Alpha Spain Board member Teresa Valero ran the first Alpha in Quatre Camins prison. The Alpha team was made up of Bishop Novell, priests from the Order of Mercy and local parishioners. After Alpha the Bishop held a Mass in the prison and three inmates receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
We asked Teresa about her experience in running Alpha in prison.
How did you hear about Alpha?
As the evangelisation delegate of Bishop Novell who is the Bishop of Solsona in Spain, I have been given the responsibility by the Bishop to seek new ways of evangelisation to revitalize parish communities.
The first time I heard about Alpha was in Barcelona at a presentation day. Then I participated in the Alpha Global Week in London and this autumn it will be six years since we started the first course in the region.
Why did you decide to run Alpha (in prison)?
About three years ago, when I visited a prison for the first time with my bishop, I felt in my heart the desire to organize Alpha in a prison. I’ve always felt called to bring the Gospel to the most hopeless of society, those who suffer most, to the wounded, to those that nobody cares for, or wants to understand, such as prisoners.
Where did you run Alpha?
Alongside the priests of the Order of Mercy we presented Alpha to the authorities responsible for prison ministries for Catalonia, and in the end they opened the doors of Quatre Camins, the Youth prison near Barcelona. It’s a prison for young people from the age of 18 to 23.
What was the response to Alpha in the prison?
The response has been excellent. Even though it was a non-compulsory course, the first day, 27 young people came and then the number increased to 30. This was the maximum number allowed by the prison institution for space and security reasons. Only 3 prisoners left because they were moved or released during the course.
As for the institution we have found no opposition, rather they have been open to the proposals suggested by the Alpha coordinator to try minimise any difficulties.
What are the differences between Alpha in prisons and in the community?
There are some additional challenges because of the strict prison rules, especially regarding the food, but we have received full cooperation.
We have had to adapt the talks to the profile of participants: youth (18-23 years), capacity of attention, cultural differences (many Latin Americans). We also shortened the length of the talks to a maximum of 30 minutes and aimed at touching the hearts.
As for the team, we have made an effort to understand and adapt to what prison life means. It requires training and a lot of humility to accept and follow the rules, tips and warnings that officials give us, not to infringe, albeit unintentionally and put the Alpha course at risk.
Another big difference is that after a few sessions, the bonding between attendees and the Alpha team starts getting stronger. The subjects talked about in Alpha have a profound effect on prisoners and unlike most parishioners, prisoners have a lot of time to think about faith and look for answers to their questions when they arise.
What changes have you seen in the prisoners?
On a spiritual level, we have really seen improvements in the lives of the guests. New questions have arisen in their lives. For example, what is true love? They were able to explore sociability and the ability to build relationships and friendships in prison. They now have more capacity for listening and reflection, as well as the ability to spend time alone thinking or praying. They have shown increasing gratitude and trust.
We have also noticed that Alpha helped prisoners to experience a new way to build their relationships with external people. They have a more optimistic and hopeful vision for their life despite the length of the sentences. I also would add that they have grown in seriousness and taken responsibility in decision-making. They have also experienced a sense of regularity and stability attending every meeting. Some of them cancelled phone calls or visits from relatives or friends to attend the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s day.
How has that affected your team?
Alpha is a magnificent method of evangelisation in prisons. When we go to evangelise in places like prison, we do it with two hands: one is to give and the other one is to receive. The empty hand is filled before we can empty the full one, so we learn more than we teach. The whole team has received more than they have given.
One gets to prison full of ideas, but the idea needs to become practical and we feel that we truly evangelised when we were befriending each participants. The more we knew them the more we could love them, to make them feel part of us.
Today we pray for them every day. They are our family.
I often thought: “Why them and not me? Am I better?” I was amazed by the goodness and kindness of their young hearts.
Do you think that other parishes should run Alpha in prisons?
Yes, I think that every prison should run Alpha. But we must earn the trust of the prison authorities and work through any difficulties such as bringing in food for meals.
I think to make this a reality we always need to work collaboratively with the volunteers who work in prison. It is essential so that there is continuity after Alpha.
What would you like to say to someone who wants to start running Alpha?
I would say that it is definitely worth all the effort involved. It’s a method that brings together the different aspects of formation. It’s a method of direct evangelisation that responds to the needs and expectations of prisoners. It’s very important that the volunteers giving the talks use their personal testimony and speak with sincerity and simplicity.
The team is very, very important. Existing prison ministry volunteers have often been part of the prisoners’ life for some time. Those who come to lead Alpha must strive to fit in to any existing team.
We also need a lot of prayer and fasting for the attendees in the course but also for the team who will run the Alpha.
It is important that the volunteers feel they are sent, that they have heard the calling to bring Christ’s message and will go on behalf of the Church.
I would emphasize that the Holy Spirit day in prison was a day when heaven touched earth and the prison was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We spent the whole day with the prisoners, gave three talks, played, and ate together. Before inviting the Holy Spirit there was an hour of silence, where prisoners could think, talk, or confess to a priest.
I will always remember this moment, young men crying in the yard, queuing to apologize for their lives, hugging each other… All of them went to receive the Holy Spirit and were filled. Finally, the five priests who attended the day knelt and received the Holy Spirit from the prisoners’ hands. At that moment the prisoners received the dignity of being God’s beloved children.
Before starting an Alpha in prison, all volunteers should receive training to lead the course correctly. This training is available from the National Alpha Office in Spain.
If you would like to find out more about running Alpha in prison please get in touch with Peter Jones.
Alpha in Spain in now growing with over 200 courses happening all around the country. The Alpha Youth Film Series is also now available in Spanish and is an amazing resource you can watch here. If you would like to find out more about Alpha in Spain or run an Alpha please go to alpha.org/spain or get in touch with the National Alpha Office led by Tote Barrera.