In a tiny coffee shop in Toronto, my friend Pierre* 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 told him I was happy to accompany him. Pierre smiled at that. But I had 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.
After 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.
Pierre 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.
The 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.
Exactly 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.
It 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 talked about struggle, heartbreak, and defeat. Nobody judged anyone’s motives or missteps. They had all been there. This group was a radically welcoming community that understood the healing power of vulnerability.
Listening 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).
Sitting in the back of this room in the basement of a church, I learned that the 12 Steps are a mighty spiritual journey. 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.
Attending 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.
That 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.
That 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 unapologetically me.
* I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy