In the third week of my sobriety, I heard the words “to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own” in a We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood, CA. This phrase has inspired me over nearly three years in what became my home group. It is the mission statement of our non-profit LLC set to launch the first We Agnostics and Freethinker International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC) on November 6 – 8, 2014 in Santa Monica, CA. I am the chairwoman of WAFT IAAC and also the president/member of the soon to be non-profit WAFT IAAC LLC.
The phrase truly encapsulates AA’s third and fifth tradition. Anyone is a member of AA if they say they are, and as members, our primary goal is to help the suffering alcoholic. Not having to accept others beliefs is arguably the reason why We Agnostic and Freethinker-style meetings are being formed across the country and around the world, and it is the same reason for putting on this convention and why WAFT IAAC is so important to the fellowship and the growth of AA.
The June 8th Meeting
Our first official planning meeting brought together small group of individuals from my home group, Ventura and two people from Maui, Hawaii, Rich and Joan. Their contributions would begin to solidify the path of recovery we can offer those who struggle with the dogma and religiosity some of us experience in the rooms. I was impressed with the positive impact Joan and Rich had on my home group, our planning meeting and the impact we Los Angelenos had on Joan and Rich. I thought about their trip for a long time and in the end I was aware of a powerful connection we made within the WAFT fellowship by meeting each other face to face. One alcoholic talking to another.
In the following weeks, I continued to do outreach work, on the phone, calling to follow up with contacts made through our mailings sent out earlier to the over 50 meetings worldwide that were listed on http://www.agnosticaanyc.org/worldwide.html and in AA directories as We Agnostic or with cleverly coined names such as Happy Heathens. As I spoke to people, I kept wondering how I could reach more people, the quieter ones, who don’t necessarily speak out, but who believe in the promises brought them in WAFT AA. The answer was Hawaii! These were people I needed to meet! I needed to travel and give a face to WAFT IAAC and to answer any and all questions I could for people. I chose cities where there were large amounts of WAFT meetings and places where we had contacts in those areas.
New York and New Jersey
I had experienced a mix of feelings from many of the groups in New York City. Excitement about WAFT IAAC, but also caution had been expressed. I believe it came from the recent history that the NYC WAFT groups experienced in 2009. The groups were threaten with delisting if they continued to allow copies of the altered steps in their meetings. NYC WAFTs decided that they did not want to risk delisting and stopped handing out the different steps.
One of my contacts prior to my arrival to NY, was Jane. She was one of the first members of the We Humanist WAFT group back in the 1980s. We are speaking regularly about the convention progress in California and her work spreading the word a meetings in NY. I arrived in NY while she was away on vacation. But, that did not stop Jane from being my virtual NY guide and acting sponsor. She insisted I call her every day to report everything from meeting response to the announcements of WAFT IAAC to what food was I eating. Jane made a point to contact her AA family to ensure I had guides in the meetings and make sure I had directions and fliers for NYC but also for the next leg of the trip, Toronto, Canada.
On Jane’s advice, I had sent out an email to all our east coast contacts announcing my trip and arrival in NYC. One specific email response came from Mike W. asking me to speak at a meeting. It turned out that he was a We Ag old-timer from my home group in Hollywood. We don’t remember ever meeting, but having the common bond of the Hollywood group was comforting, specifically, because I was slowly starting to miss my home group.
At Mike W.’s meeting I met the webmaster of the infamous agnostic AA meeting list, Deidre. http://www.agnosticaanyc.org/worldwide.html lists all the known agnostic/atheist/freethinker meetings worldwide. I learned later that Deidre and I had a lot of personal beliefs in common and she, like myself, is very active in AA around issues and concerns of WAFTs. She would be the first but not the last to say she was impressed by my traveling alone. I really never took that into consideration, but it reinforced my belief that this is important service work for AA and those who can benefit from WAFT IAAC.
In NYC I was asked progressively to speak at new meetings. Dianne M., a young, inspired woman, asked me to speak in Brooklyn, NYC. It would turn out to be the last time the meeting would meet in that location. People in Brooklyn were in a struggle to keep their local hospital open which is where they were meeting. The following week when people came for the meeting they found the doors of the hospital were chained closed. Rusty, a GSR in Brooklyn, who lives in New Jersey asked me to lead her meeting in Jersey City. I was excited! I got to add another state just as I started my trip. The Jersey City meeting was extremely excited about WAFT IAAC.
My email also resulted in Tisa from New Paltz, NY asking if I could speak at her meeting. Tisa was a joy. She had gotten sober in the young people’s movement within AA and saw herself as more of an activist AAer. Tisa gave me a historical tour of colonial New Paltz and showed me the church in the local grave yard where she was married. Tisa drove me to my bus and gave me a bracelet that she made that said “Sober Atheist,” I proudly wear it to this day!
