Monday, November 17, 2014

The first biannual WAAFT Convention in Santa Monica, November 6-8, 2014
Having arrived at different times, nevertheless, all four representatives of We Agnostics, Indianapolis were able to have a dinner on the beach together the night before the convention, to hang out and reconnoiter.  We talked about what we thought might happen over the weekend and what our part should be, and frankly, besides the meeting we were leading, none of us knew what to expect.
I was not disappointed one bit and had a great time, mostly because I met and talked to people from all over the country (and world!) about many things and shared our group’s experience, strength and hope.  Our Indianapolis group is semi-famous due to the report about us on the AAagnostica web site which describes our experience as the first group to actually be de-listed by crotchety old intergroup members, and the only group to be de-listed twice! People actually sought us out and came to our meeting to find out more.
Our meeting was one high point for me, but there were many.  I particularly enjoyed meeting two authors I have met online, Joe C. from Toronto and Vince Hawkins (pseudonym) who is a Brit living in Spain.  I had several conversations with them both and enjoyed the connection.  I told Joe C. several times how much our members enjoy his Beyond Belief book and what an important contribution it is.  Vince has written a book that I purchased and will bring to one of our meetings to share.
If you want to see the complete schedule for the convention, go to the convention web site.  I will give you some feedback about the events I attended; although I missed many valuable ones, I’m sure.
The first day, Thursday, was a short day and featured eight speakers, with a break for lunch.  There were also plenty of announcements by two of the convention coordinators, Dorothy and Pam. They were obviously thrilled that their fantasy had been realized.  Two very friendly, high energy people who did a great job!
Joe C. from Toronto was the first speaker and although he was brief (trying to keep us on schedule), his comments were astute.  He claimed to be a reader, not a writer and a listener not a speaker, but he’s obviously comfortable doing all those things.  He impressed upon us that he thinks the current problems in AA are more about language than message and he quoted Caesar Chavez who said “You can’t stop social change.”  He’s optimistic about the future of AA and quipped that once “our” baby-boomer generation dies off, many attitudes will change and AA will open up. 
I enjoyed all the speakers; they represented many ages and backgrounds.  Most gave a brief lead and brought their stories into the present as they explained how they got involved in WAAFT meetings and groups and the importance of that “movement” in AA.  The keynote, Marya Hornbacher’s speech was quite different from the rest, more rehearsed and delivered rapid fire.  She used segments of her books and elaborated as well.  Sometimes she was very funny, sometimes serious and sad.  It was great hearing her; she’s quite a character.  I will check out her books soon.
On Friday I focused on four different events: the Beyond Belief Toronto meeting, chaired by Joe C., the workshop Are WAAFTs Loving and Tolerant?, the Listing Issues Panel, on which our Joe S. served, and our own We Agnostics meeting. 
Joe C. basically set up his Beyond Belief meeting to solicit stories, around 25 people from all over the world. Turns out he’s very popular and well known in our movement!  We went around the circle and told our stories in relation to needing and finding WAAFT meetings and groups.  What a bunch of characters we are!
The Are WAAFTs Loving and Tolerant? workshop was well attended and dealt with how individuals respond to criticism by other AA members, specifically by “believers,” and how it makes them feel.  Do they clam up and storm out, carry resentments, get aggressive and get even, or try to reason with those who confront them?  And how do they feel if they stand up for themselves?  The consensus seemed to be that throughout the AA world, WAAFTs need to start speaking out in traditional meetings so that newcomers know that they can recover without god.  The idea is to present our experience, strength and hope in a manner that does not duplicate those closed minded critics we have all encountered at some point.  I said I was a bit more militant and didn’t mind telling the critics to fuck off!  Ha! I was only half joking.  But I did get a lot out of the meeting and met some lovely atheists!
The Listing Issues panel featured seven speakers who each told his/her story about starting or trying  to start WAAFT meetings in their areas.  A common thread in the stories of those who have had trouble being recognized as legitimate and “listed” is the presence of old timer, grumpy men in the local intergroups.  More than anything, those people stand in the way.  It seems only the Quad A groups in Chicago have met with no resistance.  Our Joe S. presented admirably and explained what happened and what we had to do to finally be listed and applauded a number of people outside Indy We Agnostics who helped cajole Indianapolis Intergroup.  We certainly have a good story to tell!
The three common issues that have caused controversy between WAAFT groups and local their intergroups are: 1) certain passive aggressive (or downright aggressive!) personalities, 2) the use of non-AA approved literature in meetings, and 3) being affiliated with “outside AA” groups of any kind.  This last point was new to me, but Deirdre from NYC explained that her group was not accepted by intergroup initially because they were listed on a non-AA web site (their international site).  I guess that was also part of our problem.  Basically, when grumpy men don’t want to list a group, they create reasons not to.  Silly old men!
The four of us representing We Agnostics Indianapolis all attended OUR meeting (obviously) and met eight others who sought us out and wanted to share their stories and to find out more about us and our meeting.  This was very sweet and we had an excellent meeting!
