Alpha Course acts as introduction, even a refresher, to Christianity


With a combination of dinner, a video and group discussions, coordinators of an Alpha Course in Ellicott City seek to introduce their latest group of newcomers to the basics of Christianity.

The Alpha Course attracted about 20 people to its first meeting last week, with the hope of answering questions ranging from "What is the meaning of life?" to "How do we deal with guilt?"

Developed in England, the Alpha Course is a free, 10-week series that seeks to spell out the tenets of Christianity to people who are new to the faith, seeking information about it, or just hoping to brush up on the basics.

David and Allison Fritz of Ellicott City are coordinators of the Alpha Course, which meets at New Heritage Church Center on Thursday nights through April 24. Their course is one of many being held at dozens of Protestant, Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Howard County and throughout Maryland.

Last week's session started with a homemade spaghetti dinner at 6:30 p.m. Afterward, participants watched a 45-minute video projected onto a large screen on that night's topic, "Who is Jesus?" Then they arranged their folding chairs into two circles for smaller group discussions of the video.

Other sessions will follow a similar format, and David Fritz said he expects larger turnouts for subsequent meetings. Child care is available, and the course includes one weekend retreat, for which there is a cost.

Jessica Day, 28, said she was nervous about attending the Alpha Course because she was concerned that other participants would know more about the Bible than she does. Day, of Arbutus, said she did not have much formal religious education as a child.

"I didn't go to church much," she said, although her grandmother talked to her about her faith.

She registered for Alpha "to become more involved and to learn more about it," she said. She also hopes to become a more regular churchgoer, she said.

While Alpha is geared primarily toward newcomers such as Day, it also attracted Chris Weymouth, 44, who said he has been a Christian for 15 years. A resident of Ellicott City, Weymouth attended the course with his wife. "Being here keeps us in touch with the foundation and roots of our faith," he said.

'Practical introduction'

Alpha began at Holy Trinity Brompton Church, an Anglican church in London, about 20 years ago. Alpha, which calls itself a "practical introduction to the Christian faith," says it has more than 5,000 courses operating in the United States. Fritz said he and his wife have been involved with Alpha since it was introduced in the United States in the mid-1990s.

Other Alpha Courses in the county are scheduled at the Korean American Church of Philippi in Columbia, St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville and the Ellicott City Assembly of God, among others.

The Fritzes used to be hosts of the course in their home, but they recently moved it to New Heritage Church Center in an office complex on Chevrolet Drive, near U.S. 40.

After dinner and opening remarks by David Fritz, the group watched a videotape of a lecture given by the Rev. Nicky Gumbel from the Anglican church where Alpha originated. With an informal manner and relying sometimes on humor, Gumbel provided passages from the Bible and other texts about the historical Jesus, and discussed what Jesus said directly and indirectly about himself.

Alpha participants were given a Bible and a course manual, which contains cartoon drawings, Bible verses and spaces for taking notes, to use during the video. The manual's cover has the Alpha symbol, a drawing of a man struggling with a large red question mark.

Among other topics the sessions will address: How Can I Be Sure of My Faith? Why and How Should I Read the Bible? Why and How Do I Pray? How Does God Guide Us? Who Is the Holy Spirit? and Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?

Personal concerns

Participant Cheryl King of Eldersburg said a friend asked her to attend the course with her. She accepted, in part, she said, because "life is hard. You go through a lot of trials and tribulations, and sometimes we forget about God."

Her concern about a war with Iraq, along with its effect on her family, also played a role in her decision to learn more about her faith.

Her 20-year-old son is serving in the military in Kuwait, she said. Although afraid for his safety, she said, "The one thing that consoles me is that I know God will be his shield."

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