Looking back, it was fitting that I was overseas when I received an email from the Rev. Matt Marino and Stephanie Cocke asking if I wanted to co-facilitate a new Alpha course being offered to the students of St. John the Divine’s ESL ministry. It was mid-January 2019, and I was still on vacation in Ecuador. My first thought was that it sounded really interesting, but I was a bit hesitant.
While I had participated in the Alpha course twice, I had never been a host or a small group discussion leader. I was also aware that there was new Alpha content. A film series featuring two young Londoners had been created in recent years and there was also new study material, so some extra guidance would be in order.
Adding to all the newness, this Alpha course would come with a unique set of considerations. English was the second language of all of the guests and some of the students' level of English could be categorized as "mid-level beginner," meaning the use of an iPhone translator app to communicate was necessary sometimes!
Stephanie was great about reaching out to the Alpha International office and getting Alpha books in other languages, but we quickly discovered they didn’t have the Alpha guide book in all languages we needed! To account for this, and to ensure everyone understood the class content, we were mindful to speak slowly, use simple vocabulary and, pause to translate the bigger concepts such as faith, salvation, and/or sin.
There was also the consideration of whether or not to use "jokes" or "ice breakers". In the team leader guide, Alpha provides scripted suggestions to help begin a session. After a thorough review, we collectively agreed these wouldn’t work with this particular group. Most of the students were still in the process of improving their English proficiency, plus they came from various countries from around the world, and Western humor doesn’t always translate well to all cultures!
With so many pivots and modifications in how we hosted Alpha and provided the course material, doubt crept in. Would the students fully understand the material? Would we be effective? Would it be interesting to them? Would they stay or ultimately leave? In due course we learned that when dealing with matters of God, there are no cultural or linguistical barriers.
One of the culminations of the Alpha course is "Holy Spirit weekend". Participants are introduced to the Holy Spirit by way of three videos. They are taught who the Holy Spirit is, what it does, and how to be filled. After a day of community, food, and discussion, we showed the final video: "How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit".
The Rev. Reagan Cocke asked everyone if they wanted the Holy Spirit to be called forth, and to my surprise everyone said "yes". And forth he came. While we all closed our eyes in prayer and waited, the room began to be slowly filled with a spirit of peace. Then it came in such an overflow that you could feel a palpable vibration if you moved your hand back and forth across the air.
One by one, people of different faiths and those with no spiritual beliefs at all requested prayer. As we assembled in groups to pray, I paused to look around in absolute awe of what was happening. To this day it is still incredible to me, and yet it was clear to anyone there, the Holy Spirit had come and touched everyone.
Holy Spirit weekend was enough to convince me of the power and universality of God's spirit. But he wasn't done. On the day of the baptism of Xingzhi Liu and Elena Murlina, standing on the HLC stage as Xingzhi's sponsor, the fullness of what was taking place brought me to tears. Here we all were, weeks after the Alpha course had ended, and the two students who spoke the least English had asked to be baptized. All the concerns and questions over whether the students would understand the content or be interested enough to stay were answered with a resounding "But of course!"
When I said "yes" back in January of 2019 to help facilitate Alpha, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I never imagined that I would arrive at the end of the course with new friends, a stronger faith, and the experience of being a personal witness to God’s supernatural power to knock down cultural and linguistic barriers to speak directly to people’s hearts. I wait with great expectation to see what he has prepared for the next Alpha course.
by Marisol Espinosa
Alpha meets on Sundays at 9:30 am in Room 210 through December 15.