My Experience as a GSR

By Thomas B

Recently, I completed a two-year commitment as the GSR for my home group, Beyond Belief, in Portland, Oregon. It was my first experience in AA General Service above the group level since my first decade in recovery. It was also a most rewarding and gratifying experience, a boon for my long-term recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

A bit about myself. I had my last drink on October 14, 1972, and I went to my first AA meeting on the Westside of New York City on October 19, 1972. I’ve been graced, by a higher power that I do NOT understand, to have remained sober in Alcoholics Anonymous ever since.

Being active in AA service work has always been an integral part of my recovery. During the first decade of recovery, I held a number of service positions with AA groups and served as the co-chair of the first New York Young Peoples Conference. I experienced AA in New York City to be fully inclusive and open to anyone who desired to stop drinking, regardless of religious tradition or with no religious beliefs at all.

I also worked for 30 years in prominent positions as a professional in the field of addiction treatment. Due to concerns about being a two-hatter, both a well-known professional in addiction treatment, as well as a person in AA recovery, I felt it would be inappropriate for me to engage in AA General Service work above the group level.

In 2011, my wife and I moved from Woodstock, NY to a small town on the southern seacoast of Oregon. There, we experienced AA to be an evangelical and pietistic Christian cult. We were both shunned and shamed for being non-Christians.

We both had survived severe emotional and physical abuse from our fundamentalist Christian families, so we are agnostic freethinkers. We derive our spirituality from various wisdom and indigenous traditions around the world. Yup, we remain aging devotees of our New Age, hippie generation.

I sometimes describe myself, not too facetiously, as being “an atheist who prays”, at times ceaselessly, not because I believe that some mythical god will answer my frantic prayers, whether for a parking place or what have you, but as an endeavor to calm myself down during periods of distress and disturbance. Of late, I’ve identified as a Nontheist, one who considers the God question as insoluble and irrelevant.

I gratefully found Roger C.’s website, AA Agnostica, which was initiated in Toronto after secular AA groups had been delisted by their Intergroup Office. I became actively involved in this worldwide community of secular members active in Alcoholics Anonymous. I am most grateful to have had a number of articles published there, as well as here on AA Beyond Belief. I am as excited about being sober in today’s Secular AA Fellowship, as I was when I first experienced AA recovery in the 1970s!

After a couple of years in the prejudiced community of southern Oregon, we were able to move up the seacoast to Seaside. We are within a reasonable commute to Portland, a most progressive and urbane city. There on December 1, 2013, we established the Beyond Belief meeting at the Portland Alano Club. It’s a secular AA group, open to members of any belief or none at all. We are a group of freethinking AA members, who focus on staying sober by sharing our stories of experience, strength and hope with each other to not pick up a drink one day at a time.

After we had been meeting for three months with an average of 7 — 10 people attending, we determined that we were a viable group. Therefore, I spoke with the manager of the Portland Area Intergroup about listing our group. Over the next several weeks, we had what he referred to as  friendly “debates” as to  whether of not we were truly an AA group.

He contended that since we used different versions of the 12 Steps, and read from non-conference-approved literature, we were not an AA group. He suggested we form a separate organization, similar to what devoted Christian members have done by forming Alcoholics Victorious or Cerebrate Recovery. Many of his arguments were similar to those that had been used in Toronto and Vancouver to delist secular AA groups in these two Canadian cities.

Being elected GSR of our group, I began attending District 9 monthly meetings in Portland. I was most gratified to receive strong support and encouragement from the DCM and other GSRs for our Beyond Belief secular AA group.

In February of 2014, I attended my first Oregon Area 58 Assembly. My assessment was that much of AA in Oregon was quite different from what I had known in New York. It was much more oriented to a strict, orthodox interpretation of conference-approved materials only. Most especially was there a focus on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which is revered by many as sacred text. I could sense from comments by a number of participants that a number of groups and persons in AA service work were adherents of the growing Back to Basics movement within AA the past 15 or so years. This was sadly reinforced, when the final business meeting ended with the Lords Prayer.

At the next Assembly meeting, I spoke with a former AA Delegate and Trustee about our difficulty getting listed by the Portland Intergroup. She conveyed to me that this shouldn’t be a problem, that she would speak with the Intergroup manager. A couple of weeks later when I next communicated with the manager, he informed me that our meeting was now, indeed, listed.

Throughout the following year-and a-half, the Beyond Belief group enjoyed rapid growth and evolution, which matched the growth of secular AA throughout North America. This was enhanced by the most successful an international convention of agnostic, atheist and freethinking AA members during mid-November of 2014 in Santa Monica, California. At that convention both Phyllis H., then General Manager of GSO, and the Rev. Ward Ewing, former Chair of the AA Board of Trustees, gave keynote speeches endorsing our movement.

