By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 7, 2016
SMYRNA—Scores of college-age women and men—from the questioning to the believer—are exploring fundamental Christian beliefs to get to know God better.
For eight weeks, the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship is hosting Tuesday night gatherings with Alpha, an international evangelization program. Alpha is this year’s focus for On the Deck, the annual weekly gathering of college students on summer break in the archdiocese.
Among the 60 men and women attending, nursing student Imani Francis said the summer event appealed to her as a way to form a network of fellow Catholics. A student at Kennesaw State University, she is a regular at the campus Catholic Center.
She liked the fact that Alpha welcomes people with different understandings of faith, or none.
“You can be a questioning Catholic, a firm Catholic, or just someone who’s curious and asking questions,” said Francis, 19, who also attends St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna.
Connor Vinelli, 21, is studying at Georgia Gwinnett College. He admitted he doesn’t attend Mass often, but friends from the campus Catholic community drew him to Alpha.
Vinelli absorbed insights shared by others about the historical Jesus, especially the idea of having a conversation with him.
“I do like to learn. When I came last week, it really got me thinking. It was really interesting and that’s why I came again,” he said June 28.
Alpha asks over the eight weeks “Is there more to life than this?”
Church leaders are trying to serve a group that more than in previous generations identifies as having no formal religious identity. About one-third of Americans born between 1981 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated. About 16 percent of the age group self-identify as Catholic, compared with 23 percent of baby boomers.
Gospel message to hearts
Alpha, which began in England, presents a broad Christian point of view. There is nothing particularly Catholic about its message. The topics are foundational Christianity: Who is Jesus, why did Jesus die, why and how to pray.
“Alpha is a way to bring the centrality of the Gospel message to the hearts of people, not just young adults,” said Father Tim Hepburn, the archdiocesan director of vocations.
Father Hepburn said it highlights “what the Bible calls the kerygma, or as the church calls it, the ‘initial proclamation of the Gospel.’”
He said, “This is where Alpha is at its best.”
On the Deck is a program local youth ministers began a dozen years ago. With few activities for young adult Catholics in the summer, the youth ministers invited people to cookouts or home-cooked meals on the deck at someone’s home, which concluded with a talk on an aspect of faith. Eventually the crowd outgrew the host homes so On the Deck moved between the Catholic Centers at Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University. This year it moved to the Chancery, the main administrative office of the archdiocese, which also has an outdoor patio.
All the gatherings begin with a meal. On June 28 hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw and drinks were served. After dinner, people gathered and sang upbeat worship songs, reading the lyrics from screens lowered from the ceiling. A 30-minute video followed, in which British-accented narrators took a dive deep into the evening’s topics.
The heart of the night was next. Groups of eight or nine people each discussed the video and what it meant to them. This conversation is the essence of the two-hour program.
“You are listening”
And that’s what makes it unique for Chris Oppermann. The 25-year-old Holy Spirit Prep School teacher participated in the spring in a similar program at Holy Spirit parish. He’s a leader in the Alpha session this summer.
There aren’t a lot of places where people can raise questions and a diversity of opinions are welcomed, he said. But at Alpha the tables are turned. People with the most questions are encouraged to voice their opinions and their skepticism.
“Everyone says what they think. Nobody said no. Everyone listens and takes in everyone’s opinions. It’s not an argument,” Oppermann said.
“When people go to conferences, you are being talked to. It doesn’t matter if it’s church, work, school. In Alpha, you are listening. As a participant, I felt my opinion mattered,” he said. “There’s a willingness to talk about questions we’re all thinking about.”
Michelle Hamilton, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, participated in an Alpha program on campus in the spring. In the fall, the Catholic Campus Club hopes to host it for the whole campus.
“You are all talking about the important questions in life and what it means to you. It’s a great way to find out what you do believe,” said Hamilton, whose home parish is St. Lawrence, Lawrenceville.
At summer’s end Father Hepburn said his goal is that participants can say they know “the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit better” than they did before they began.
And then, he hopes they will “look beyond the safety of the ‘churched’ into the ocean of those loved by God, but who do not know it” and invite them to the next Alpha.