For most people, a sixteen-month trip to Antarctica would be challenging enough. But for Edinburgh 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.
"It was a dream come true"
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
Words by James Nixon