Two years ago, Lisa Frigo was looking to reconnect with her faith after drifting away from Catholicism. She walked into St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church and joined a program introducing basic concepts of Christianity to the curious.
Today, Frigo has not only re-discovered her faith, but found much more: new friends, a vibrant community and a spiritual home at the growing parish in Huntington Beach.
Her road to discovery began with Alpha, a Christian evangelizing program first started in London in the 1970s and adopted by churches around the globe. Among them is St. Vincent de Paul, where more than 1,200 participants have attended Alpha sessions since they first started, about three years ago.
“Alpha made me more comfortable with my faith,” said Frigo, an environmental engineer, on a recent evening before an Alpha session at St. Vincent de Paul. “I didn’t know what to expect at first. But I loved that the program is question-driven. It is a safe place to explore our faith and our differences.”
The Alpha program provides an introduction to Christianity for participants – many of whom come from difference social, economic and religious backgrounds. In each two-hour session, participants explore their faith through inquiry and discussions in small groups. Each session begins with a meal, followed by small group discussions examining specific aspects of Christianity – reading the Bible, living a full life, resisting evil and developing faith. Each Alpha program stretches 11 weeks.
The Alpha program initially aimed to attract young urban adults. But Alpha at St. Vincent de Paul has transcended those demographics, attracting teenagers, young couples and senior citizens.
“Alpha is an important tool that parishes use to evangelize,” said Cathy Duffy, a St. Vincent de Paul parishioner who volunteers with the Alpha program. “This is something that everyone can use. We often ask ourselves, ‘How we can evangelize?’ Bring people to Alpha.”
The program focuses on creating an inviting environment that fosters engagement and good will. Participants are encouraged to ask important questions about Christianity in a supportive atmosphere, said Patty Ledezma, director of parish life at St. Vincent de Paul.
“We want to make sure participants who may be new to Christianity have a pleasant and positive first experience with the Catholic Church,” Ledezma said.
On an evening in early April, about 50 participants met in the St. Vincent de Paul Parish Hall for an Alpha session. They sat in small groups at circular tables and, after a meal of chicken tacos and black beans, watched a video before discussing the session’s topic – prayer.
Participants say the program has helped them understand important concepts of Christianity and form deeper connections with not only Catholicism, but also each other.
“(Alpha) helped me come back to the Church,” said Michael Hurley, who first joined Alpha a year ago and now volunteers at the weekly sessions. Hurley said he fell away from Catholicism after being confirmed in high school but recently decided to form a stronger connection with his faith.
“It’s a great way to make friends and get to know people better,” he said.
Alpha is one part of a broader evangelization effort at St. Vincent de Paul, which also hosts social and educational programs for parents baptizing their children and engaged couples.
“We want to create an environment where people feel welcomed,” said Parish pastor Rev. Jerome Karcher. “Alpha participants aren’t attending a required course. They’re going through an experience together, and that experience builds community.”
“There are a lot of options for evangelizing out there,” Karcher added. “We found this works best.”
The Alpha program is an important part of the Diocese of Orange’s evangelization and faith-formation effort.
Along with St. Vincent de Paul, Alpha programs have started at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Costa Mesa and St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Anaheim. At St. Vincent de Paul, the program draws English and Spanish speaking residents from across Orange County and parts of Los Angeles – some who were introduced to the church as a child and looking to reconnect, others who have no prior spiritual foundation.
“There’s a spiritual revival going on,” Duffy said. “People are hungry for something deeper. The Catholic Church offers that.”
Frigo said when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to question her faith and expected to take everything at face value. But the Alpha program has allowed her to ask important questions about Christianity and form deep connections with others.
“I am more comfortable spiritually,” said Frigo, who grew up Catholic. “My faith has become so much more interactive.”
The current Alpha program at St. Vincent de Paul ends in May, with another 11-week program expected to start in early September. Sessions will be held at St. Vincent de Paul at 8345 Talbert Avenue in Huntington Beach.
For more information about the Alpha program at St. Vincent de Paul, visit svdphb.org/alpha or call Patty Ledezma 714-842-3000 x25.