International Christian study group begins; more participants sought; 10-week course invites all degrees of faith


A Bible-based, ecumenical program for those who want to reconnect with the basic tenets of Christianity has started in Carroll County.

Alpha, a 10-week series of classes, offers a practical exploration of religious belief to anyone interested in developing or enhancing his or her faith, said Paul D. Gallagher, program coordinator.

About 50 people have registered for the series, which began Thursday. with St. John Roman Catholic Church is the sponsor.

The program, held Thursday evenings at the Westminster Senior Center, is open to practicing and nonpracticing Christians. There is room for as many as 250 people, organizers said.

Founded 16 years ago in England by an Anglican minister, Alpha has been likened to catechism lessons for adults. But instead of memorizing facts from a book, participants work to investigate the depths of Christianity. No question is seen as too simple or too hostile, organizers said.

"This is really Christianity at its basics, and it is open to people of all backgrounds," said Gallagher. "Long before we get into things that divide us, we are into what we have in common. People searching for meaning can get their questions answered."

Starting each class with a light supper and a short inspirational video is designed to encourage people to share their thoughts on topics such as "Who is Jesus?" and "How can I be sure of my faith?"

"There are people who may not be able to answer these questions, but they have been coming to church for 30 years," said Gallagher. "When they hit a difficult situation and their faith is not developed, they struggle even more."

Alpha can be an experience that will deepen faith for those willing to make time to participate, he said.

"Life is choices," Gallagher said. "There are things lacking in people's lives. Everybody is running at full steam ahead. Alpha is about what is important to you."

Carroll County seemed to be a good starting place for the program, which only recently came to the United States, said Gallagher. An informal group of religious leaders has been active in the county for years, and many people are involved in ecumenical work, but "there is really little to bring people of different denominations together," he said.

The senior center setting might be more conducive to group discussions than a formal church, Gallagher said. Although a Catholic church is sponsoring the session, organizers are reaching out to all Christians.

"This is not about Catholicism," he said. "We just want everyone to get a deeper understanding of God working in their lives, whatever their faith is. It is not about filling the pews. It is about flexibility and choice."

The Rev. Art Thomas, pastor of Deer Park Methodist Church in Reisterstown, has trained in the program and hopes his congregation will be able to offer the series soon. The program, run by the laity, has Thomas' colleagues in the ministry enthusiastic, he said. Many have found that Alpha reaches people who do not attend services regularly but want to explore religion, he said.

"This is a faith venture, and it can be captivating," Thomas said. "It can help regular churchgoers and those outside the church community."

Gallagher organized an Alpha program for the youth group at St. John during the summer. About a dozen teen-agers participated.

"We started meeting for recreation stuff and prayers," said Caitlin Forst, 15, of Westminster. "But then people actually started reading Scripture and bringing their friends to the classes. Everyone there had the same purpose: the love of God, and we made that part of our daily lives."

Participants developed a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of their faith, she said.

"It brought us closer to Jesus," said John Sebeck, 14, of Westminster. "We prayed together as a group. We discussed the Bible, stuff we know, but we got a deeper understanding of it. I know it could help adults to fully understand God."

St. John plans to offer Alpha three times in the next year, hoping those who go through the program will spread the word about it. The final session in December is a celebratory supper party to which participants may invite friends. Those friends are the people who traditionally make up the next class, said Gallagher.

"My goal is to see this program going five nights a week throughout the county," he said.

Classes are at 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Westminster Senior Center, 125 Stoner Ave. There is no fee, but a free-will offering will cover costs of food.

Information: 410-848-0792.

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