Many Paths – Fredericton, New Brunswick
By Tyler M.
Many Paths Member
Many Paths is the first secular AA meeting to be established in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and at its founding in September 2019, was the only secular meeting in the large Area 81 encompassing the eastern Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – nearly a million people.
Our meetings began in-person on Sunday nights at the Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton, and our hosts have been very welcoming and helpful in our mission to help alcoholics, with a particular focus on supporting atheist and agnostic members. Our meeting format generally consists of a few standard readings, followed by a topic reading chosen by the chair to serve as a focus for sharing by those attending. These are brief, specifically the AA Preamble, a Bill W. “Responsibility is our theme” quote, a statement about sponsorship, and “safety and respect” in our meeting. These readings, presented by volunteers each night, set a tone in the meeting focusing low on dogma and high on mutual respect and inclusion; importantly, they are brief in order to maximize time for the evening’s topic and sharing of attendees. Typically, the chair-chosen topic readings are taken from secular-recovery type literature such as Joe C.’s great daily reader Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for Twelve Step Life, other non-AA canon sources, as well as occasional use of Grapevine articles if they are highlighting a particularly practical approach to recovery with limited mystical or religious overtones.
We also have a special “step study” topic the first Sunday of each month, currently using the 12-step text “Staying Sober Without God” by Jeffrey Munn. A central guiding principle in our literature and topic selections is to describe practical resources for recovery, relapse prevention and dealing with life’s issues while staying sober. Our group and meetings do not impose any belief or lack of belief on attendees, the group as a whole takes a strictly neutral stance in terms of spirituality or religious beliefs. Our meetings, however, enjoy the participation of individuals of a wide range of beliefs and valued perspectives.
The founding of Many Paths
The Many Paths group was conceived in the spring of 2019 by two Fredericton AA members who recognized the need to have a local meeting with minimal religiosity, which could foster the recovery of alcoholics who had greater-than-average difficulties with “the god bit” prevalent in most other local AA meetings, and offer fresh and different perspectives on recovery to others in AA. The Fredericton area has a strong and lengthy presence of traditional AA, with structured and predictable meetings easily available through the week, which greatly aids with the recovery of a wide swath of the local population. However, in this somewhat conservative and traditional area, most of our meetings open with lengthy, prescriptive and god-heavy readings such as “Chapter 5: How It Works” and most close with the Lord’s Prayer.
In this environment, our organizing of a secular group was initially met with interest and encouragement by a few, a mix of confusion or incredulity about the need for it by others, anxieties about whether it “was real AA” from many, and even some scattered hostilities with dueling “12 Traditions” battles waged mostly in private Facebook groups. The greatest problem distilled was: it was new, different and our District had nearly no knowledge of secular type AA meetings and groups. Our approach, therefore, was to thoroughly research the experience of other secular AA groups, and the websites aaagnostica.org and aabeyondbelief.org, and related podcasts and Facebook groups became indispensable resources.
Additionally, two of the founding group members took a “fact-finding” mission to attend a meeting of the We Agnostics meeting of Halifax, Nova Scotia (neighboring Area 82) and to meet with group members to discuss their founding experiences. Two planning meetings were held in the Summer of 2019 in Fredericton, with invited members of the local AA District and anyone else interested. During this research and planning stage, several other local members joined our effort, ultimately leading to six committed group founders. The founders chose the name “Many Paths” for the group, in recognition of the many ways an individual may find their way toward recovery in sobriety, and in a nod to the Many Paths to Spirituality AA pamphlet.
The online resources, help from other secular members in the region, and open planning meetings with local AA members allowed us to design a meeting that would help underserved AA members in our community, respect AA traditions, and answer any lingering questions of our legitimacy among our local AA. Critically important was our involvement and openness with District representatives and other local AA groups. Our first meeting was thus held – on schedule – on September 8th 2019, in the open and without interference by other local groups or the District.
