Program used in prison ministry, parish groups, as supplement to CCD and RCIA
Story by Leigh Calfee
(SNR) – Every Wednesday afternoon, Randy and Deb Shippee travel from Nebraska City to the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution to help run Alpha for inmates.
Alpha is a program for exploring the Christian faith, and it’s growing in popularity both in the Diocese of Lincoln and around the globe.
For the Shippees, it’s a way to help inmates explore the big questions about Christianity; Alpha also allows everyone involved to develop and deepen a personal relationship with Jesus.
Alpha sessions typically last 11 weeks, and hosting Alpha is referred to as “running” the program. People who run Alpha often meet in churches, parks, coffee shops or homes. Prison Alpha in Tecumseh typically lasts 16 weeks, with a graduation ceremony for inmates who complete the program.
Parishes, priests, lay people and everyone in between run Alphas. The sessions consist of a shared meal, a video and discussion. In the Diocese of Lincoln, the Alpha program is currently being used to complement CCD programs, in Catholic schools and with the RCIA process.
Diocesan director of education Father Andrew Heaslip said Alpha can be useful as part of the “kergyma.”
Kergyma, from the Greek keryssein, to proclaim, and keryx, herald, means the initial and essential proclamation of the Gospel.
“Alpha can be enormously helpful for people who don’t yet have a personal relationship with Jesus, or who have missed the core of the Gospel message,” Father Heaslip said.
Like Father Heaslip, Father Craig Doty, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Lincoln, said Alpha can be a great tool for presenting the kerygma.
“The kerygma is the basic message that God loves you; that he sent his son, Jesus, to die for you; and that everyone is called to embrace the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” he explained.
Father Doty’s first introduction to the Alpha program was during an orientation in Elkhorn in 2016. Earlier this year, he was one of several people from the Diocese of Lincoln who attended the national Alpha conference.
Father Doty appreciates Alpha’s emphasis on sharing a meal together as an important part of building community. He also appreciates Alpha’s goal of assisting people with knowing Jesus personally.
“Alpha helps people come into a relationship with Jesus Christ, or come back into a relationship with Jesus,” Father Doty said.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in North Platte ran Alpha in 2015 and 2016. The parish found that both Catholics and people from other denominations attended the weekly sessions. Father Mark Seiker, pastor for the parish, commented, “Alpha was good for our parish and good for our town. I’m very happy we did Alpha.”
Laura Vazquez and Leilani Jensen are currently running Alpha at North American Martyrs Parish in Lincoln. The program averages 20 participants each week, and most people attend after a personal invitation from someone already familiar with Alpha.
“The reason I love Alpha is that it helps us, as Christians, to find common ground in Jesus,” Vazquez said.
Jensen, an Alpha Nebraska board member, is a long-time proponent of Alpha. In addition to helping run Alpha at North American Martyrs, she and her husband have hosted Alpha in their home, and she is hoping to run Alpha at the Lincoln Correctional Center.
“We’ve been sacramentalized, but we need to know how to evangelize. If someone is not sure how to truly share the love of God through Jesus Christ, how about coming to Alpha?” Jensen asked.
Jodi Meyer, the network director of the Alpha Nebraska Region, has run Alpha in the Archdiocese of Omaha and in prison settings. Meyer is passionate about using Alpha to transform the culture in facilities like the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
“I want the culture of the prison in Tecumseh to reflect the Kingdom of God,” she said. “We are using Alpha to form disciples of Christ who can then evangelize the culture they find themselves in.”
Meyer dreams of eventually creating re-entry programs in Catholic parishes to support inmates who have graduated from the Alpha course, and she encourages more people to become involved with prison ministry.
“Alpha is a fantastic way to be involved in prison ministry,” Meyer said. “We also always need people willing to pray for our efforts.”
Besides the spiritual fruit being produced in Tecumseh, several priests have incorporated Alpha into the classroom and the RCIA process.
Father Tim Danek, of Church of the Holy Spirit in Plattsmouth, is using Alpha with his 6th, 7th and 8th grade students at St. John the Baptist School. Father Danek has found that students connect better with him when participating in the Alpha program.
“Alpha provides a safe, non-judgmental environment to discuss faith. My goal is for students to have a lived experience of the faith. Alpha lets students be discovered by Christ, and allows students to know how much they are loved by him,” Father Danek shared.
Father James Morin, of St. Mary Parish in Nebraska City, is using Alpha as part of the RCIA process. He has found the videos to be well done, and said “it helps articulate the faith in a dynamic way.”
For Randy and Deb Shippee, helping run Alpha for prison is about living out the Works of Mercy.
“When I think about the Gospel passage from Matthew 25 that asks about visiting the stranger in prison, I can say that I do that every Wednesday afternoon,” said Randy.
His wife agrees: “We try to be the face of love for the inmates. We provide an atmosphere with no judgment and unconditional love. The men who attend Alpha experience freedom, even behind walls. A lot of the men, even the ones with long sentences, find peace with Christ.”
For further information about the Alpha program, visit alphausa.org.