God spoke to Elijah, not in a fire but in a gentle whisper — 1 Kings 19:11-13
In true 21st Century style, our ‘gentle whisper’ came in the form of an email. An email that could have very early got lost in a torrent of admin, actually turned out to be an answer to prayer... an invitation to come and run Alpha in prisons!
As part of our church, King’s Arms Bedford, we have always passionately believed in reaching the poor, the disadvantaged and those on the fringes of society. We were originally involved with the homeless, and after praying about what to do in terms of Alpha leadership, our answer literally popped into our inbox.
Now, as Alpha Leaders working with prisoners, we endeavour to create safe space for our guests on the course. On a day to day basis, this looks like setting up a room, creating an informal, comfortable environment, praying, and then the guys come and join us. For us, it’s all about relationships, so we really try to communicate respect and belief to everyone who walks through the door. Therefore we feel it’s important to make it really relaxed for the first 10 minutes so we can hang out and just get to know each other. Once people know they’re genuinely accepted and respected, they feel safe to then explore their beliefs and be honest. We drop our vulnerabilities and are honest and open about our beliefs and then they are more likely to reciprocate.
In a prison context especially, loving and accepting people regardless of their past is vital to them opening up and being honest in conversation when exploring faith and talking about really personal topics. I think this is what enables us to help people open up; often these guys don’t have anyone who loves them unconditionally and respects them no matter what they say, so to offer that is so different to what they’ve experienced before, and therefore provokes a different reaction in them.
The most positive aspect of being part of an Alpha team in prison is seeing lives changed in a genuine way. Our role is not without challenges. With it being a short course you might meet someone one week, over the next week they’ve got caught, or they’re at the gym, or something happens and they get privileges taken away and you don’t see them again. Despite all of these potential setbacks we have had the privilege of seeing God work in their lives: we have literally seen lives changed - people coming in and being completely changed by the time they go.
One guy did three courses with us, and when we first met him he was always in trouble for being violent, for the way he reacted to things which often led to his privileges being taken away. By the end of the third course and because of his new relationship with God, he was on the least secure wing with the highest level of benefits, by the time he left he was completely changed. We get to be a part of life change, but we also get to witness how God is moving amongst these individuals in ways we could never imagine or conceive. There’s this amazing story of one guy who came to Alpha because he had been reading his cellmate’s Bible. He’d put it on his chest and had suddenly experienced the Holy Spirit, and so he came to Alpha because he wanted to know what had happened and what it was all about. We are not on our own, God is doing incredible things around the country and we are so pleased that we can play a part in this great adventure.
We get to see that God is the one who is at work in the lives of all of us, and in the guys we are speaking to. In one sense, our job is just to be ourselves and see what the Holy Spirit does. It lifts off any need to perform or pressure to get it right. We simply get to go and see what God is doing. We have an awesome voluntary team working with us from King’s Arms, the guys on the course often ask why we do what we do and the volunteers have great opportunities to talk about their values and about the way God sees them. We get to talk to them about what we’ve experienced in terms of freedom and what we believe is available for them.
The dream is that the gospel gains momentum. We want to see guys come to faith and from there, raise up others. We want them to be so drastically changed by their encounter with God, that they start to lead others to him, so that the good news of Jesus spreads through the prison without us even having to talk to people. To some degree this is already happening, we’ve seen prisoners encouraging others to come along to Alpha, and starting to talk to their cellmates about God: but we know that God has more planned. We want to be a blessing to the whole prison and to positively impact the culture.
We would greatly encourage churches to get involved in running Alpha in prison. If you are reading this and are thinking about getting involved, we would massively encourage you to respond to God’s whisper. We want to seek the lost in the dark places. Give it a go and see what happens.