Alpha in Antarctica

Alpha in Antarctica


It was a dream come true

For most people, a sixteen-month trip to Antarctica would be challenging enough. But for anaesthetist Alistair, organising a chance for his friends to chat about life and faith in a remote research base made the trip of his dreams a little more memorable.

What took you to the Antarctic?

At university I heard about the British Antarctic Survey, an organisation that exists to do research in Antarctica. They have a unit that supplies medical cover, I thought, ‘that sounds like fun’ so I applied for a job on the medical team. In 2006 I was deployed to Antarctica for sixteen months. I had been on expeditions before and loved the remote and extreme environments. It was a dream come true.

Is Antarctica as alien as most people think?

There has been research looking at the physiological and psychological responses to life in Antarctica as a means of understanding how people would respond to a mission to Mars. The isolation from the rest of the world and the hostile environment in Antarctica is comparable with travelling on a small space shuttle to Mars.

Was your faith something that helped you with the challenges?

I hadn’t been a Christian for long before going to Antarctica; a friend had approached me back in 2004 saying he was running Alpha and I thought it was something I should investigate. In Antarctica I listened to podcasts of preaches downloaded to my iPod and I was doing the Bible-In-One-Year. Those things really helped despite not having a church community in Antarctica.

How does your faith shape your approach to your work?

I’m an anaesthetist – I put people to sleep for a living. My wife is a doctor too. Being Christians in the workplace is something we’ve talked about; I think that you can express faith by just trying to live in the most Christ-like way possible. It is a challenge for all of us, but trying to live by that example is good. The strength you have in just knowing about the truth of salvation and the peace that it brings is not to be underestimated.

How has Alpha made a difference in your life?

Alpha completely changed my life. It is the inner peace and awareness of what life is all about that has changed. I had been brought up in a Christian household but I didn’t feel like I properly understood what faith was about. The Alpha talks – Who is Jesus?, Why Did Jesus Die?, How Can We Have Faith? – addressed core questions. I am a fairly logical person, so having the facts laid out was the intellectual persuasion that I needed to engage, believe and ultimately come to faith.

Why did you feel it was important to do Alpha while in Antarctica?

Wherever the idea came from I am pleased I decided to do it. I was aware I was going to be in close contact with a small number of people for a long time. If ever there was an opportunity to share my faith with people, this was it. I thought, ‘It worked for me, it might work for other people too.’ I shared meals with them, worked alongside them and spent my leisure time with them; it was a unique environment in that respect. I managed to make everyone aware of my faith through it and there were conversations I had with people who weren’t on Alpha that were really encouraging.

What was the reaction from those who tried Alpha in Antarctica?

I put a poster up with a question on it like, ‘Is there more to life than this?’ For the first talk, about half of the base came. People probably thought, ‘What is the crazy doctor doing now?’ Three people started coming regularly: a French chef, a meteorologist and a biologist. The two scientists were interested in finding out more from an atheist point of view. They wanted to know why I believed. It was good for the discussion. The chef was interested in spirituality. He wanted to learn more. I was able to start conversations and get them asking questions.

I was able to start conversations and get them asking questions

What was different about your Alpha?

Our Alpha was held shortly after the dinner that we all had together, I am a big believer in the power of eating together – it makes a difference. The nature of the environment, having people with me who I knew already, that was probably the biggest difference between running an Alpha in Antarctica and running one at home.

What would be your advice to those thinking about running an unconventional Alpha?

Take the step and run Alpha. In Antarctica I thought that it would be quite easy to not rock the boat but I took the step and put the poster up. I got people to come along and that was that. The talks are inoffensive and interesting, with great anecdotes and information. And if people don’t like it they don’t have to come back. But the chances are that if people come along they will be interested and return. It always works out well. Run it and stick to it!

Interested in running Alpha? Find out more and download the materials here

Words by James Nixon

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Momentum 2018: How I was encouraged!

Momentum 2018: How I was encouraged!


