by Keri Vermeulen
From our very beginnings, we were made for community, with God and with each other. Yet most human beings have felt the sting of loneliness at some point in their lives, and for some, that pain may be an ongoing, daily battle. It’s the condition we don’t know how to talk about. A 2012 report from the Vancouver Foundation reported that loneliness is the top concern among people in our city, even edging out the cost of housing. And the ground-breaking World Happiness Report says that among the top six variables in establishing a country’s well-being and happiness (Canada ranks in the top 10 in 2016) is social support – do you have friends or family you can count on to help you in life?
When his life began to crumble around him a few years ago, Langley resident Dave Elliott didn’t have anyone to count on for help. He had grown up in a non-believing family that never dug beneath life’s surface or talked about their feelings. Elliott cultivated a dysfunctional friend group and a lifestyle of “a lot of drinking, a lot of lying, and a lot of womanizing,” he says. He eventually met a girl and got married, and together, they continued in “complete and utter dysfunction and arguing and whatnot.” Two years into the marriage, and two weeks after buying their first home, Elliott’s wife couldn’t take it anymore. She left, returning to her Christian roots, and reconnected with God. “She got healthy and became a really good person,” Elliott recalls. “I went the opposite way. I was getting drunk every night and womanizing again. I was living a hugely trashy, gross lifestyle.”
What made his life worse was that Elliott lived in isolation. He ran his own landscaping business, and worked alone. As soon as his work was done, he’d head home to start drinking and watch dark and violent television shows. When he and his wife began to sign papers dividing their assets, Elliott completely broke down. Realizing what a mess his life was, he begged her what to do. She steered him to the Alpha course at North Langley Community Church. Alpha is a 10 to 12 week international course running out of churches, homes, coffee shops and more, which invites people to tables to learn and discuss freely subjects including God, life, faith and purpose, while enjoying a meal together. Elliott was skeptical. “I thought this is going to be a joke and I’m going to offend people, maybe talk some of them out of their faith and debunk this thing.”
That tough attitude began to soften the first night when he was welcomed to the group, ate dinner and began to have some questions answered, like who God is, and Jesus and the Trinity. He went back the next week.
But one night, after a huge argument with his ex-wife, he looked at his collection of knives and thought about taking his own life. He panicked and called the crisis line. “I was asking the lady, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’” Elliott recalls. He was ready to hang up when the crisis line operator asked him if he had plans in the next few days to connect with anyone. “I was like, ‘no I have nothing.’ Then, all of a sudden, I remembered Alpha was having a one-day meeting on Saturday. I just perked up and something happened in me. She was like ‘what just happened?’ And I was like, ‘wow, yeah, I’m really excited to go to Alpha.’”
That Saturday at Alpha was the Holy Spirit session. “We went through the whole day and I was so pumped and I decided I wanted to become a Christian. Right when I was thinking that, someone said ‘okay, who wants to become a Christian? Let’s say this prayer.’ So I said the prayer and that was pretty cool.”
Elliott’s experience reflects the very heart of Alpha. Executive Director for Alpha Canada, Shaila Visser says: “Alpha provides an opportunity for both the Christian and the person who is exploring faith to come together in the same room, and to respect, love and care for one another on a journey in the same direction. You’re not talking about surface issues, you’re talking about really quite meaningful things. Questions of purpose, hope, healing or peace, questions about identity. Where do you go to have safe conversations where you’re not critiqued or condemned for your perspective or your neediness or your uncertainty about life?”
Connecting with other people was vital for Elliott. His whole life, he says, he felt isolated. Before accepting Christ at Alpha, and entering into Christian community, he would wake up completely hung over, and race through his workday so he could start drinking again, and watch TV. “My whole life, I couldn’t admit that I was having a bad day. I was completely shut in. These last 10 months of my life I’ve lived more than I have in my whole life. Just being with people, connecting with people and hearing their stories, it’s just so awesome.”
Elliott, who now attends Fraser Point Church in Fort Langley, and also Life+App faith-based meetings once a month at Chief Sepass Theatre, says he finds in the Bible answers to his lifelong questions about how to live. “Learning about Jesus and scripture made me feel like I could actually be myself, the person I’ve always wanted to be. I can just be myself around these people (Christian friends). I’m loved and accepted and I’m never criticized. They hold you accountable too, which is great. It’s just amazing.”
Elliott’s witness in Christian community is one to which even modern day academia can attest. World-renowned scholar of well-being, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at UBC, Dr. John Helliwell says the quality of friends in a faith community are “sort of super-charged friends. It won’t be a surprise that having groups and friends you connect with, the more diverse the better, enriches people’s lives. The people who attend church more frequently are happier than those who attend less. It’s not just praying together, it’s being together and doing together.”
And this is what has been experienced at Alpha, says Visser. “The best Alpha groups are the ones where the group doesn’t want to stop meeting when it’s over, because they realize they love these people. They’re very different people and their perspective is different and they’re at different stages in life, but they have that bond because they’ve revealed themselves to one another.”
This month, hundreds of Alpha groups throughout the Lower Mainland will begin. Consider taking the course or volunteering, but most importantly, invite someone. It could be the first best connection of their lives.
Join us next month, as the Light Magazine pursues more stories of community, and overcoming loneliness.