While our group was tolerated at this point, true acceptance and inclusion still required some challenges to be overcome. Chief among these was that before our group would be allowed on the local meeting list, voting participation in District and recognized service commitments, we were required to be “officially recognized” by GSO. We completed the relevant paperwork for GSO New Group Registration, and on receiving our official group number from New York – and to the great credit of our local District members – we were then listed and given a seat at District without delay. We also successfully advocated for the addition of a new meeting type designation “SE” for secular on our local meeting list. Immediately and consistently since, our group has been very active in local service activities such as hosting special holiday meetings and Roundup conference marathons, as well as District governance activities and financial support.
In our group, District and AA as a whole, the sudden arrival of COVID-19 caused a major upheaval. Many Paths had been meeting routinely for 6 months when our final carefully distanced in-person meeting occurred on March 15th 2020, and the last AA meeting in our District followed the next day. Because of the experience of other secular AA groups in using online Zoom meetings from long before pandemic times, it encouraged us to quickly take up the technology. Along with another cooperative group in the District, we were the first up and running with ad hoc daily meetings on Zoom, and a few local groups starting back over a few weeks into “regular online” meetings; Many Paths itself did not miss a single weekly meeting in the transition.
Our group members, among others, were very helpful in supporting and teaching other groups how to migrate online. This crisis management, “one-day-at-a-time” and “whatever-it-takes” attitude to help get our local AA back online gained our group considerable visibility and respect locally, and our attendance quickly and consistently doubled with many new local members, and some growing number of distant visitors.
Early during the pandemic, we recognized that there were a significant number of members in Atlantic Canada that had no local access to secular AA meetings and were very keen to participate in them and be of service to help run them. Many Paths, and members from the two active online secular groups in Nova Scotia (We Agnostics and The Only Requirement groups of Area 82), and several of these “at large” members scattered across the more rural parts of the provinces thus came together virtually and launched East Coast Secular in July 2020.
This is a loosely organized group that is wholly online, with many of its founding members never having met in person. By design, it will remain online regardless of the inevitable easing of pandemic restrictions, to serve the widely scattered members in need of secular AA meetings not available locally. It meets every Tuesday evening on Zoom, and has somewhat outgrown its Atlantic Canada beginnings. At least half the weekly attendees typically come from outside the region geographically, with active group members serving from as far away as New York.
Because Many Paths and East Coast Secular are among the few secular meetings in Atlantic Canada, we frequently advertise our meeting not only on local meeting lists, but also on international lists and private Facebook groups, which generate a significant number of visitors to our meetings.
The future of Many Paths?
Many Paths as a group has grown stronger, larger and more diverse due to the pressures and opportunities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, though some of the founding members have drifted away from attending the online meeting. The pandemic threat has ebbed and flowed in the past year in Fredericton, with many groups returning to in-person, with restrictions and occasional re-closures.
However, Many Paths has remained online throughout, without a missed meeting. It is run by a dedicated core group of members from the Fredericton area, and since going online, attracting a valued group member living in a different country but active at every meeting. Attendees range from 24-hours sober to 40+ years, with regulars from across Canada and USA, and frequent repeat guests from as far as Europe and Australia.
Currently, we vote quarterly whether to remain online with Zoom, though there is a strong sense among members that we may remain as an online meeting long after COVID has passed; our sister meeting East Coast Secular, by founding mission, will remain online indefinitely. It has been our experience that we best serve our members this way, and our responsibility is to try to best serve those members and those reaching out. As a group we try to keep true to the Responsibility Statement that closes our meetings.
Tyler M. came to his first AA meeting in February 2014 and found there people that would save his life. But being a life-long atheist and active member of AA caused him increasing pain and difficulty for several years, with enormous mental friction between his core beliefs and traditional approaches to recovery in AA. Tyler lives sober and content (and still a skeptical stubborn atheist), helping with his partner to raise two boys, three girls and a granddaughter from his home in Fredericton.