My name is Roger and I am an alcoholic.
It was snowing on Friday evening, the last day of November, in downtown Toronto. I didn’t know that until I hauled my bicycle out of the porch and onto the driveway.
It made me a bit nervous. I would have to ride almost three kilometres (two miles, for those south of the border). It didn’t matter though; it was an important meeting and I very much wanted to be a part of it.
It was after 7 p.m. and dark. I attached lights to the front and back of the bike, a flashing red one on the rear fender. Snow flakes slapped against my face as I began to peddle my way. There weren’t many people on the streets as I wheeled the bike past Danforth Avenue, through Monarch Park, and under the railroad tracks onto Gerrard Street. When I got to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Hiawatha Road I could see Chuck waiting at the door.
“Hi Chuck,” I said.
“Hi Roger. The door locks automatically so we need someone to keep it open for others.”
“I’ll be the greeter then,” I said. “Am I the first?”
“Yep,” he said.
The first to arrive after me were Joe and Lisa. Then Denis. The next pair were Brian and Naomi.
Joe brought me a coffee. Starbucks! We chatted. Both Joe and I are on the verge of publishing books on recovery from alcoholism and addiction and we are, well, pretty excited.
Chuck was lugging chairs from the second floor down into the basement. He had taped a sign to the top of the stairwell:
We Are Not Saints
Next to arrive were Kevin, then Ed, Eric, another Joe, Greg, Jackie, Larry, Julie and Frank.
Joe replaced me as greeter (Larry would take over later) and I went into the church basement to the meeting room. It was small. And it looked like a basement. There was a table with a pew against the wall and then the chairs that Chuck, and now Eric, were lugging down from upstairs. Some people were already sitting in a circle around the table, with a couple of rows on one side. I grabbed a spot on the pew. I hadn’t sat on one of those since I was a child. I felt, well, at home. With friends and safe, is how I felt.
More people arrived: Frank, Bob, and Duncan. The last three were Wayne, Dianne and John.
It was 8 p.m. and Chuck started the meeting, on time. “Good evening,” he said. “I want to welcome you to the first meeting of ‘We Are Not Saints,’ an agnostic AA group in Toronto.”
I could feel the pulse of energy in the room. I took another look around the table. Twenty-one people in all: sixteen men and five women. Mid-twenties to mid-sixties. There was a flush of pride on people’s faces, a glow in the eyes, a smile on lips. Those present were participating, after all, in a noteworthy event in AA.
As the meeting started, the Minister of the Congregation, Wayne Walder, informally leaned into the room and welcomed those present, a courtesy appreciated by all.
Chuck read the Agnostic AA Preamble:
AA agnostic meetings endeavour to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. In keeping with AA tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.
As is customary at meetings, Lisa then read “What is AA?”
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
The respect for privacy at AA meetings, of course, does not allow me to say much more, nor would I wish to. Suffice it to say that the first meeting of the agnostic AA group “We Are Not Saints” was an open meeting and three topics were suggested and discussed, in a lively and engaged fashion, by those present.
The meeting ended, as agnostic meetings invariably do, with the responsibility declaration. The adoption of this declaration at AA’s 30th anniversary convention in Toronto in 1965 was meant in large part to make AA more inclusive of agnostics and atheists. Bill W, the co-founder of AA, led the way as about 10,000 delegates from 21 different countries held hands and recited it then at Maple Leaf Gardens. Now, on November 30, 2012, almost fifty years later, on a Friday evening in a Unitarian Universalist church basement on Hiawatha Road in downtown Toronto, twenty-one atheists, agnostics and freethinkers held hands and said the declaration together, out loud, reciting it with pride and conviction on that memorable and special occasion: “I am responsible. When anyone anywhere reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.”
As is the case in AA, there was much fellowship after the meeting.
I had a lovely discussion with Duncan, a visitor from a small town in rural Ontario. How did he even hear about the meeting? Turns out Duncan was contemplating starting an agnostic group in his community, and looking for advice and information.
I chatted at some length with Julie. She had once talked at a Beyond Belief meeting of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program she had taken at CAMH and I wanted to know more about it. And my friend, Bob! In the summer (long forgotten now!) he had taught me how to play golf. Bob had come all the way from Whitby in order to show his support to the folks in the room. And I chatted with Eric who had walked by an “old haunt” from his drinking days on his way to the meeting. How his life had changed in AA! And I chatted some more with Joe, first about Bill W, the co-founder of AA, and then about e-readers, like the Kindle, Nook and Kobo.
Oh the fellowship! How I love the fellowship of AA!
Eventually, I made my way back outdoors. A lot of snow had fallen during the meeting. The streets were white. “Winter is here,” I thought. I didn’t much care though. As I pedaled home, mostly uphill on the way back, there was a celebratory spark in my soul as I contemplated the fact that there were now five agnostic AA groups in the Toronto area. And I was so, so very happy at the thought of next Friday evening’s meeting of “We Are Not Saints.”