SOAAR – Secular Ontario AA Roundup
By Martin D.
On Saturday, September 16, roughly 100 AA members enjoyed a wonderful day informally sharing our experience, strength and hope in Toronto at the first Secular Ontario Alcoholics Anonymous Roundup (SOAAR). The theme was Live and Let Live, and there were a variety of speakers, workshops and panels discussing topics of interest to all of AA, but generally from a secular perspective.
The day started after breakfast (one of the three meals included in the registration fee) with welcoming remarks from Grenville E. of Toronto, the chair of the local organizing committee. He stressed that the mission of SOAAR was “to bring people together to share and celebrate sobriety with friends, family and other AA members.” He noted that it was to be a “casual recovery-based event where we all can gather to share our experience, strength and hope in a fun, friendly and inclusive environment,” quoting the mission statement of the roundup. Grenville stressed the importance of community and connection offered by SOAAR – a theme that ran through many of the day’s activities.
Joe C. from Toronto led us off with a discussion on “How to Start a New Secular AA Group or Online Community.” He described his own experience at AA meetings in Montreal in the 1970’s and noted how free-wheeling and open the discussions were (including contributions from non-alcoholics). There was apparently much less emphasis on the Big Book and 12 Steps and the meetings were not highly structured and ritualized in Montreal in those days. He said he was surprised in coming to Ontario to see how much emphasis was made in AA meetings of the Big Book and the Steps as the 80s and 90s progressed. He also related how important was the development in the last decade or so of the online secular AA community. The support and interactions with other like-minded individuals apparently helped Joe and others in Toronto to form the first secular meeting in Toronto – the Beyond Belief group.
After Joe’s introductory remarks there followed a series of spontaneous contributions from several participants describing their experiences in being a part of starting secular groups and meetings, many of course in different regions of Ontario, but also in some cases in the United States.
It was very informative to hear of the various meeting formats adopted (e.g. Big Book Steps, Alternative Steps, no Steps, different readings, openings and closings etc.) It was also surprising to hear of the wide range of acceptance (or lack thereof) by Intergroups and Districts of the secular groups.
It was gratifying to hear, for example, that the Hamilton Ontario AA Central Office warmly welcomed their new secular meeting with the comment that they were “going to show Toronto Intergroup how to do it right”!
The main speaker of the day was Sharon L. of the “We are Not Saints” group in Toronto. She told a very moving story of her family experiences prior to coming to AA and of the developing sense of peace that she had found starting with her first encounter with secular AA three and a half years ago. Like many of us, she found the connection with other like-minded AA members to be the key to “a power greater than me”. She also expressed very well the feeling that many of us get in AA meetings that we can ‘let our defenses down’ for the first time, and that attendance at meetings “makes me a better person.”
After a very good lunch during where many of us met new members from throughout the secular community, there followed a session called “Paths to Serenity”. Evonne S. from London, Ontario described the positive effects of Yoga that she had found contributed to her recovery. She in fact leads many yoga sessions for people in recovery and took us all through some very interesting breathing exercises, some of which were remarkably refreshing. Alternating with her presentations were discussions by Kevin H. of Toronto, who for several years has been practicing and studying meditation as it relates to recovery. He described some very interesting recent scientific studies of the brain activity in subjects both during meditation and after extended regimens of meditation. Apparently it is clear that meditation calms the ancient “fight or flight” centers of the brain that keep warning us that danger is ever-present and transfers control to more rational regions. That’s a good thing for us anxious types (unless of course there really is a tiger about to leap out of the bushes).
Following a coffee break, Eric T. of Toronto led us in a workshop entitled “Tools of Recovery”. He described well the various tools at our disposal and stressed the excellent point that some of the tools that are important in one phase of our recovery might yield to other tools in another phase, sometimes to reappear in yet another period. Different tools for different people at different times.
Following discussions from the audience there followed a one hour break during which some participants took part in an outdoor yoga session led by Evonne.
The final session of the day focused on the question “What Can We Learn from Mainstream AA?”. The two invited speakers were Bill K. from Windsor and Don M. from Odessa/Kingston. The speakers reiterated what seemed to be the general feeling of the participants that secular members and groups are now, and have always been, an integral part of AA and that we are seeking to assert our rightful place in a broad and all-encompassing fellowship. Don in particular emphasized the remarkable principle in AA of “radical inclusion” of anyone who says they are a member and of the right of groups to belong even if they are “anti-God, anti-AA or anti-each other” to paraphrase Bill W. He also emphasized though, that “radical inclusion” also means that we should maintain respect and tolerance in dealing with those in the program who have religious beliefs that many of us do not hold. Following discussions on this topic, there was a sobriety countdown (to the chagrin of some who feel it’s a bit paradoxical to focus on an individual’s years of sobriety in a program which is advertised as One Day at a Time). We then broke for dinner and more “meeting and greeting”.
After dinner, there was a talent show with a fun mix of new and experienced performers including combinations of singers, guitarists and keyboard players.
In summary, the first Ontario roundup was a wonderful opportunity for sharing, learning and most of all connecting (or reconnecting) with like-minded AAs. Many thanks to Grenville E. and his local organizing team for all of their efforts. We’re all looking forward to the next secular roundup and of course to the next big Toronto shindig – the International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) from August 24-26, 2018.
See you there!
Martin D. has lived in Kingston, Ontario since 1988 and will this month celebrate his 21st year of continuous sobriety thanks to the fellowship of AA. He is forever grateful for the honesty, compassion and guidance that he was shown beginning with his first AA meeting. The power he has often felt in the rooms and in talking with other alcoholics he has always attributed to profoundly honest human interaction and he has never felt the need for or the presence of a supernatural intervention. In the early years when a Higher Power was discussed he mumbled vaguely and often practised the philosophy “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. Having had the nonreligious epiphany three years ago that none of the benefits of AA require a religious conversion, he has since tried to spread the good word. He has been delighted to find a worldwide community of like-minded AA members (his thanks initially to AA Agnostica) and he has been pleased to take a small part in the nurturing of three secular AA meetings per week in the Kingston area, as well as the third International Conference of Secular AA to be held Aug 24-26, 2018 in Toronto.