Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seeking Honesty: A Look Into 'Alpha @ UCI'

By Julia McAlpine

On a showery Wednesday night in January, a group of 35 college students met at the University of California, Irvine in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house, many for the first time. People gathered around a small grey table where they scribbled on blank nametags in multicolored Sharpies, slapping them on the front of their soaking jackets. Costco pizza was consumed with ferocity, and the crunch of chips and pop of soda tabs resonated over the hum of sparse small-talk. Some students edged towards the baby blue walls, observing the photos of SigEp members donning bowties, while others took a seat in the corner, pulling out their phones to fake a text.

Brian Rottschaffer, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed college pastor from RockHarbor wearing a shamrock green Hurley shirt and flip-flops stood by the empty, grease-stained pizza boxes and cleared his throat.

“Attention, guys, I just want to thank you for coming out to ‘Alpha @ UCI’ tonight. We have seven great weeks ahead of us and I hope you’ll join us.”

Alpha is a 12-week course that developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s to both introduce people to Christianity and provide a safe environment to question the faith. The course involves a weekly meeting in which dinner is provided free of charge, and is followed by a lengthy sermon and small-group discussion. The course hosted at UCI is Student Alpha, a course for twenty-somethings, which states on its site that it “contains the same material as ‘classic’ Alpha, except that it’s been ‘squeezed’ (into seven weeks), ‘squashed’ (into thirty minute talks) and ‘spiced’ (with multi-media ingredients).”

'Alpha @ UCI' is hosted by RockHarbor @ UCI, a club for UCI students who attend RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa. RockHarbor, which is a branch of the Irvine mega church Mariner’s, was founded in 1997 and is a nondenominational, youth-oriented (and thus, rather artsy, “green,” and radical) church based in a warehouse by John Wayne Airport.

A Sigma Phi Epsilon board member and member of RockHarbor, Michael Rea, heard that RockHarbor wanted to hold Alpha program on UCI’s campus, so he offered to talk to his brothers about hosting it at the house, even though he wouldn’t be able to attend the course himself. No one objected, so Brian worked with RockHarbor @ UCI to set the dates.

“I don’t think [the guys in Sigma Phi Epsilon] are as into partying as other fraternities,” said Diana Toyos, Gamma Phi Beta member and girlfriend of Michael Rea. “Well, Michael’s not, anyways!”

The odd location of the Student Alpha program, a fraternity house of a chapter of the largest national college fraternity, is just one of many avant garde places that the course has called home. Unlike the standard Alpha course, which is primarily held on church campuses, Student Alpha has even been held in McDonald’s restaurants and night-clubs, giving a wide range of young adults the chance to ask their biggest questions.

Alpha @ UCI was advertised through forest green flyers with the words “Is There More To Life Than This?” on the front with the time and location on the back. In addition, a Facebook event was constructed, providing the following:

Why go?

FREE FOOD! + discuss the big things about God that you’ve always wanted to ask and never thought you could. We don’t claim to have all the answers and we bring our questions, too. We simply want to invite others into conversation.

Who should go?

Anyone who has questions about God or life [so…pretty much everyone].”

More than 200 people were invited, and 54 people put in their RSVP as “Attending.”

On a brisk Wednesday evening in late February, a group of 13 college students met at the University of California, Irvine in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. People greeted one another with hugs or nods of recognition and lively chatter accompanied the usual devouring of Costco pizza. No one gathered around the small grey table, leaving the Sharpies in their caps and the nametags unblemished. One guy pulled out his phone and nudged a fellow student nibbling on his crust, “I don’t think I have your number.”

Brian had to raise his voice over the vibrant conversation. “Thanks for coming to Week 6, guys! I know our group is dwindling, but it’s been great to see the conversation that’s come out of exploring these topics.”

Sitting on a velvet green couch in BDG jeans and a white v-neck was Kerry Dang, a senior studying Mechanical Engineering. He has been a Christian for about two years, after converting at the age of 22 from a life long practice of Atheism, and he joined Alpha late in the game.

I went to check it out just to get a taste of what God is doing at UCI, but God has placed an agnostic person on my heart. I was convicted and felt called to stay in the program to help guide him.”

The talk for the evening discussed the Bible and its validity and purpose. Brian leaned against a metal folding chair, gesturing with a Diet Coke in his left hand as he gave the evening’s sermon. He accompanied this casual stance with pop culture references and analogies geared towards young adults. Adam, a student studying abroad from the U.K. moved a copy of “The Legend of Zelda” along with two other video games behind a couch to hook up a 15-inch silver Sony Viao to the SigEps’ television before manning the PowerPoint that would aid Brian in his talk.

What do Christians say the Bible is? appeared on the screen in a bold, blue font.

“Christians believe the Bible is a book inspired by God, but this book isn’t God itself. God inspired His word as an architect inspires his building. It’s similar to how we call a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright a ‘Frank Lloyd Wright house’, not a ‘Bill-the-contractor-who-actually-built-it house.’”

Adam skipped to the next slide.

How is the Bible to be read?

“The Bible is meant to be read as one epic story. Otherwise it’s like watching a five minute clip of the second Lord of the Rings movie and being like, ‘Uh, what’s with the short people? What’s the deal with the ring?’”

His next references ranged from Voltaire to Homer Simpson, and a bar graph even popped up on the screen. “As you can see here, Homer’s texts have been translated into 40 different languages. Next is Shakespeare with 60, then Harry Potter with 67, but the Bible has been translated into 200 languages.”

When Brian concluded his sermon, the group split up into their usual small groups of six and seven and began to discuss their experiences in reading the Bible and what doubts they might have had.

“Why does everyone always say the Bible is written by a bunch of ‘old dead guys?’ Some of the books were written by guys who were young at the time! Though the dead part’s accurate,” one guy remarked, leaving some people chuckling.