By the end of our first year, Beyond Belief moved into the largest room in the Alano Club, since our Sunday meeting had grown to average between 30—35 people in attendance. We, also started a second meeting on Wednesdays in southwest Portland. On the last Wednesday of each month, we host a city-wide meeting of Milestone Celebrations for all secular AA members in the Portland area, who celebrate recovery milestones during the previous month.

In addition, a second secular sobriety AA group, which named themselves Secular Sobriety, was formed on the eastside of Portland. They experienced no difficulty in having their three weekly meetings listed by the Portland Intergroup. Each of their meetings average some 25—30 people attending, so secular AA recovery is thriving in Portland. Recently, a women’s secular group named “She Agnostics” has been formed, as well as a secular ACA meeting.

I continued actively participating in quarterly Assembly meetings of Oregon Area 58, where I shared experience, strength and hope as a secular member of AA with other GSRs, DCMs, Committee members and Area Officers performing AA General Service work throughout Oregon.

I became a member of the Area Hospital Committee, where I took meetings monthly into the Oregon State Mental Hospital. However, after several of these meetings took place with another member, who brought and read from his Bible, I resigned, suggesting to the Hospital Committee Chairperson that reading from the non-conference-approved Bible was perhaps not in accordance with the spirit of AA’s history and traditions, as stated in the Preamble that AA is not affiliated with “any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution.”

In March of 2015, I attended PRAASA in Layton, UT. This was an incredibly rewarding experience, where I shared experience, strength and hope with AA members actively involved in AA General Service from all over the western third of the US.

A highlight was hearing a panel presentation by Ashly M. from Idaho on the topic “Does our Fellowship make Agnostics, Buddhists, Spiritualists, etc., feel welcome in our recovery meetings?” Essentially, her talk related how throughout some areas of North America, especially in rural, small-town areas, AA members with different beliefs from the Christian language of the Big Book are sometimes shunned and shamed. Certainly this happened to my wife and I, when we first moved to the southern coast of Oregon.

Last weekend, I attended my second PRAASA in Spokane, WA. I again was deeply impressed by the dedication I experience from people actively involved in the at times onerous but absolutely requisite work of AA General Service.

By far the most rewarding experience of two years service as GSR of the Beyond Belief group was that I was able to facilitate the following motion to be approved by a substantial unanimity of District 9 voting members:

Oregon Area 58 recommends that AA Grapevine, Inc. publish a collection of previously published stories written by members who are atheists, agnostics and free thinkers that share their experience successfully getting and staying sober in AA.

District 24, where the Secular Sobriety Group in east Portland meets, joined with District 9 to successfully present this motion at the La Grange September, 2015, Area Assembly. There was considerable commentary in support of this motion from the floor during the business meeting. The motion was approved and tabled for final consideration at the November Assembly in Clackamas, Oregon. GSRs were able to take take it back for consideration and discussion by their home groups.

Prior to the November, 2015, Area Assembly, I estimated at best that the motion had a 50/50 chance to achieve the requisite two-thirds majority of voting members for substantial unanimity. However, I was most pleasantly pleased when it received upwards of 90% affirmative votes. It was a testament that AA’s Twelve Concepts of Service — though sometimes maddening and at times onerously time-consuming — do effectively reflect the consensus of the membership of AA through our inverted triangle of General Service.

A final bonus occurred when we gathered in a huge circle around the large ballroom, where the business meeting had been held, and were led in saying “The Responsibility Declaration” by our past Delegate, not the Lords Prayer! This was quite a nice cherry on top of the wonderful two-year’s experience I had with General Service in AA.

Following my experience with PRAASA, I had definitely been bit by the General Service bug, so I threw my hat into the ring to be elected as Alternate DCM for District 9. Opposed to me was a dear friend, Molly.  For three rounds of votes neither of us came close to achieving the required two-thirds majority vote for substantial unanimity to be elected. Therefore, it went to the hat, and Molly’s name was picked to be the Alternate DCM. It was most easy to accept this in accordance with the wisdom of AA’s Twelve Concepts of Service. In my heart, I was content that this was the way it was supposed to be.

As it turned out, just recently I was nominated and elected to serve on the board planning and implementing another International AA Convention of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. This is scheduled to take place in Austin, TX this coming November 11 — 13.  I might very well have not been able to perform this service to our Secular AA Fellowship had I been involved with District 9 duties as Alternate DCM.

In conclusion, I strongly advocate that more of us in secular AA need to actively become engaged at all levels of AA General Service. This is the best way that we can ensure that the hand of AA will always be available for anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help with a desire to stop drinking, regardless of belief or lack of belief.


About the Author, Thomas B.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 43 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder (with his wife, Jill) and current GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.

He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published: 

He and his wife, Jill, live in gainful retirement on disability in Seaside, Oregon with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa, writing and helping to expand secular AA throughout Oregon.

