Encountering Jesus

Thanks to support from the Office of New Evangelization and the Diocesan Services Appeal (DSA), Chinese students at the University of Michigan are meeting Christ for the first time. Deo gratias! Thanks to this important work, the seeds being planted today will almost certainly bear fruit for decades to come.

Enthusiasm sparkles in the voice of Caroline Gambale-Dirkes as she describes the small miracles taking place in her parish. During her tenure as director of evangelization at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, she has helped introduce dozens of international students from China to Christianity and the Catholic faith. 

“During one of my first meetings with Father Bill [Ashbaugh], I asked him about his dreams for our parish,” Caroline says. “And he said I would love it if we could run the Alpha program for some of our Chinese students. I thought he must be kidding since I hadn’t overseen the administration of Alpha for English speakers yet, and to begin a brand-new program with Chinese students would be, well, a lot.” 

But the Lord had other plans, as he so often does. 

“We were preparing to deliver the regular Alpha program in English, and I went to the Alpha Conference for church leaders. And at this training, they described their new project to us — an Alpha for people in mainland China,” Caroline says. “They were excited to show us a video trailer demonstrating their work. When I saw it, I began to cry. I heard the Holy Spirit tell me, ‘This is what you need to do.’”  

Caroline came home ready to roll up her sleeves and create a local program for local Chinese residents at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. 

“This past year, we had around 26 participants and 12 team members at each of our meetings, and we tried to organize them by age group so their discussions were as relevant as they could be,” Caroline says. “Some came from mainland China, but there were others from Singapore and Taiwan and even several who have grown up here in the U.S. We worked to ensure each of them could learn and grow in their faith in highly personalized ways that are unique to them.” 

Every Alpha meeting begins with dinner and fellowship, followed by a presentation about questions of faith, ending with a small group discussion. At Chinese Alpha, the videos are presented in Mandarin with English subtitles, and discussions are handled thoughtfully. 

“At each table, we make sure there is a Mandarin speaker on hand to support the discussion. After all, when you’re talking about faith and other matters of the heart, it can be hard to translate all of that into English,” Caroline says. “So we try to make it as comfortable as possible through the use of skilled translators and facilitators.”

Now that this year’s program has ended, what’s next? 

“Some students will return to their homelands, while others will remain and attend either RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] or perhaps a new Chinese Bible study,” Caroline says. “Some of the students have been coming to other young adult events, and a couple were even going to someone’s house to experience their first Christmas.” 

And St. Thomas has plans to continue its program — and offer more — during the years to come. 

Why? Because of moments like one that Caroline remembers with particular joy. “One of our participants said to me that in China there is no time to think about religion. It’s all about achieving well and not bringing shame to your family. She told me, ‘I’ve never heard my parents say I love you.’ Because the video is speaking directly to people who have grown up in the Chinese culture, it’s a welcome message to them to know they are loved by God, not because of what they do or achieve, but because of who they are as children of God.  

“And she said, ‘When I was listening to that, my heart just filled with warmth because that was the first time I heard that I was loved for myself.’” 

With many more stories about ministries like this one that receive support from the DSA, this incredible program is a groundbreaking development for the entire diocese. 

“We’re beginning to see our Alpha participants taking part in the active life of our parish,” Caroline says. “They’re coming to our events, adding their voices to our conversations, and digging into their faith. Is there anything better?”


Learn More

To learn more about Discipleship Formation — Chinese ALPHA March Edition contact Caroline Gambale-Dirkes at 917-763-1879 or cdirkes@sta2.org.


What is ALPHA?

ALPHA is type of ministry training that helps to equip churches, ministries, and individuals to help others discover and develop a relationship with Jesus.

Interested in setting up your own ALPHA? Please contact Craig Pohl, Director of the New Evangelization
at the Diocese of Lansing at 517-342-2440.