Last year, Richfield resident Pat Hughes became curious about her next-door neighbor when she noticed something different about her.
“She had become a much happier person and joyful person,” Hughes recalls, “and it’s like, well, what’s up with that?”
The neighbor, Theresa Mozey, had just returned from a mission trip to Costa Rica through Cedar Valley Church in Bloomington. Mozey said she had the same question when she joined the church about six years ago: “What’s up with these people? They’re happy or something.”
Having joined that group of worshippers, Mozey had extended to Hughes an open invitation to come along to church. Hughes finally accepted, and last April took a course Cedar Valley that she says changed her life.
It wasn’t obvious to others that a cloud hung over Hughes, now 63, wherever she went, but she was still dealing with the passing of her husband Gary, who had died of cancer seven years prior at the age of 62.
“It had been years and I just didn’t realize that it was still so heavy on her, because she seemed fine,” Mozey said.
Although longtime neighbors, Mozey had not known Hughes all that well. It was Gary, who was often outside doing chores, who was her point of contact. But after his death she and Hughes became closer.
“I just befriended her, because what do you do?” Mozey said. She gave Hughes a Bible but says her neighbor didn’t crack it until joining ALPHA last April, attending the program’s 12-week session. It consists of a series of classes featuring group discussion and dinner, serving as a basic exploration of the Christian belief for people looking for answers regarding their own faith.
Hughes found herself as one of those, her life having failed to return to normalcy following her husband’s death.
“Everybody goes back to their lives, and then you’re the one who comes home alone every night,” Hughes said, adding that daily rituals became a puzzle without her husband.
“You don’t know what to eat, because I cooked for him.”
She focused on her son and grandkids, but still — and it wasn’t just that she missed her husband, she said — something was missing. “I remember so many days just waking up and like, ‘OK, here’s another day. … I just didn’t have any purpose,” Hughes recalled.
She reached her emotional nadir when her son, a father of two, got involved in what she called a “horrific” divorce. The feeling overcame her: “Inside, my heart was dead. My soul was dead.”
A new kind of faith
Hughes attended mass regularly throughout her life, but something wasn’t right, she said. She was schooled in the doctrine. She knew the prayers. But “I didn’t have a real relationship with God or Jesus,” she remembers.
Following her husband’s death, she and Mozey would talk by the mailbox. Eventually Mozey would rehash Monday night bible study lessons over regular Tuesday evening dinners. Mozey left Hughes an open invitation to come to come along to church. Her neighbor eventually accepted.
In what was becoming a refrain, Hughes says she was pleasantly puzzled. “I was like, ‘Well, what’s up with these people? They were so happy and joyous,’” she said.
She noticed a flier for ALPHA, and both Hughes and Mozey joined the program together. Hughes said she felt a change the first day of the program.
“April 4, 2012, I found what I’ve been looking for,” she said.
Helping her along was the story told by Tom Truszinski, the church’s outreach minister who conducts the ALPHA sessions. “He just captivated me that first night with talking about his journey through life,” Hughes said.
She added, “Tom, his ALPHA program is like no other because he truly bares his soul.” ALPHA is a model used nationally.
Truszinski has been running Cedar Valley’s ALPHA program for 14 years, since its inception, having accepted the role after a motorcycle wreck led him down a path that would change his life.
Before the accident, Truszinski was already at least superficially successful by any measure. He was married with two children. He had an 11th floor office in St. Paul at the finance firm where he was vice president, where he became partner at age 27.
Despite the success, “I was morally and emotionally bankrupt,” Truszinski said.
He was an addict, too. “I dabbled in drugs but was primarily a heavy drinker,” he said.
On May 18, 1995, the Eagan resident was on his way to a bar to tell his niece that he was going to leave his wife. That plan changed when a car cut in front of his motorcycle. He lost his right foot and broke his hip.
Laid up at home, his neighbor Grace would come by to help, filling Truszinski’s coffee, emptying his urinal, and taking him to physical therapy. Their conversations turned to Christianity, and Grace arranged for Tom to visit a pastor at Cedar Valley Church.
