Drug kingpins, armed robbers and murderers. They find Jesus through Alpha, an introductory course to the Christian faith that is quietly spreading throughout Britain’s prisons. Its techniques are so powerful that it’s transforming the most brutal inmates.
Michael Emmet, drug smuggler
Take Michael Emmett, an international drug smuggler, sentenced to 12-and-a-half years. Together with his father he served time in HMP Exeter. There, he befriended the chaplain, mainly so he could use the phone to call his then girlfriend, Daniella. To curry favour, Emmett went to chapel on Sundays.
‘Oh, that’s Alpha. That’s what we want to get in the prison.’
One day, in the autumn of 1994, he was reading a copy of the Mail On Sunday and saw a picture of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the church in Kensington, west London that introduced Alpha. The photo showed queues of people outside, hundreds of them. He went down to show the chaplain. “Oh, that’s Alpha,” the chaplain explained. “That’s what we want to get in the prison.”
Alpha was created at HTB in 1977 as a refresher course in Christianity for lacklustre churchgoers, but vicar Nicky Gumbel re-nosed it to appeal particularly to agnostics. With great success – Alpha started converting hardened nonbelievers into committed Christians by their thousands. The course now operates in 169 countries at more than 66,000 locations (mostly churches, ranging from Catholic to Evangelical). Over 24 million people are Alpha alumni.
‘Perhaps the Holy Spirit could convert more troubled criminals?’
Its crucial feature is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which is explored on a weekend away that typically involves guests having religious experiences. “I think that’s why it works,” says Gumbel. “We used to be a bit embarrassed about the Holy Spirit because it sounded weird. Now we live in a world that’s much more open: the part young people find hard is the Bible and authority, but if they can have an experience of God that’s fantastic.”
Back in 1994, Alpha might have been in the public eye but it certainly wasn’t in the prison system. Exeter prison’s chaplain was excited about its potential, though, because of recent stories about congregations being spontaneously overcome by the Holy Spirit. If it was that effective, perhaps it could convert more troubled criminals? Inmate Emmett suggested they invite Gumbel to come down to the prison. Instead, Gumbel sent a team to hold a service.
‘People started to cry, people started to laugh.’
And so it was that one autumn day, a chapel full of criminals who had largely been cajoled along by Emmett and his father, found themselves stomping their feet and singing about Jesus. But the most surprising moment was yet to come. One of the Kensington cohort said a prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Right then, Emmett’s father fell over. “And before I managed to get to him,” Emmett recounts, “I had this overwhelming sense that God is real, a feeling of an introduction, and it really filled me up. I can remember the words coming out my mouth, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this no more.’ People started to cry; people started to laugh. My dad was on his back. He’s never been the happiest of souls, and he was laughing and laughing.”
After Exeter, Emmett was transferred to three further prisons: Swaleside, Maidstone and Blantyre. He brought Alpha to all of them and, because he had clout, the sessions were well attended. Others, in turn, took it with them when they were transferred, and it spread stealthily throughout the system, becoming – by accident – an important rehabilitation tool. Once Emmett was released, he volunteered to help export it to further jails in Hong Kong, South Africa, and South Korea. “God could not have chosen a better messenger,” says Gumbel, of Emmett. “St Paul was a bright guy, which was what was needed in the Roman world, and in the prison world Michael was the classic guy to choose.”
‘Today, 80% of prisons in the UK offer Alpha.’
Today, 250,000 inmates worldwide have completed Alpha; in Britain, it is offered in 80 percent of prisons. Those who take it, and also sign up for the help of its sister charity Caring For Ex-Offenders (CFEO) – which meets ex-cons at the prison gate, links them with a church and mentors them closely – have a reoffending rate of just 17 percent, compared to the national average of 58 percent for those serving less than 12 months.
Shane Taylor, one of the six most dangerous prisoners
Another inmate changed through Alpha is Shane Taylor, convicted for two attempted murders and provoking prison riots. He was treated as a Category A prisoner. He spent most of his days in segregation. For months at a time, his food would be delivered through a secure hatch in his door, and he would be escorted to the showers by officers in full riot gear. He was put on the “ghost train”, as inmates call it, getting moved from maximum security jail to maximum security jail. Whenever he was put back on a wing, he would inevitably start trouble. His standard tactic was to retreat to his cell after a fight, strip naked so he was less easy to restrain, and wait to do battle with the officers. The Home Office came to know him as one of the six most dangerous prisoners in the country.
‘God, if you’re real, come into my life, because I hate the way I am.’
He did his Alpha course in 2005, while at HMP Long Lartin, and it actually happened by mistake. One day an officer opened his door and said he had to go to an educational class. When he arrived he was told he wasn’t on the list, and directed to the chapel. It was midway through Alpha. He sat at the back for a moment and was considering leaving when a fellow inmate told him to stay for the free coffee and biscuits. Tempted, Taylor signed up immediately.
Its message of forgiveness came to attract him. “I had always thought there were good and bad people,” he says. “I thought I was bad, so I was going to hell no matter what I did.” A few weeks later, when the course had reached its Holy Spirit session, the chaplain prayed for him in tongues. “I remember feeling daft, but he asked me to pray as well. And I just said, ‘God, if you’re real, come into my life, because I hate the way I am.’ Then the chaplain and I started talking and I started feeling an energy in my stomach. This feeling rose up and I stopped talking. I started to feel my eyes bubble up, and just sobbed and sobbed. I knew God was real then.”
As ferociously as he had thrown himself into violent crime, he became a zealous Christian. The officers were, obviously, incredulous. He lost friends, too. “People would mock me and I wouldn’t care.” Unwavering, he helped out on two further Alphas. The officers began to accept they had been proved wrong.
‘He pulled a knife on me and I just flipped and tried to grab him into my cell.’
That’s not to say there weren’t relapses. “I had an incident with an inmate where he pulled a knife on me and I just flipped and tried to grab him into my cell,” he recalls. “After, I shut the door and fell to my knees and started crying. I thought, ‘I’m still the same person.'” The chaplain reassured him that simply being penitent meant he had changed. Things take time.
This year Taylor is about to start working for CFEO, promoting the charity in the northeast. He’s repentant for his crimes, which, if pressed, he puts down to a combination of mental illness and a chaotic childhood (“There’s no excuse for what I’ve done, though. I wish I had never done it”), and has been out for seven years without re-offending.
It’s impossible to imagine where he’d be now, if he hadn’t ended up in the chapel that day. “I’ll tell you what was on my mind before I became a Christian, what I was planning to do after I got released. There were two prison officers that I was going to find. I was going to tie these officers up, brutalize them a bit, and kill their families in front of them. I was going to say to them, ‘Look what you’ve done.’ And then kill them, too.” Happily, he encountered Jesus in time.
Source: Charlie Burton
Joel News International, June 2014
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