tiny coffee shop in Toronto, my friend Pierre (I’ve changed his name to protect
his privacy) asked me to accompany him to his first Alcoholics Anonymous
meeting. He wore a tan corduroy jacket, and he fidgeted with the fleece collar
as he explained how nervous he was about going to the meeting. He had spent the
night before looking for an A.A. venue in Toronto where no one would recognize
him. He settled for a meeting in the basement of a church in the North West. I
agreed 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 would
force me to ponder about my own unhealthy habits.
coffee with Pierre, I headed back home for dinner. As I pecked at my supper, I
rehearsed my lines a thousand times: I
don’t drink. I mean, I drink but only socially. Um, I don’t have a drinking
problem. My friend is the drunk. Erm, I mean, he is the one with the drinking
problem. 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 of
my friends, young guys I could have gone to school with, and professional women
I could’ve seen in the Financial District. These were normal, everyday people.
and I sat in the back of the room. We were nervous and uncertain about what to
do. At exactly seven o’clock, the Secretary opened the meeting with a moment of
silence and the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom
to know the difference. Serenity,
courage, and wisdom – yep, I told myself, I need these things.
Secretary then read from the Big Book (the basic text for A.A.), and people
took turns reading the 12 Steps. Then they began sharing their personal
histories. For the first part of the meeting, Pierre and I just sat there and
listened. It wasn’t earth-shattering and it was mostly like how I’d imagined:
some hand-holding, a few hugs, and lots of coffee.
forty-five minutes into the meeting, Pierre mustered the courage to get up and
speak: “My name is Pierre and I am powerless over alcohol.” Gosh, I thought, this guy has more testicular fortitude than I do. Pierre spoke with
astonishing simplicity and told us why he liked to drink and when drinking
became a problem for him. People nodded at different parts of his confession. The
peaceful silence of the room received his words, and when he was done, several
people 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. And
she was followed by at least a half a dozen other people.
was humbling to see and hear people sharing their hardships so openly. There
was no denial or shying away from their problems. Most shared their stories
with ease. They spoke with gratitude about their sobriety. Others related their
story about struggle, heartbreak, and defeat. Nobody questioned anyone’s
motives or missteps. They had all been there. This group was a radically
welcoming community that understood the healing power of vulnerability.
to their stories offered me hope and inspiration to consider my own unhealthy
attachments and addictions. I sat there and I thought about the relationship
between addiction and spiritual awareness. I pondered about the 12 Steps. Each
step spoke of faith, hope, and love – mostly self-love. We admit we are
powerless 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 of
God (Step 3), and we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings (Step 7). We
make amends for our actions (Step 9). We pray to know God’s will for us and for
the power to carry it out (Step 11).
in the back of this room in the basement of a church, I learned that the 12
Steps are a journey of healing – a spiritual awakening. Never in my many years
attending liturgies, Bible studies, and other meetings at church had I
witnessed such honesty and authenticity. The women and men in this group dared
to be themselves, however frightening or strange that proved to be. They made
the choice to let their true selves be seen. They presented their
authentic, imperfect selves. None were saints. They spoke of spiritual
progress, not spiritual perfection.
that A.A. meeting, I discovered that as addicts (and we all have our
addictions), we are extremely controlling individuals. We believe we run the
show. The 12 steps invite us to give up control. We begin to relinquish that
control when we let God take care of our lives. When we turn our wills and
lives over to the care of God, we experience freedom – true freedom.
night I realized that the only way to keep my faith vibrant is to live
authentically. When I yield to the feeble pretension that everything is all
right (I am ok, you are ok), I yearn for the realness I experience the night of
my first A.A. meeting. Often, communities of faith attempt to create the
perception of perfection. They misinterpreted this as holiness or spiritual
vibrancy. But it is not. Healthy spiritual communities don’t have an absence of
problems. 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 radically
welcoming: 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 in
his ministry. That’s what we are called to do. That’s where forgiveness,
healing, and transformation begin.
A.A. meeting changed my life. It taught me that authentic faith addresses the
truth. That night I learned the type of church I yearned for. I learned that
church is not “a country club or a museum for saints. It is a hospital for the
broken hearted.” Church needs to be a refuge for people struggling with drugs
and alcohol. With anger, loneliness and anxiety. With addiction, conflict, and
hardship. I thank God for the night that showed me that faith is not
superficial avoidance, but genuine life. I thank God for brutally honest
conversations and the freedom I discovered when I gave myself permission to be