The purpose of the Pacific Region AA Service Assembly (PRAASA) is to develop a greater unity among the AA members, groups and Areas of the Pacific Region (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), to encourage the exchange of ideas and experiences; and to provide an opportunity for members to discuss pertinent aspects of AA.
By Thomas B.
I was privileged to attend the 2015 gathering of alcoholics at PRAASA, the Pacific Region Alcoholics Anonymous Service Assembly, in Layton, Utah, this past March 6th, 7th and 8th. It was the 48th PRAASA gathering of AA members, Area trusted servants, delegates, and GSO staff, as well as a good number of former delegates and trustees. All together there were some 1200 alcoholics in attendance to discuss topics and issues that will be discussed at the 2015 General Service Conference and which challenge AA’s continued growth and its ability to help suffering alcoholics anywhere, anytime.
When PRAASA first began, I was somewhat skeptical and ambivalent, but by the end of the weekend, I was reaffirmed that the service structure of AA — despite how ponderous and complicated it may be — remains vibrantly viable, even for we agnostics and atheists who differ so radically from the ideology of mainstream North American AA that is predominantly Christian.
The weekend was full of numerous panels, presentations, roundtables and discussion forums that included comments from the floor. Herein follows a summary of pertinent issues and challenges which were discussed throughout the weekend:
- There is a range of differing opinions regarding how our primary purpose in AA to help alcoholics may conflict with our desire to be all inclusive: Can we openly extend the hand of AA to include all who have a desire to stop drinking but who may also have other debilitating conditions, such as other addictions or mental health issues? A number of panel members and several poignant comments from the floor discussed the need to better accommodate these people.
- Many are concerned about safety issues in the rooms of AA, not only protecting ourselves from sexual predators, but also from the well-intentioned but perhaps faulty advice of sponsors, none of whom are licensed nor necessarily knowledgeable about medical matters, who frequently dispense their opinions regarding, for example, the use of medications.
- There’s a growing awareness of the need to integrate Intergroup and Central Offices into the formal AA service structure, giving them both a voice and a vote at the District and Area levels of service.
- There is a strong push for AA to fully embrace 21st Century digital technologies for communication and information, but with hyper-alertness regarding security and anonymity concerns.
- It was reiterated by several panelists that all AA literature – not just the Big Book – as well as non-conference-approved literature, are vital resources for enhanced recovery.
- There is considerable awareness that the demographics of AA inside our meeting rooms do not match the demographics outside of AA, especially regarding people of color, age, gender and non-traditional spiritual beliefs.
- It was noted that not only is it inappropriate to end meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, but it is also very much a violation of our traditions to have a Bible prominently displayed at meetings, as is the custom throughout the south.
- There was strong advocacy on behalf of the transgendered – one of the most moving moments was when Sammy, a person undergoing a lengthy and complicated sex change process, spoke poignantly at the microphone about the challenges s/he faces at some meetings during the transitory period of sex change. When s/he finished, s/he received a standing ovation from the some 1200 persons in attendance.
Last, but certainly not least, there was strong support to include agnostic, atheistic and freethinking members fully within AA.
Ashley M. from Idaho gave a heartfelt talk in a panel on the topic “Does our Fellowship make agnostics, Buddhists, spiritualists, etc. feel welcome in our recovery meetings?” Not only did she cite relevant AA literature, but she presented it in the most effective manner, utilizing AA’s language of the heart. She allowed her compassion to express itself in an overflowing of tears. The text of her moving talk can be read here: Presentation by Ashley M. Keep in mind when you read it that you only get one layer of its depth and effectiveness. About two-thirds way through she talks about what happened to a woman, Amy, who came out as an atheist after 18 years in her small town home group. Ashley breaks down in tears of compassion in telling this story. It was powerful to witness in person.
Perhaps the panel I most enjoyed with was on Sunday morning, consisting of ten past trustees of AA’s General Service Board. Herein follow some excerpts from five of the former trustees:
Roberta from Nevada:
Our estimate of membership in AA each year shows lack of growth in the Fellowship. When I think of this limited growth the first thing that comes to mind is the groups of alcoholics that we exclude because they have difficulty identifying through our practices and individual group interpretation of the steps and traditions. If I had a magic wand I would assure that we might attract those who may be of a different spiritual persuasion. I refer specifically to atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. I do not think that our recent spirituality pamphlet does what we set out to do in the beginning… Somewhere along the line in the development of the pamphlet we lost the focus.