It was also during this time that Truszinski got involved with the Promise Keepers. It was one of their rallies at the Metronome where Truszinski says he reached his tear-filled turning point.
Now, Hughes looks back and thinks of what could have been. He has less money, “about 6 cents on the dollar compared to what I used to make back then,” he said, but added that the trade off is worth it. Truszinski notes that instead of being a divorced father of two, he is a father of four, in his 22nd year of marriage with his wife, Carmen.
Why God, why?
Truszinski says ALPHA attendees, who generally number about 150 for each 12-week session, come from all walks of life. They represent a variety of worldviews, he said, or “no world view,” even. Some are battling drug and alcohol problems. Some are dealing with death or are in the middle of divorce. Some are already religious.
Also, “you might have a few people who I guess for lack of a better word, are seeking,” Truszinski said.
With that, they have their questions. The most common one, Truszinski says, is why a loving God would allow the tragedy and calamity that punctuates human existence.
That query arose for Hughes in her younger years when her brother was shot and killed in a hunting accident near her childhood home in northern Iowa. She said she ran to the site of the accident to be with him.
“It was obvious he was badly wounded. I begged God to save him,” Hughes recounts.
Her prayers unanswered, she was left doubting her faith, wondering how a higher power could allow the tragedy. “When I left town I moved to The Cities, I figured I want to get away from this God.”
Hughes summarizes Truszinski’s answer to the question that had plagued her:
“Things are being allowed to happen in our lives. Good things, bad things. Things that make sense. Things that don’t make sense. And it’s a part of a plan for us to grow, to bring us closer.”
But Hughes said he has at times been stumped by a query during ALPHA gatherings — “Oh sure,” he said. Although, “it’s not about us answering everybody’s question. It’s really about, ‘Well, what do you think?’ and helping them find the answer.”
Truszinski said he doesn’t worry about any ALPHA attendees who may be skeptical of his message, that he is not on a zealous quest of conversion.
“We don’t put targets on people’s backs,” he said. “We’re not here to sell anything. … If someone thinks Christianity is a crock, then don’t come. It’s not about convincing people.”
But Hughes accepted Truszinski’s message whole-heartedly her first night attending the program. “I asked Jesus into my life that night. … My eyes, at 63 years of age, were opened up,” she said.
Not too long ago, although it didn’t appear Hughes was overcome with grief, Mozey did notice the neighbor “used to fret about everything.”
Now, Mozey said, “she has a lot more peace about her. That’s the biggest thing.”
“Worry’s an insult to God anyway,” Hughes said. “It’s saying, ‘I don’t believe you can take care of me.’”
The results of the stress reduction are physical, too. Most measurable, her blood pressure, which Hughes said was so high that her medication was “maxed out,” has fallen dramatically and the doctors are reducing her medication load.
It is all part of Hughes’ new story, which she tells whenever she can. “I’m happy. I’m alive. I share with them exactly why. I offer hope.”
ALPHA meetings last from 6-8:15 p.m., consisting of a dinner, a message from Truszinski, followed by small group discussion. “You get there, you sit at this table with people that become your lifelong friends,” Hughes said.
At ALPHA, a questioning mind is allowed, she observed. “It’s safe here. Nobody’s going to look down on you if you don’t have a religion,” she said.
Hughes did see one thing the attendees all had in common. “People were there because they were searching for answers in finding happiness that can’t be found in buying things and having things and taking trips,” Hughes said.
Some get so enthused with ALPHA that, like Hughes, they attend the same course twice, which is the limit. “Because there are some people that will become ALPHA groupies, if you will,” Truszinski said. There is a second program, called BETA, which elaborates on the subject matter of ALPHA.
The next session begins Wednesday, Jan. 9. There is no charge to sign up, but donations of $3 to $4 to cover food costs are accepted. Those interested may call 952-883-1533 or email Truszinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.