Oak Lawn church recruiting ‘believers, skeptics’ for discussion


Faith “is everything” to Mike Bentley, who leads the Evangelization Team at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oak Lawn, where he’s been a member for 35 years.

“My faith allows me to have hope that God is pleased with me,” he said. “Faith strengthens my love of church, family and all mankind.”

He and others on his team plan to share that faith during the Catholic Church’s latest Alpha session, a free 12-week program that begins at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday.

“We create a nonjudgmental and open environment where it is easy for anyone who is strong, uncertain, or simply curious about faith in Jesus to explore questions of life and faith in a friendly atmosphere,” a new release from the parish explained, adding that the program will explore “life, spirituality, and faith through a Christian lens.”

Bentley, who’s led the team for four years, said Alpha’s goal “is to take our guests on a journey of faith, giving them the opportunity to engage in discussions and be transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.”

“Faith is necessary to know God,” he added. “Knowing God is to know love. To know love is all we need.”

St. Catherine of Alexandria offers the Alpha program twice a year. Each weekly session lasts 90 minutes.

“We are hoping all people will participate in Alpha,” Bentley said. “This includes believers, skeptics and nonbelievers.”

He and others are spreading the word near and far. “We are reaching out through our church bulletin, speaking at Masses, our parish website, our parish Facebook page and personal emails,” he explained. “We have distributed flyers, promotional cards at local restaurants and in local papers. Of course the best outreach is through past participants who speak to others about their experience at Alpha.”

Bentley said the Archdiocese of Chicago promotes Alpha as “an evangelization tool” for each parish to run as an accompaniment to Christ Renews His Parish retreats.

Don Kolkebeck, who just joined the Evangelization Team, had an amazing experience after he attended a two-day CRHP retreat about 10 years ago at what is now known as St. Augustine in Midlothian with his brother. “The next time I was on the program as kind of a counselor, and I gave my life speech. It was very, very profound.”

His relationship with faith may be a little different from that of most parishioners. A former seminarian whose wife was a nun for four years, he said he has a “strong feeling for faith, and for us it’s pretty much not that much of a doubt.”

Kolkebeck, a 37-year member of St. Catherine, was persuaded to join the Evangelization Team after participating in Alpha sessions.

“I’ve been working with Mike. I’ve been in his Alpha group going for the last three or four years,” he shared. “I’ve liked it a lot, so I’ve been in the last four Alphas kind of as a helper, someone who is in the small groups, a leader.”

He said although the group is open to “cradle Catholics, where you’ve been in Catholic schools and participating in going to church,” he’d also like to see others participate. “I’d like to get people outside of our religion. That would be kind of nice to see different views, not just people like myself.”

Alpha is not just a Chicago phenomenon. The movement began in 1977 at Holy Trinity Brompton London and eventually came to the United States.

The ability of Christianity to unite people around the world is one of the messages of Alpha, Bentley said. “God has created us to be one big family. Alpha brings individuals together to experience family and the love a family shares.”

For Kolkebeck, Alpha represents an important way to learn more about his faith.

“From what I understand, the goal is to try to make you more of a deeper understanding and a lot of things you thought you knew to get you more involved and the fact that you can get with other people in your parish to get to know them a little better,” he said. “It gives you kind of a deeper understanding of religion, the Bible — things of that nature. To me, it makes me a stronger Catholic.”

He said participants “enjoy the camaraderie, the getting together, the topics that are discussed. I think it’s been pretty positive.”

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During an Alpha session, the evening begins with light refreshments and conversation, followed by a 30-minute video and small group discussions, Bentley explained. “The films explore life issues around faith and Christianity addressing questions such as “Is there more to life than this?”, “How can I have faith?” and “How can I resist evil?” Everyone is welcome to share their honest opinion and ask questions or just sit back and listen. There is nothing you need to bring. Just bring you.”

Kolkebeck described Alpha as “12 different retreats that last an hour and a half each. I like it a lot. It’s very rewarding.” He said typically between 15 and 30 people attend Alpha sessions.

Sometimes the session attracts people from outside the parish. “It’s refreshing because they have other programs that are at their parishes, and it’s nice to hear about,” he said.

“If you don’t have faith, it’s the fact that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be,” he said. “Faith is a kind of comfort. These things that in the Bible people are telling you about are real.”

Participants have consistently provided positive feedback, Bentley said. “Most of the participants speak of experiencing a sense of belonging while opening their hearts to a new or better relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Although the program is free, registration is requested with Bentley at mbentley@scaoaklawn.org or 708-423-4047.

Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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