In atiny coffee shop in Toronto, my friend Pierre (I’ve changed his name to protecthis privacy) asked me to accompany him to his first Alcoholics Anonymousmeeting. He wore a tan corduroy jacket, and he fidgeted with the fleece collaras he explained how nervous he was about going to the meeting.
He had spent thenight before looking for an A.A. venue in Toronto where no one would recognizehim.
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He settled for a meeting in the basement of a church in the North West. Iagreed to accompany him to the meeting that very evening. Pierre smiled at that.I told him I was happy to accompany him.
I lied. I had no desire to attend an A.A.meeting. I didn’t have a drinking problem, but I was afraid the meeting wouldforce me to ponder about my own unhealthy habits.
Aftercoffee with Pierre, I headed back home for dinner. As I pecked at my supper, Irehearsed my lines a thousand times: Idon’t drink. I mean, I drink but only socially. Um, I don’t have a drinkingproblem. My friend is the drunk.
Erm, I mean, he is the one with the drinkingproblem. I’m just here to support him. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.A while later, I met Pierre outside the church and we walked into the meeting. Inside,we were surrounded by people who reminded me of my grandfather, the parents ofmy friends, young guys I could have gone to school with, and professional womenI could’ve seen in the Financial District. These were normal, everyday people. Pierreand I sat in the back of the room.
We were nervous and uncertain about what todo. At exactly seven o’clock, the Secretary opened the meeting with a moment ofsilence and the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept thethings I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdomto know the difference. Serenity,courage, and wisdom – yep, I told myself, I need these things. TheSecretary then read from the Big Book (the basic text for A.
A.), and peopletook turns reading the 12 Steps. Then they began sharing their personalhistories. For the first part of the meeting, Pierre and I just sat there andlistened. It wasn’t earth-shattering and it was mostly like how I’d imagined:some hand-holding, a few hugs, and lots of coffee.
Exactlyforty-five minutes into the meeting, Pierre mustered the courage to get up andspeak: “My name is Pierre and I am powerless over alcohol.” Gosh, I thought, this guy has more testicular fortitude than I do. Pierre spoke withastonishing simplicity and told us why he liked to drink and when drinkingbecame a problem for him. People nodded at different parts of his confession.
Thepeaceful silence of the room received his words, and when he was done, severalpeople thanked him. A gentle smile bloomed across his face, and he sat down. Next,a woman in her forties spoke. And then an older man. Someone else after him. Andshe was followed by at least a half a dozen other people. Itwas humbling to see and hear people sharing their hardships so openly. Therewas no denial or shying away from their problems.
Most shared their storieswith ease. They spoke with gratitude about their sobriety. Others related theirstory about struggle, heartbreak, and defeat. Nobody questioned anyone’smotives or missteps. They had all been there.
This group was a radicallywelcoming community that understood the healing power of vulnerability. Listeningto their stories offered me hope and inspiration to consider my own unhealthyattachments and addictions. I sat there and I thought about the relationshipbetween addiction and spiritual awareness. I pondered about the 12 Steps.
Eachstep spoke of faith, hope, and love – mostly self-love. We admit we arepowerless over our addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable (Step 1.)We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity(Step 2). We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care ofGod (Step 3), and we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings (Step 7).
Wemake amends for our actions (Step 9). We pray to know God’s will for us and forthe power to carry it out (Step 11). Sittingin the back of this room in the basement of a church, I learned that the 12Steps are a journey of healing – a spiritual awakening. Never in my many yearsattending liturgies, Bible studies, and other meetings at church had Iwitnessed such honesty and authenticity. The women and men in this group daredto be themselves, however frightening or strange that proved to be. They madethe choice to let their true selves be seen.
They presented theirauthentic, imperfect selves. None were saints. They spoke of spiritualprogress, not spiritual perfection.
Attendingthat A.A. meeting, I discovered that as addicts (and we all have ouraddictions), we are extremely controlling individuals. We believe we run theshow. The 12 steps invite us to give up control. We begin to relinquish thatcontrol when we let God take care of our lives.
When we turn our wills andlives over to the care of God, we experience freedom – true freedom. Thatnight I realized that the only way to keep my faith vibrant is to liveauthentically. When I yield to the feeble pretension that everything is allright (I am ok, you are ok), I yearn for the realness I experience the night ofmy first A.
A. meeting. Often, communities of faith attempt to create theperception of perfection. They misinterpreted this as holiness or spiritualvibrancy. But it is not.
Healthy spiritual communities don’t have an absence ofproblems. They create spaces for people to share freely about their pains,struggles, and doubts. Hearty spiritual communities exercise honesty,transparency, and vulnerability. Vibrant spiritual communities are radicallywelcoming: they invite each member to speak about the thorny issues of life –no matter how dark, shameful, and painful they are. That’s what Jesus did inhis ministry. That’s what we are called to do.
That’s where forgiveness,healing, and transformation begin. ThatA.A. meeting changed my life. It taught me that authentic faith addresses thetruth. That night I learned the type of church I yearned for.
I learned thatchurch is not “a country club or a museum for saints. It is a hospital for thebroken hearted.” Church needs to be a refuge for people struggling with drugsand alcohol.
With anger, loneliness and anxiety. With addiction, conflict, andhardship. I thank God for the night that showed me that faith is notsuperficial avoidance, but genuine life. I thank God for brutally honestconversations and the freedom I discovered when I gave myself permission to beunapologetically me.