SAMMAMISH – Born in Iran, Haleh Farsad didn’t hear much about Christianity until she came to the United States as a teenager. As she considered becoming Catholic a few years ago, she had a lot of questions.
So Farsad’s sponsor at Mary, Queen of Peace Parish invited her to attend Alpha, a parish program that combines food and fellowship with short video presentations and group conversation about the Catholic faith.
“It was very eye-opening,” she said of the gatherings, which helped her understand the timeline of Christianity. “It made me closer to Christ knowing there’s so much history behind it,” added Farsad, who was baptized Catholic in 2017.
Alpha provides a hospitable, welcoming environment, a safe place for Catholics to express opinions, said Joe Buttle, pastoral assistant for faith formation at Immaculate Heart Parish in Kelso, which has been offering Alpha since 2015.
For parishioners who have solid knowledge of church teachings, “Alpha is a way for them to join the head knowledge with the heart by focusing on the basics of Christianity,” Buttle said. “It’s an opportunity for a heart encounter with Jesus.”
Arbutus Grendahl, a member of St. Rose de Viterbo Parish in Longview, agreed. “This is not just about being Catholic,” said Grendahl, who is participating in Alpha at Immaculate Heart. “This is our relationship to the man upstairs, our God Almighty.”
Sense of community
The Alpha program at Mary, Queen of Peace (offered since 2015), typically lasts 10 weeks, with a daylong retreat midway through, said Kathi Rowley, pastoral assistant for stewardship at the Sammamish parish.
Each week, 30–35 people gather for a meal and watch a 30-minute video about Christianity, followed by discussion at each table that is guided by an assigned leader. Providing a meal for participants — “something that’s so nourishing in so many ways,” Rowley said — and forming strong bonds are important pieces of the Alpha experience.
At Immaculate Heart Parish in Kelso, Stacey Buttle, left, Wendy Lengstorf, Terry Boyko and Amy Bobst serve food at a session of Alpha, a program that emphasizes hospitality alongside discussions of faith. Photo: Courtesy Joe Buttle
When Alpha concludes, the bonds of the participants continue to be strengthened through prayer, Rowley said. Recent participants pray in their homes for current Alpha participants and any special intentions they may have.
“People have absolutely loved it,” Rowley said of Alpha, and most participants move on to serve as table leaders or kitchen helpers. “They want to pay it forward,” she said.
For Farsad, creating strong friendships has been the best part of Alpha, making her feel more connected to her parish of around 2,000 households.
“Now I feel more at home seeing people before and after Mass who have been to Alpha,” Farsad said. “The sense of community is a wonderful feeling.”
‘Faith comes alive’
Alpha draws people from all walks of life — from agnostics who have been invited by friends to new or returning Catholics, Rowley said.
Ted and Mary Smith came back to Catholicism two years ago after attending a Protestant church for more than two decades, and soon got involved with the Alpha group at Immaculate Heart. The Smiths, members of St. Mary Parish in nearby Castle Rock, said they appreciated Alpha’s focus on Jesus’ life and ministry.
Haleh Farsad, right, chats with David Emmick and Maria Silvers at Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Sammamish. Farsad said participating in the Alpha program helped her form friendships as a new member of the church. Photo: Courtesy Kathi Rowley
The group discussions, Ted Smith said, taught him more about Jesus in a way that “wasn’t ‘in your face.’”
“It gave you the information and let you decide what you wanted to do with that information,” he explained.
“It reminded me of the Protestants and how they speak about Jesus,” Mary Smith said. “They want you to have a personal relationship with him.”
Many participants have an experience of the Holy Spirit, Rowley said: “Their faith comes alive in a new way after Alpha.”
Where to find Alpha
Parishes in the Archdiocese of Seattle that have offered Alpha, or plan to, include:
Holy Cross, Tacoma
Holy Family, Kirkland
Immaculate Heart, Kelso
Mary, Queen of Peace, Sammamish
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Bothell
St. James Cathedral, Seattle
St. John Vianney, Vashon Island
St. Joseph, Vancouver
St. Luke, Shoreline
St. Michael, Olympia
St. Michael, Snohomish
St. Monica, Mercer Island
St. Patrick, Tacoma
St. Stephen the Martyr, Renton