“That’s true, I never thought of that before!” a girl chimed in.

The agnostic whom Kerry felt called to encourage shared his views. “You know, I’m really receptive to that perspective of the Bible being inspired by God, of it being powerful prose. The two times I read some of it with my friend, I definitely felt a power from it.”

He then deviated from the topic, asking if people would be willing to share what they think love is.

“I think that since God is love, I as a human, have never truly loved anything if I’m to be honest. We always love with selfish ambition, even if it’s just with the hopes that the person will think we are nice for our love. We don’t love just for the sake of love in its pure form. I don’t know if we’re capable of that since we live in a broken world,” one student shared.

“I used to think love was limited, and that you have to split up your love in all these different parts. Some for your family, some for your friends. But I’ve realized that love is limitless, as God is. I can actually expand my capacity to love each day if I look to Him,” said another.

The prompter of the question leaned forward, beaming with warm sincerity. “Wow. Thank you for your input, that was beautiful. Everyone had something to say on that one. I think it shows a lot about humanity, the fact that we all feel eager to share about love.”

After the discussion, Kerry made sure the fellow who was seeking faith had access to a Bible. He said he’d be picking one up from RockHarbor in a few days, and thanked Kerry for his help. Only he didn’t return the next week.

“Maybe he really did enjoy it though, who knows,” Kerry said. “Hopefully I’ll run into him soon and can see where he is on his journey of figuring things out.”

But even the people who already follow Jesus found need for the honest discussion.

David Cary, a third year English and Political Science double major who has been a Christian most of his life, shares, “For me, Alpha has been a place of community and intellectual discussion. It's a place where people are safe to disagree, even on important issues like how to read the Bible, what is evil, and how to view homosexuality. That's really important because a lot of Christian circles and even religious circles in general don't even like to hear someone speaking something different from what they believe. I think that alone speaks volumes, that people are able to listen to people with different opinions. But at the same time, Alpha has created a context for people to actually engage with each other and argue, not just passively listen.”

Which is exactly the kind of environment RockHarbor @ UCI envisioned for their hosting of Student Alpha. As Brian said, “Faith is somehow coerced to be ‘We’ll just believe no matter what’ but I don’t see faith as that. For me, faith is that there are things I don’t know and can’t see, but a lot of it is rooted in logic. As you look at it, you realize how much stuff seems like a logical thing, and you can have faith that isn’t purely blind. And in Alpha you can find out through conversation that the person next to you has the same doubts as well.”

On the final night of the program, a Christian member of SigEp, Mike, stood and clasped his hands together. “Thanks for coming, you guys, it’s been a blessing having you guys here. Feel free to drop by anytime! We’re going to talk to Brian, hopefully we can host Alpha again next quarter.”

During Week 1 of Alpha @ UCI, Brian said, “If nothing else, we’re hoping to provide the [SigEp guys with] free food, since the course provides dinner each time, and at the end we want to purchase a patio heater or two for [them]. Regardless, the goal is whether they agree with us or not, that having us in their house was a positive experience.”

But it seems that Alpha @ UCI proved to hold more benefits than just providing supreme slices to the SigEp guys, who’d mosey in from upstairs occasionally, catching blips of conversation as they retreated to their rooms with full plates.

“It was exciting when they would just come downstairs and join the discussions or when they were coming back from somewhere and see us in the living room,” said life-long Christian Elim Loi, a slender second year Public Health major with cascading brown locks. “One of the guys in the frat commented how it was interesting to have this conversation about God in a frat house, which is usually a place associated with parties. I think it was great that they were so open to let us meet in their house!”

So why did Alpha @ UCI shrink weekly?

“I think it makes sense that not a lot of UCI students are interested [in Alpha @ UCI],” said Kerry. “A lot of college students are really privileged and don’t feel they need salvation. If something happens, they can go home to mom and pop to get fixed up. They’re not at the end of their rope like people on the streets. Maybe they’ll feel more of a need to figure this stuff out later on in life.”

Leslie Mey, a second year Biology major, attended only the first couple weeks of the course. “I stopped going because I already committed a large part of my time leading a small group another night of the week. And I had massive amounts of studying to do – I’m taking 20 units this quarter!”

But those who stayed found reward in the raw conversation and connected with people they could, at the very least, wave to on Ring Road or Facebook message with a faith question that never got covered.

It was 9:12 pm, and Brian had to shoo out a couple of students still lingering, continuing their conversation that the discussion had spurned. “Sorry, guys, gotta respect the SigEp guys, we said we’d be outta here by nine.”

The disruption didn’t affect the flow of the students’ conversation, as they stepped out into the piercing night air, the glimmer of their eager voices and the thud of their footsteps leaving a ghostly resonation across the Arroyo Vista parking lot.

Maybe it’s as Jesus states in Matthew 18:20, a verse that flashed across the television screen that night: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”


Reporting Notes:

  • Lengthy interview with Brian Rottschaffer, college pastor at RockHarbor who organized and gave the sermons at Alpha @ UCI to find out the basics of the Student Alpha program
  • Interviews with three students attending Alpha
  • Quick chat with Diana Toyos
  • Quick chat with Leslie Mey
  • Attended 6 Alpha meetings, 2 hours each, for a total of 12 hours of observation.
  • Referred to the Facebook page
  • Referred to the Student Alpha official website
  • Researched Alpha online to gain understanding of history, though Brian ended up telling me much of the same information in his interview
  • Read various testimonies of Alpha members (mostly from the U.K. where the program began) to get an idea of the usual impact of the program and breakdown of the groups
  • Referred to RockHarbor.org
  • Referred to SigEp.org

Interview with Brian Rottschaffer, college pastor at RockHarbor Church of Costa Mesa

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