Tuesday, September 21, 2004

People who normally would not mix...

We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. (from the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, page 17)

That fellowship was evident in abundance last Saturday evening in Chicago.

September 21, 1939 was the first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in Chicago. To commemorate that date, the "All-Chicago Open Meeting" has been established as an annual celebration of sobriety in the Chicagoland area. So it was that about 30 of us from around the Hyde Park meetings gathered for a cookout and fellowship at a nearby church where we meet. Then (stuffed with bratwurst and hamburgs, cake and sweets and pop) we motored down to the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Pavillion, a stadium that seats about 10,000 people. And by the time that the meeting started at 8 PM, I'd say we had the place three-quarters full...seven thousand people easily.

And trust me - we definitely were people who normally would not mix. There were bikers in leathers, preppy Gold Coast types in Tommy & Nautica outfits, people of every nationality in loudly colorful outfits of every description, punks, and goths, and you-name-it - they were there. Old and young, long-hair, short-hair, no-hair, silver-hair, green-hair - a bold and beautiful broad-brush painting of the community of recovery, gathered to celebrate.

Two local AA members spoke, for a total of about 90 minutes...and that was what people really came to hear. To hear that recovery - even from desperate situations brought on by alcohol and drugs - is possible. To hear that long-term sobriety - even through the roughest of times - is possible (and survivable!). To see that seven thousand people (who, in their drinking days, would have likely started a riot if brought together) could joyfully co-exist in an attitude of gratitude.

The sobriety countdown capped off the evening. The evening's moderator started counting down from 65 years of sobriety - and the first person to stand up, at 45 years, got a thunderous round of applause...because we all knew that nineteen fifty-nine must have been a good year for that man. The applause continued, celebrating the people who stood up at every year's anniversary. I was glad to stand and be recognized at 13 years - reflecting that an awful lot of living has happened since my first All-Chicago Open, a year ago this week. I know that nothing I've done or experienced in the last 13 months - in joy or sorrow - would have been possible if I'd not been sober.

As the assembly stood at the end, held hands and said the Lord's Prayer, the words boomed off the walls, and seemed to reverberate straight to heaven - where I trust that a God of love and transforming power smiled. I know I was smiling - and weeping tears of joy - to be present and "in the house," as they say. The gift of being "sunny-side up, suckin' air and sober," as my friend Bob L. would say, was (and is) a gift worthy of celebration.

In retrospect, I wished that I'd invited some of my seminary friends down to experience it - but somehow, I'm not sure that they'd get it. If you haven't been staring down the barrel of alcoholism and addiction, the whole 12-step thing really doesn't make sense to most folks. Last year, I offered to the dean of community at LSTC to set up an AA/12-step workshop for the students - but it was met with little enthusiasm. Which is unfortunate, given that so many of my seminary sisters and brothers will be interning and serving in churches where 12-step groups meet. It's even more unfortunate, given that members of 12-step groups are often a major component at Alpha or other outreach/seeker programs. But I'm sure I'll get the chance to "be of service" at some point.

And now I'm looking forward (planning, but not projecting) to the AA International Convention, next June in Toronto. I was at the 1995 International - where 80,000 AAs and Alanons filled Qualcomm Stadium and spilled all over the city of San Diego for four glorious days. To be honest, I can't wait to head for Toronto!

Thank you God, for yet another gift that I truly do not deserve, and did not earn. Help me to remember this day what a blessed child of yours I truly am - and help me live as if I believe it! Amen.

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