgie Maurelet, a thoughtful, fashionably dressed young French man from a non-religious family who has been dabbling with church-going since meeting his Dublin-based girlfriend, Laurence. “Before meeting Laurence, the only people I ever heard talking about religion and the meaning of life were Muslim friends,” he says. “Nobody talks about this stuff in Paris.”
The course itself is based around video lectures by Nicky Gumbel. This week the subject is “How Can We Have Faith?” Previous topics include “Who is Jesus?” and “How did Jesus die?” Everyone has a green Alpha course manual in which to take notes.
Gumbel’s is a very English form of evangelism. He gazes from the screen in a sensible jumper, looking for all the world like a school teacher or, indeed, a vicar. He’s softly spoken and conversational. “How can we have faith? It’s a good question, isn’t it?” he starts, before commencing a gentle bombardment of scriptural passages, biography, anecdotes involving his wife Pippa and snappy allusions to modernity (“Being born in a Christian community doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being born in McDonald’s makes you a burger”). He steers clear of the areas of evangelical Christianity – demonology, faith healing – that might frighten people away, and focuses on notions of renewal. “I’m a new person,” he says.
After 25 minutes of Nicky, the lights come on and we pair up to “define faith and what it means to be a Christian.”
I’m paired with Gerry Daly, who usually attends a prayer group for charismatic Catholics. “We pray and read the Bible and speak in tongues,” he explains, matter-of-factly.
He got a bit disenchanted with that group, he says, when the organisers started asking for money for expenses.
When the discussion is opened up it becomes clear that this gathering contains both people who struggle with the idea of religious belief and others, like Daly, who already have an unquestioning faith and just like to talk about God. “God is love,” says an older man with a serene expression on his face. “And you can just feel him.”
“I hope I have that someday,” says Maurelet. “I’m not really sure what faith is. I’m here because I’ve been going to church for a while and I have to make a choice.”
‘Seek and ye shall find’
Everyone nods with understanding. Nicky Gumbel has already suggested that belief is a decision. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the older man.
Rob Jones, a vicar at Holy Trinity, thinks attending just one Alpha session is like watching a single event in the middle of a rugby match, that I might be seeing things out of context. The effect, he says, is linear and cumulative. Eleven years ago, his own lapsed Christianity was reawakened by an Alpha course run at St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street.
“A mate of mine was doing it and he was at a low spot in his life,” he says. “And I went with him. I learned that, after 15 years of going to church, I’d never had a clue what it was all about. I ended up leaving my job, doing theology in Trinity, spending time in India and then getting ordained. Alpha awoke something in me. It wasn’t a ’Road to Damascus’ moment but it did open something in my heart.”
At this Alpha course some participants already credit faith with changing their lives.
“I did bad things in my past,” says Rudolfo Ballon, a dreadlocked former heroin addict, as we stand in the street afterwards. “You can have faith but you have to be clean. Someone with faith can put their hand on you and heal you.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder, and for a second it feels like something mystical might occur, like a charge of religious faith might enter my body. It doesn’t. He takes his hand away. “But it’s hard, you know?”