Madeline from Oregon:
I want to point out something — every single woman on this stage has on pants. Boo yah people, it’s 2015! We’re not being clubbed in the head and dragged into caves by our hair. We get to vote and shit and run the office (a reference to Phyllis H. retiring General Manager of GSO, who attended PRAASA). I truly want AA to be true to its promise of being inclusive… But are we as inclusive as we could be? I love the article by Bill, “Our Critics Can Be Our Benefactors” because when people call us cultish and religious, there is truth to that. Now AA isn’t – our principles are very clear – but our membership out of egocentrism and fear bring these into our meetings and call it autonomy, throwing the other traditions under the bus. I see people telling us what to say, what to read, what to dress, what ink they have to use in our Big Book, all kinds of things under the guise of sponsorship and group autonomy, usually with the statement “because we’ve always done it that way”. That’s not sponsorship; that’s spiritual abuse… “But here we must remember that AA Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership…” My grandfather came to this country, changed his name, changed his religion to escape religious persecution. Many of those who didn’t escape died in the holocaust. I don’t want to see a spiritual holocaust in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I don’t have any wisdom, all I have is some experience.
(This echoes a theme of the speech – experience trumps explanation – that the Rev. Ward Ewing gave at our November conference in Santa Monica.) Jim then quoted at length the 1986 speech by former General Manager of AA, Bob P., regarding his concern then about the growing rigidity in AA. He indicated rigidity is still evident in AA today, saying,
I was really happy to hear Roberta talk about the spiritual pamphlet, and I too have read it and thought that it was a great pamphlet, but not exactly what I had in mind… I’m one of those agnostics – maybe we’re not a minority, maybe more of us need to come out of the closet — who has found a spiritual way of life in AA. I hope you don’t pin me down as to who my god is, because not only do I not know, but I probably can’t tell you, but I do know that I have had a spiritual experience sufficient to keep me sober.
Julian C. from Nevada:
Unfortunately, the locality where I entered AA focused more on the religious aspects of AA than on the spiritual aspects and my acceptance of their higher power was most difficult and this continued for a good number of years, until I heard speakers and other members sharing about it, talking in terms of a power greater than themselves, about their AA group and they’re involvement in it, about a group of drunks, good orderly direction, and a gift of desperation. The time soon came when the last of these three terms became extremely important to me. These people I heard talking had something I wanted… And I was assisted by a gentleman by the name of Jim B. You’ve heard me talk about him a time or two. He’s one of my favorites, because he is the one who is credited with being the person most responsible for the phrase, “God as we understood him” in Step 3 and Step 11.
I love the Third Tradition. It says, you know, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, it doesn’t even says whose desire it is. It certainly wasn’t mine at the time. So you can be pushed in and it will work. Not for everybody, but it does work. That’s all I have done, and how do you get 44, 45 years of sobriety, or over 50 like George? You don’t drink, and you don’t die. I like to keep things simple. We were talking about it last night, if you want to lose weight, eat less, move more. That’s what it is. And so, I don’t drink one day at a time, and I try to keep my side of the street clean, and I try to pass on what I have learned. And, that’s about as simple as I can make it. Thanks.
One of the pithiest statements I heard at PRAASA was this: It takes two years for AA to make a cup of instant coffee!~!~! I find this especially soothing, since it’s somewhat quelled my outrage about the Grapevine Board rejecting our request for the General Service Conference to consider publishing a book for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers, consisting of the some 40 articles previously published by the Grapevine since 1962. It offers me the perspective that we can choose to keep requesting it until it comes to pass. Perhaps, unlike the “Spirituality” pamphlet, we’ll make some progress and publish it within 15 to 20 years. There is certainly support for it among the lower rungs of our inverted triangle of service structure.
In summary, I experienced a renewed admiration and respect for the collective wisdom of our Fellowship at PRAASA. As a result, I am re-energized to continue to be active in AA General Service, so as to enhance our agnostic, atheist and freethinking voice within the AA Fellowship, and I urge others to join me. Thus, do we continue the cherished legacy of Jim Burwell, who was so instrumental in AA’s early history to widen the doors of AA for all alcoholics.
In exactly one week on the Sunday, March 19, the annual General Service Conference will begin in New York.
In the lead-up to the Conference a group in Cottonwood, Arizona, wrote a letter to its Area 03 Delegate. You can read it right here: Letter from the Group, Freethinkers Living Sober. In it, the group’s GSR, John R., notes: “It is difficult to imagine how many alcoholics may have been turned away by the insistence by many that the newcomer must accept a ‘God’ to become sober”. Echoing forty years of similar requests, the group asks for Conference-approved literature specifically by and for atheists and agnostics in AA.
It is by no means too late for your group, perhaps via your General Service Representative, to make a similar request to your Area Delegate. Sooner or later it is hoped the General Service Conference will get the message, and produce literature that is genuinely respectful of we agnostics in AA.