Everyone had unique, interesting backgrounds and histories.  Although we followed our usual meeting format, the sharing mostly consisted of mini-leads and questions about how to start and expand new non-theist meetings.  A man from Traverse City, Michigan gave us a good example of how backward-thinking intergroup members can passively/aggressively derail new WAAFT meetings.  For months his meeting was listed as a meeting for gays and Native Americans and when he discovered it he couldn’t get them to change it!  He’s still trying!
People at our meeting from Las Vegas, a small city in Arizona, and somewhere in North Carolina all needed to find friends in recovery and I told them that they didn’t have to call it AA initially, if their priority was meeting like-minded people who want recovery.  Joe reminded them that even before AA intergroup gets involved, a meeting web site or blog can be set up so newcomers searching for a WAAFT meeting can find it through Google. 
Saturday, the last day of the convention, I slept in a bit and started with the Relapse Panel at 1:30, after an interesting Subway-catered lunch shared with several Californians, including one of the volunteers who had spoken harshly to me when I first arrived because I was taking pictures of the facility.  She didn’t want me to take pictures of any anonymous person, evidently.  I guess she forgave me and we had a good lunch time conversation.  Later, I saw many folks taking pictures of people!
The first event I attended was the Relapse Panel.  Lots of people were there!  J  There were four speakers and one of them stood out for his unconventional ideas.  Steve P. from L.A. spoke first and he told his story about relapsing after nine years sober.  He basically got tired of all the dogma in AA, went out again, and had come back to the WAAFT meetings just four months ago.  He said a number of things you don’t normally hear in AA and the ones that struck me most were, “Alcoholism is not a disease, it’s a choice.” He also thinks that traditional AA overdramatizes relapse and exaggerates the progressive nature of alcoholism.  He was obviously glad to be sober again, however. He closed by saying what is important to him is having a sober social support group without the dogma.
The other three speakers all had interesting stories and all had relapsed after many sober years.  Their stories were much more typical and similar to ones we have all heard in meetings.  Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and being a dry drunk were the common themes, as well as isolation and getting away from meetings and the fellowship.
Next I attended the Canadian Panel.  Mostly I went to hear Joe C. because he is one of the movers and shakers in the WAAFT movement.  The speakers were Joe C. and one other man (whose name I forget) and they discussed AA’s problems and the way forward.  One of Joe’s main points was that nowhere in the AA literature is there a “program” specified or defined (the steps are merely suggestions, for example), but there is plenty of information about the importance of “the fellowship.”  And yet “the program” and the fellowship have become intertwined and interdependent over the years and because of this AA has become rigid.  He noted that the “the program” was never intended to be sacred. Therefore he believes that every individual should select whatever program works, and that program can include traditional step work, therapy, exercise, new hobbies, etc. But he believes that the fellowship, one alcoholic helping another, is essential for long-term sobriety.
There was also a discussion about the necessity for non-believers to learn to translate the language of the Big Book, because the real problem is semantics: intent verses wording.  Joe believes that the intention of the AA authors has always been our primary purpose – to help alcoholics stay sober.  He did suggest, however, that people avail themselves of all the new literature about recovery including the AA Grapevine publications.
The 3:30 panel was entitled Web Servants and featured four speakers, all of whom have been instrumental in getting news and information out to WAAFTs all over the world.  Deirdre S. spoke about her web site, the site that lists world-wide AA WAAFT meetings.  Her AA group started that web site soon after 9/11 and they were written up in the New York Times as a result.  After trying out several different formats, they decided to just keep it simple and only list meetings.  She had the figures for the number of alternative AA meetings and was excited by their progress:  36 in 1996, 181 in 2014!
Roger and Joe C. shared their experience starting and running Rebellion Dogs publishing and  Joe made the comment that social media works only when it promotes community and fails when it doesn’t. As an example, he then asked who still uses My Space and noted that Face Book has lost many of its younger members recently because all their parents use it!  He mentioned his pod casts and music show as well and suggested the “do it yourself” approach for getting information onto the internet (and touted its effectiveness).  
Roger recounted AAAgnostica’s history, how rapidly it has grown and how much information people are submitting.  He has definitely contributed greatly to helping non-theists seeking recovery!
John S. from Kansas City described how he developed his web site to get the word out about his meeting and how difficult it has been to find non-believers in recovery in Kansas City.  I like his design!
Joseph O. developed the WAAFT Convention web site as one of his many IT projects and praised the convention’s directors for giving him the opportunity.  He said the internet can provide great ways to communicate and each project he develops is different, depending on his audience.
The final event of the convention was our Keynote Speaker, Reverend Ward Ewing, an episcopal priest who has served as a “lay” member of the advisory committee for the General Service Office for many years.  He was a lovely guy, very down to earth (originally from Virginia?), who obviously has a deep understanding of AA and the issues it faces.  Choosing him to speak was indicative of the convention theme: Many Paths to Recovery, which emphasize inclusiveness.
I thought his speech dwelt a little too much on explaining the obvious, as he spent significant time paraphrasing and elucidating the significance of the steps. That was unnecessary for this audience of mostly long-time sober people, and just seemed to be filling up the allotted time.  He obviously is devoted to AA and to changing and expanding its role so it does not drive people away and he seemed to agree with many of the WAAFT members present.  Fini!