Heavy-soled black boots and prison white scrubs identify Sherri Howe as a felon serving time at Halbert State Prison in Burnet, an hour northwest of Austin, Texas. "I never felt God could forgive me for the things I have done," a tearful Howe confides to attendees at North America's first Prison Alpha conference. "Through Jesus' death, I've been forgiven, and the past is behind me."

Howe credits her transformed life to Alpha, the London-born course in basic Christianity that a half-million unchurched or new believers will take this year (CT, Feb. 9, 1998, p. 36). Holy Trinity Brompton, London's Anglican church that launched the 10-week program 22 years ago, tried Alpha in a British prison in 1993. Since then, Alpha has spread like a crime wave to most of the United Kingdom's 137 prisons, to prisons in 16 foreign countries, and now to inmates in the United States.

LOCAL OUTREACH: Burnet's Prison Alpha was conceived when Jeff Black and his wife, Barbara, planted a new Episcopal congregation, Saint Barnabas Church, in Austin. They looked to minister in jails as a church outreach.

The Blacks chose an oft-overlooked people group, says Bill Birdwood, chaplain of England's Dartmoor Prison. Birdwood employs Alpha as a central part of his ministry to inmates. Prisons are rife with spiritually impoverished people who need intervention if they are to turn their lives around. Often, incarcerated men and women have reached bottom and are open to just about anything that offers a legitimate way out. "If there's one word to describe what prison is all about, it's loss, especially loss of hope," Birdwood says. Enter the gospel, which offers a lasting change of heart and behavior. Prison Alpha presents Christianity in a simple format that includes ...

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