I would later be asked to speak at the Bayshore meeting in New York. Brian had also received my email. He was kind enough to pick me up from the train station. The meeting was small yet Brian made a point to take me to fellowship with another member and gave me a night tour of where hurricane Sandy had hit the season before. He waited with me until 1a.m. when I was able to catch the train back to my hostel. My time in NYC had come to an end. All packed, with fliers from my NY virtual sponsor and homemade chocolate chip cookies, I took the bus to Toronto.
As followers of aaagnostica.com know, the Toronto WAFT groups have faced controversies over the question of having altered steps. Their struggle has highlighted issues and concerns many WAFTs face. On my visit I felt a warmth and joy from the membership in Toronto for the upcoming convention. Many are 20 plus years sober. I believe the Toronto membership is eager to be seen as true members of AA who want to share their experience, hope and strength as WAFTs within AA.
Before I even reached Canada, Roger C. the administrator of AA Agnostica was a gregarious host. We texted as I was on the bus, getting to know each other. Once I got into Toronto, Roger guided me through Toronto to my next hostel. This hostel had a usable kitchen but charged for cooking utensils. Roger asked a WAFT brother for utensils and then bought me food to cook and lunch which was greatly appreciated.
Roger took me to his home group where I shard my experience, strength, hope and the goals of WAFT IAAC. There was a feeling of home here. How close the groups were! From that meeting onward the groups made a point to pass the hat to help me with my personal expenses. This was something my arrogant pride could not allow me to ask for, but this level of AA love and fellowship reminded me of the generosity we can nurture alongside the AA principles.
Larry K. and Joe C., who are founders of the WAFT meetings in Toronto made it a point to be the ultimate hosts while I was in town. Making sure I had rides, no members of the WAFT meeting allowed me to pay for anything, including giving me bus tokens, to giving me guided walking and driving tours of the city. Joe C. and his lovely partner Lisa even invited me over to their home and cooked me a vegan dinner.
While in Toronto I wanted to get to know the local more traditional AA meetings. I went to one and made an announcement about WAFT IAAC and stated how many WAFT meeting were listed on the NYC list in 27 states and 5 countries. After the meeting I was surprised to hear people outside talking about how they thought that WAFT groups were shrinking and not growing. That saddened me because that is was a strange lie.
WAFT groups have existed since 1975. Since WAFT IAAC was announced there have been four meetings formed and I have found more meetings in national directories. It did build my resolve because there are other WAFTs in those meetings that need to hear there are many paths to recovery and we are here, alive and strong! I was sad to leave the Toronto groups. I felt so welcomed that I wished I could have stayed but I had to get on to my next stop – Quad A.
The Quad A groups in Chicago are the home of the WAFT groups, as they were the first groups to welcome agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, and anyone who struggled with religion. I was filled with excitement and gratitude to be able to meet the group of people that saved my life and gave me my path to recovery. They were also the first among the WAFT groups worldwide to offer different versions of the steps at their meetings.
In the late 1970s a local Quad A member and lawyer took up the cause of defending Quad A from delisting by their local intergroup/central office. Quad A would get delisted twice in the early 1980s. The fight would last four years with the result of being Quad A permanently seen as a part of AA and not some fringe group of people who are trying to become “something else” nor a radical group trying to fundamentally destroy AA (which clearly hasn’t happened in the 39 years that the WAFT groups have existed). Quad A is the living example of tradition three. Anyone is a member if they say they are.
The history of Quad A includes a conference in 2009. It was for the local Quad A groups and did not aspire to be a national or an international event. They attracted about 100 attendees. The coordinating committee had planned on holding future conferences but sadly weren’t able to keep the momentum up. Instantly, I understood that WAFT IAAC is building on the foundation of the Quad A conference.
When I finally got to the hotel in Chicago, it was a far cry from the hostels I had stayed previously. I felt like I was in a mansion with my very own bathroom, iron and coffee maker. I couldn’t do anything but take a bath and lay in bed. I was so mentally tired that I felt paralyzed. The next day I would go to the Evanston Quad A meeting. I couldn’t know the thrill and surprise that awaited me.
The secretary announced it was a cross talk meeting with a theme of atheist and agnostics. I was now curious! I gave my announcement and was asked questions. At first I was worried about dominating the meeting but I was told that there was no format. The discussion revealed they clearly identify with AA on a few things – the power of two drunks talking to each other, being powerless over alcoholic, unmanageably, anyone is a member if they say that they are and the seventh tradition. Okay, I thought, that is definitely the spirit of the third tradition. Then, I heard that the Evanston group was considered the rebels of all the Quad A meetings. The Rebels of the Rebels…I was amused!