Hello! In case you don’t know me already, my name is Abigail Watson and I’m an intern with Alpha Ireland this year. As part of my ‘work’ with Alpha (if you can call it that!), I had the amazing privilege of going to a youth leadership conference called Momentum recently, and I just wanted to tell you about it and how it has encouraged me.

I definitely came away feeling encouraged, equipped and excited. I was also moved, challenged, and very inspired!

The tag-line for the weekend was ‘Encourage. Equip. Excite.’, which sums up the whole thing pretty well, I think. It was a weekend for anyone interested in or already involved in youth work, from those who have never done youth work in their lives to those who do youth ministry as their full-time job! Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone who came, but personally, I found that it more than achieved the promise in the tag-line, as I definitely came away feeling encouraged, equipped and excited. I was also moved, challenged, and very inspired! It was a very powerful weekend in numerous ways, and hopefully will be the first of many more in the years ahead.

Gathered together for a quiz!

Gathered together for a quiz!


One of the most encouraging aspects of the weekend for me was how honest, open and vulnerable many of the speakers were about the challenges of youth ministry. I was particularly struck by Peter Rigney, the National Director of Alpha Ireland, who shared about how difficult things were for him when he first began working with Alpha. It was especially encouraging for me to hear that he often dreads having to do talks like those he was doing at Momentum, as I often get very nervous when asked to do anything from the front! I am not one of those people who loves public speaking and enjoys giving talks to large groups of people, so it was great to see how Peter has been able to do so much as National Director, despite the challenges he faced in this area.

Other speakers were just as open too, and made sure that no-one tried to put them on a pedestal: they made it really clear that what they do and have done is through God’s grace and not by their own strength. They could have told us all about their success stories, made it seem as if they did everything perfectly, and left us feeling overwhelmed, but they did the opposite – as Theresa Cronin (the Alpha Youth Cork Coordinator) commented, it was ‘sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly’. So basically, I left feeling really positive about youth work in general and feeling that I really can contribute something worthwhile, even if I’m not the super-confident, charismatic type!

Peter Rigney talking at Momentum.

Peter Rigney talking at Momentum.

Momentum was also a great weekend for being equipped in a practical way: finding out about useful games and resources/materials that are available for youth ministry. For example, we heard from Tearfund about their resources for looking at global justice issues with young people, from Annette Evans about prayer spaces, from Youth for Christ about how they use soccer as a fun way to engage with teenagers, from Jonny Somerville about the Nua Film Series, and from several others too! I realised that there are lots of resources available once you know where to look – much more than I had thought! 

Anthony Clarke sharing about his work with youth!

Anthony Clarke sharing about his work with youth!

Finally, I think that Momentum really did manage to excite those who came about youth ministry (even more than they were already, that is) - most people seemed to leave feeling inspired and all fired up! For me, the most exciting aspect of Momentum was probably the sense of shared community and unity across the denominations, and seeing how everyone there was so passionate about youth ministry. Sometimes it’s easy to think that there’s barely anyone doing youth work in Ireland, and youth workers can feel isolated, but this was 130 of us (including those running the weekend) all coming together and realising that we can support each other and work as one big team.

One participant, Aidan Duggan, commented on how the weekend has given him a great sense of ‘hope and purpose’ and also on the potential of the event: ‘I’ve a feeling a lot is going to come out of this.’ I really think that he’s right – it’s the first of its kind, and really brought people together from different denominations, as well as different places. It’s not often that you get to go to an event that is so ecumenical, both in terms of who was running it and those who attended, and this was very fitting as it was coming up to the week of prayer for Christian unity (which is this week).


Playing and praying together.

Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention

It was also exciting to dream big and think about how we can step out of our comfort zones and allow God to work through us. Peter shared a great quote from Mark Batterson with us on this: ‘Go after a dream that is destined to fail without divine intervention’. I know it might seem wiser to have dreams that are achievable and reasonably realistic, but let’s be ambitious with our dreams and trust the promise that ‘all things are possible with God’ (Matthew 19:26)!

Abigail Watson            Alpha Intern

Abigail Watson            Alpha Intern

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