Fr. Ignacio Llorente of the St. John Society gives a brief presentation during an Alpha session earlier this year at St. Michael Parish in Southwest Portland. (Courtesy St. Michael Parish)
Fr. Ignacio Llorente of the St. John Society gives a brief presentation during an Alpha session earlier this year at St. Michael Parish in Southwest Portland. (Courtesy St. Michael Parish)
A handful of western Oregon parishes are creating time and space for hospitality, friendship and candid investigation of life and Christianity.

Alpha, named for the first letter of the Greek alphabet, is not quite a class. Places like St. Mary in Corvallis, St. Michael the Archangel in Southwest Portland and St. Anthony in Tigard are offering it as a first step for people — off the street or already in the pews — who have serious questions to ask.

Is it rational to believe in God? Jesus was a great guy, but divine? Come on, a Trinity? And what’s all this talk about the Real Presence? How do faith and science fit together?

Alpha, a movement begun in England, consists of a meal, a brief presentation on some facet of the Gospel and then table conversations with a facilitator. No question barred. There are 10 such gatherings over the course of two or three months. It can happen at a parish, at a home or in a pub.

“It’s a safe place to discuss the basics of Christianity,” said Jason Kidd, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Portland. “It’s pre-evangelization.” The meal, sitting around a table, is vital because it reflects how Jesus encountered people, Kidd said.

“You encourage people to be honest and ask questions,” Kidd explained. “In the churchy world we would clarify and argue our points. In Alpha, we say ‘Thanks for being honest.’ There is permission given for people to disagree because there is an emphasis on the reality that the Holy Spirit is the one who converts hearts.”

Kidd said that Alpha welcomes all but is especially good for those born into faith but who have not really embraced it.

“It is the start, the Alpha, not the end,” said Kidd. “We don’t even get into the sacraments. There is no talk of morality. If they don’t believe in Jesus as God, there is no sense in catechizing about the sacraments or morality yet.”

In Oregon, the great practitioners of Alpha are priests of the St. John Society, an Argentina-based religious community that focuses on helping young people become disciples. For almost 15 years, the society has ministered at Oregon State University and more recently at Portland State University.

“Alpha is a great tool for renewal in the church,” said Father Matias Perez-Constanzo, a member of the St. John Society and pastor of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis. “It allows us to proclaim the basics if our faith in a very friendly way without compromising anything.”

In Corvallis and at St. Michael in Portland, also pastored by the St. John Society, Alpha takes place at the parish, always with food and round tables.

“When you share a meal with someone, you get to know them,” said Father Perez-Constanzo. “People start to talk. They start to know other people. Over time they may develop friendships.”

The presentation lasts no more than 30 minutes.

“Keep it short,” Father Perez-Constanzo said. “People are busy.”

Discussions of the topic are not meant to reach clean conclusions or even agreement.

“We say right at the beginning, ‘This is a place for you to talk freely and say whatever you want.’ We are not here to judge or condemn. People deserve that. They need to be heard. People are more willing to listen once they have been heard.”

After the 10 sessions there is a weekend retreat focused on the Holy Spirit. Questions addressed include: What does the Spirit do? What does the Spirit ask? Then participants are invited to take part in ongoing small groups.

The Newman Center at the University of Oregon holds its Alpha sessions during dinnertime at the Glenwood Restaurant on the edge of campus.

“We wanted a place that would be less threatening,” said Corinne Lopez, longtime formation director at the center. “There are great discussions.”

Those who come include Catholics, Protestants, people of other faiths and atheists. One student, just out of the military, was grappling with guilt over battle; when he learned that Jesus died for people and loves them despite sin, he was profoundly moved.

Often, students are table facilitators. The testimony of peers is powerful, Lopez said.

“Alpha is an excellent tool of evangelization,” said Father John Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. “It is about coming to have a relationship with God. I have seen lives very much affected.”

There are two Alpha groups at St. Anthony, one for young adults and one for teens. Participants can ask as many questions as they like or can sit quietly.

St. Edward Parish in Lebanon used Alpha for teens and now offers it for adults.

“It’s a place where you can say, ‘I don’t understand that,’ and the leader will look it up for you — no embarrassment,” said Tawny Pruett, religious education coordinator at St. Edward. She notes that most of the youths who went through Alpha have remained in the youth group.

Lily Weber, youth and young adult minister at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, has used Alpha for youth group and confirmation. It has produced fruit, Weber said.

“Alpha creates an environment which is open to genuine curiosity and asking the difficult questions about life and about faith,” she explained. “I believe it is extremely important not only to teach people about the faith, but to enter into a dialogue about God and the church. In ministry today, Jesus is calling us to trust in him and encounter people where they are.”