I was carried to Alpha by pure impulse. As a first-year student at university in London, I often heard some of my older friends talking about how great it was. However, being new to the big city and full of energy and arrogance, I expected to blow everyone away with my progressive attitudes and my controversial opinions on faith.
The first thing I noticed about Alpha was the eclectic crowd queuing outside. While waiting, I chatted to a man who had been forced to sleep on his brother’s couch after being made redundant and defaulting on his rent. I would never have got the chance to meet someone like this in my usual university bubble.
My walls started to come down as I realised I wasn’t the only one with questions to get off my chest. From my early teens I had felt a slight emptiness, a feeling of imbalance with the world around me that eventually developed into a heady dissatisfaction with life. I had attempted to consume information and great, almost spiritual, literature to fill this void. But nothing really provided me with what I needed.
I wasn’t expecting Michelin star cuisine, but the Spaghetti Bolognaise they served was better than anything I could have cooked up. Life doesn’t get much better than a free meal, does it?
According to Charlie Mackesy, who gave the first Alpha evening’s introductory talk, it does.
Expectant of a severe, traditional religious stereotype taking to the stage and preaching to the ‘sinners’ assembled, the message was refreshing. To hear someone talking about faith in the same way that I perceived it – with equivocation, bewilderment and scepticism – was music to my ears.
The ultimate message was that we are all hungry for spiritual fulfilment, and that there is no alcoholic beverage, no shopping mall and no vocational obsession that can contend with the love of God, and the direction that having a relationship with him provides.
I felt like I was finally in the right environment to address the questions I had about faith and life. The conversations we had in small discussion groups were the highlight of the evening. People’s stories varied, but all shared a uniform characteristic: a hunger for spiritual fulfilment. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only one who came from a non-Christian background, who didn’t know much about the Bible, but who wanted to know more.
Our general discussion centred upon the question: ‘If you could ask God any one thing, what would it be?’ This isn’t a question that comes up in everyday conversation, but it felt like we were all working towards something together, something serious, and something that would have implications for us all. People responded with questions like, ‘I would ask God why there is so much suffering in the world’, and ‘I would ask him what our purpose in life is.’
Being free to voice these questions was cathartic. This was the first opportunity I’d had to talk about faith without being judged. I realised that my controversial opinions were masks for questions and ambivalences that had been bugging me for years. As I returned every week, learning more about Jesus step-by-tiny-step, the people in my Alpha group quickly became my close friends.
We are all innately hungry for spiritual gratification. By the first week of Alpha, I had begun to escape the pessimism that had grown in me. The opportunity to ask some of the biggest questions I had about life was too good to miss.