A newcomer with less than a week spoke and said he was referred to Quad A meetings because he was Jewish and couldn’t stomach doing the Lord’s Prayer at meetings. “Referred?!” I thought, “Really?” I asked the group if that was common. The answer was a resounding, “Yes.” With a tone of “of course they are. Where else would they go?” They continued and said that the local members of AA who are believers, the local military base, local judges and local rehabs constantly refer non-believers or anyone who struggles with religion to Quad A meeting. At the end of the meeting members gave me a copy of the altered steps.
Although Evanston was only 13 miles from where I was staying, I did not realize that unlike back in L.A., buses don’t run on Sundays out of the suburbs. I called a cab and figured I would either walk back or ask if anyone at the meeting could give me a ride. One of the traditions of my home group is part of the format set by Charlie P. The secretary asks if anyone needs a ride. You see, Charlie believed if anyone could get themselves to a meeting, the fellowship should make sure they would get home. In Evanston, a newcomer graciously provided me a ride back to my hotel.
I was able to attend a few other meetings which ranged from step studies, to round robins to speaker participation. After Toronto and NYC, I was a little disappointed that there was very little fellowship after meetings. I have relied on my We Ag group as my higher power and, hence, how important any and all kinds of fellowship is to me. I would later interpret that as a direct reflection of Quad A’s comfortable position within the local AA establishment.
Another group of WAFT meetings that is a solid part of their local AA establishment are meetings in western Michigan. Kalamazoo is a college and factory town. I had met the founder of the WAFT groups in Kalamazoo via a Google discussion group for Atheists within AA. Curtis is a non-believer who formed the groups in Kalamazoo that meet every day of the week.
Sadly, I was only able to attend one of the meetings in Kalamazoo which was the off season for the college crowd. I was impressed that the group read from both AA literature and non-AA literature. I asked Curtis if he had experienced any issues with listing his groups with his local intergroup/central office. With a big proud grin he told me that he also founded the local central office and that he is the one who does the listings. I was also impressed that the group read from both AA literature and non-AA literature.
This made me think of Rich from Maui, HI. Rich is the local central office manager of Maui and he too would never think of denying ANY meeting the right to be listed in their directories. I left Kalamazoo realizing a few things. Through love and service work, WAFT and all AAer’s can make a place for themselves within AA as a whole.
Both Rich and Curtis’ roles as central office managers showed me that the groups having been denied a place in the AA directories may often have more to do with the prejudices and/or fears of the local intergroup/central office managers and staff and not AA as a whole. AA does not have any issues with WAFT meetings because of the commitment to service work Curtis has given the AA community. No one questions if the Kalamazoo or Maui groups are a part of AA or not.
As we move forward in planning WAFT IAAC, I am inspired greatly by Kalamazoo and Chicago. Their solid ground in AA speaks to the nature of what I envision WAFT IAAC to be, a convention helping those in recovery to find their path within an internationally recognized and legitimate part of AA.
I was moved and impressed with the local WAFT groups I visited and it was a pure joy to finally meet people in person. The most rewarding part of the trip was being able to bust apart people’s feelings of isolation as WAFTs, letting them know their city or their group were not the ONLY places that WAFT could meet, be free to be themselves without the need to hide or lie about their beliefs.
The same reason many of the group founders formed WAFT groups is really the same reason why the steering committee believes that WAFT IAAC is needed. Sadly, WAFTs often are fearful of traditional meetings. There can often be a divide among WAFTs and believers within AA. And, on top of this, most believers don’t even know there is a problem. That is because WAFTs leave the meetings and don’t return, either going out, or, hopefully finding a home group that is sensitive to their beliefs, such as a WAFT meeting. And, if we do find sobriety, we don’t venture back to those meetings to show we can have long term sobriety without having to repeat the dogma and without practicing faith.
“Many Paths to Recovery” is a poignant theme for WAFT IAAC. There may be those who see WAFT IAAC as a pipe dream or an effort to shake up “traditional” AA. But, as one of our Hollywood We Agnostics old-timers said, “This IS real AA.” I envision the convention to be more of the momentum driven by emerging WAFT-style meetings, a cultural shift in AA, one that acknowledges there is no right or wrong way to be sober within AA’s program. To truly practice tradition three and five. If our primary purpose is to help suffering alcoholics, than it MUST mean ALL suffering alcoholics.
Our steps and traditions are our guides, but if there is a misstep, something that drives away non-believers, freethinkers, agnostics and seekers out of AA, then we need to put into action an event that fills that void. Otherwise, we are allowing individual practice that is not only deadly to individual alcoholics but also AA as a whole. This historic convention can begin the dialog that will heal the wounds of AA and will allow for the doors of AA to remain open to EVERYONE!
Yours in Service