The first agnostic AA meetings in New York
This was the third of three main talks at a workshop on the history of secular AA at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention in Austin, Texas, in November 2016.
By Deirdre S.
Hi. I am Deirdre, a cross-addicted alcoholic.
Since everybody said their sobriety date, I am February 10, 1997. I was 36 at that time and I thought at 36 I should have figured everything out. I should have been a professor with patches on my elbows and stuff like that, but instead I was a mess.
We talked last night about the three people who read about agnostic AA meetings in an atheist publication “Free Enquiry”, wrote to the author in California, were introduced to each other by him, and then started the first agnostic meeting in New York City on Wednesday, September 10, 1986.
When Roger asked me to talk about this, I wanted to in order to get to know one of the founders of that meeting, Ada Halbeirch, a little bit better. I met her in the Thursday night meetings in New York and she was always very lovely but I didn’t know her very well. She died 29 years sober in 2005.
That first agnostic AA meeting was in Ada’s apartment with the other founders, John Y. and David L. They began to look for a public space and went to a Synagogue not so far from where Ada lived and asked for permission to have the meeting there. It took them several weeks to decide and then they said “Okay, go ahead.” And so the first public “We Agnostics” meeting in New York was at the Stephen Wise Synagogue.
Everyone I talked to said that Ada was a leader, she was a business woman, she was a red-diaper baby, her father a socialist in the lower East Side. She was very ambitious, very successful and also a gambler and alcoholic. It somehow kind of all went together.
Jane J., who many people know as she was at the Santa Monica convention two years ago, told me a story about how she met Ada. She was out walking the dog and she saw Ada with her dog and the animals started communing and so somehow Jane got around to asking Ada, “Do you have a Higher Power?” And Ada replied “Oh, you poor dear. You must be in a 12 Step program.” And she said “Come with me” and brought her into the Thursday meeting and Jane has stayed sober ever since. Jane’s husband died unexpectedly just a little over a year ago and I know that she hung out in meetings to be in a safe place and has made it past a year in widowhood. She is just beginning to bloom again. She would have been here had she not broken her foot.
It was very uncomfortable for Ada at regular meetings. She started the agnostic meetings in both New York and Florida. She’s buried in Queens or Brooklyn and she was so justifiably proud of her role in starting the meetings that she had it put on her tombstone. I am going to find it and get it out so people have that. I think it’s fantastic that Ada would have that put on her tombstone.
The second person who was part of starting this first agnostic meeting was John Yablon. He was a public atheist which meant that he participated in demonstrations. For example, he demonstrated against the Pope when he came to NYC.
He was very outspoken. The thing I remember about John is that he would stand in the doorway of the meeting and he would grab you with two big hands and shake your hand and look you in the eye and say “I’m John and who are you?” While he was just trying to make people feel welcome, some people recoiled at that.
John was a World War Two veteran. He told people “I never said a prayer in my life”. For many years he worked as a repairman and mechanic for the New York Central Railroad. I just found out that after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, he went down to the pile and got the word out that he was going to have a special AA meeting for the people who were there clearing the debris and looking for human remains as well as the other workers there.
In early 2003, John developed an aggressive form of stomach cancer. Within three weeks he was dead. All of sudden the chair John sat in each week was empty. For a while we kept a hat on the chair so nobody else would sit in it.
It was just like here today, gone tomorrow. And that is sort of the essence of this “One Day at a Time” slogan. One of the things I learned in AA is that if you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you’re pissing on the present. It is so true. I am glad that I got to meet both of those people, and it shows just how recent our history really is. There are people still alive today who were at our first agnostic meeting in New York City.
And David L, the third founding member, is a gay man, he lives in Texas. He is very friendly, and still goes to AA meetings regularly, and is still so grateful to agnostic AA for his sobriety. He is like a real mensch.
So it started in Ada’s apartment in 1986 and they went to the Synagogue and then they went to a church called Jan Hus on the East Side and Jan Hus said, “We Atheists? No we won’t have you”. So they came back and said “How about We Humanists?” And they said OK.
The third agnostic AA meeting in New York was started in 1988 by Martha and Bernie, and it was on Sundays. I met Martha when I called Intergroup with a question. I called and I said “Hi. I need an atheist sponsor. Where do I find that?” And Martha who, as it turned out, was working the phones whispered to me, “Go to the Sunday meeting and we can talk there”. I didn’t quite understand at the time that I was apparently asking the wrong question in AA.
So I met her and found a sponsor in my Tuesday night meeting. The Tuesday night meeting was the next in the lineup and that was started in the fall of 1995 by Greg S.
Today we have thirteen meetings in the city. And what I am learning now is that in a lot of towns and cities people have “groups” which I never really understood before. Quad A in Chicago is a group and meetings there are under its auspices. But in New York, let a million flowers bloom but we just keep popping up with meetings and we have not yet got ourselves terribly organized. But Vic and I are going to try and work hard to get us a little more together in New York.
As an excellent example of how untogether we are in New York City all of a sudden several meetings popped up that were agnostic meetings and they weren’t based on one of the core members going out and starting a new meeting. They were just spontaneous meetings. We found out about them through lists and by accident.
We put them on the website and went out and met the people. To me it shows that there is this growth of secular AA that is happening and that it’s outside of our control. You can’t control it. And certainly AA is not controlling it even if there are some within AA who see it as a threat. This is the most hopeful thing that I can say. I got sober. Other people are getting sober. And it’s happening just because we’re there. We’ve put the flag up and people are shooting at it or saluting it. Whatever is their pleasure.
Deirdre S. has been a proud member of AA for over 19 years. Her sober date is February 10, 1997. For the last ten years she has been the webweaver of www.agnosticAANYC.org. She spoke at the international conferences for secular members of AA in both 2014 and 2016.