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  1. James O July 14, 2016 at 2:44 am - Reply

    Thomas,

    Great piece and thanks for sharing. I’ve been searching the interwebs on which way freethinker meetings should be designated on intergroup meeting lists. Do you have any experience with this in Oregon? Getting the meeting listed is great, and we have some here in San Francisco already listed but we don’t have a specified designation upon which to filter all freethinker meetings listed. I noticed NYC has one (http://www.nyintergroup.org/meetinglist/meetinglist.cfm?zone=04&borough=M). They have it simply listed as “agnostic.”

    Seems we have a few choices between WAAFT, AAFT, Secular, Agnostic, Agnostic/Athiest/Free Thinkers, etc. I’d like to bring this up at my next intergroup meeting but looking for some guidance or consensus on which is the communally agreed upon designation.

    Personally, if I’m a newcomer “WAAFT” doesn’t mean much to me. And “Agnostic” is just one part of what is represented in our community. I’d think the full “Agnostic/Atheist/Free Thinkers” text is most descriptive and encompassing. Other thoughts are welcomed!

    • Willow July 14, 2016 at 8:33 am Reply

      In the Seattle area, they did not want to add any more special interest designations, so they suggested we instead add it to the meeting name – so we are now “Many Paths – Atheists and Agnostic Friendly”. New people seem to be finding us with this.

  2. boyd p March 16, 2016 at 10:15 am - Reply

    thank god for secular AA”

    Curious how difficult purging theist language from declaratory speech habits can be.  My own experience of rural southern Oregon has been largely positive as regard “cultist Christianity”.  Many Christians attend our counties’ thirty plus meetings, but I have yet (in 5 years) to hear anyone slip into doctrine, with few exceptions.  When they do, they quickly correct themselves!

    As to condescending tone, most of us are guilty, secular or religious. Each of us carries a bit of universal light.  Expressing it is too often problematic. Good luck and lets all keep trying.

    • Gene G. March 16, 2016 at 10:48 am Reply

      Boyd,

      Perhaps when I wrote, ‘thank God for secular AA,’ I should have put in parenthesis – insert sarcasm here.

  3. Gene G. March 16, 2016 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Thomas,

    I identify with your being ‘shunned and shamed.’

    Living in the bible belt of North Carolina, I have been on the receiving end of pats on the back and condescending looks accompanied by words to the effect, ‘There, there. You’ll get it someday.’

    I am currently somewhat discouraged with traditional AA, but I do have an agnostic group in Fayetteville that I attend weekly. I also attend a nontheist Buddhist meditation group on Sundays that serves me well.

    If not for the service of people like yourself, I might have risked leaving the cult religion that passes for AA in my area by now.  However, after eight years, I have become somewhat fond of my sobriety.

    Thank God for secular AA!

    • Thomas B March 16, 2016 at 9:49 am Reply

      Thank you, Gene . . .

      We in Secular AA are in truth more in accordance to how AA has always been than those who would insist that it is only for those who believe in Christianity. I’m most grateful for those whose ardent belief gives them succor — I just wish they would not try to forth their faith down my throat and treat me like I try to treat them with our code of love and tolerance, which Bill W. wrote about on page 84 of the Big Book.

  4. Jerry F March 13, 2016 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Thomas, for an interesting article and for sharing your unique perspective.

    In my first term of two years as a GSR I went to the monthly meeting and was dismayed as a room of 50 – 60 people would fill as about five of them dominated the topics and the discussion. They spoke mostly about mileage compensation for GSRs and DCMs going to assemblies and conventions. I understood very little of what they were talking about.

    Years later I was GSR for another home group and this time, having stayed very active in other AA service work, I understood much more and I participated at the sub-district, district, and area level. I became DCM and felt even more comfortable working in that capacity. I’ve attended three PRAASAs and was stimulated by all of them. AA is, I will always contend, a religion and so, of course, there were religious aspects to all of these service organizations. But my experience is that there was less of that in general service than at my home group.

    Then it was on to the intergroup and my general service work and other specific AA service work made it easy for me to function as an Intergroup Rep and later to serve on the Steering Committee as the intergroup BoD was called. I experienced less god talk at intergroup than I had at general service.

    I was an atheist and I knew very few like-minded people in AA. But then, at every AA meeting I understood that I was participating in a religious activity with congregants practicing their religious beliefs including prayer and devotion. It wasn’t exactly the place to meet fellow skeptics.

    I’m still doing some service work and, between my secular AA meetings I still attend my home group where I am the only non-believer. These people are warm, loving, and accepting of what they call “Jerry and his atheism.” And I accept that this is their religion and they should worship as they see fit.

    So interesting the varying experiences that we bring to secular AA. Especially those who, like you, stay active in service work.

    Thank you, Thomas.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 6:09 pm Reply

      Thanks so much, Jerry. The description of now you are accepted within general AA is akin to what I have experienced throughout most of my recovery — including two years in Tucson, during which time I heard or knew nothing about Wally P. and the “Back to Basics” movement.

      It’s only been since I’ve moved to Oregon and became acquainted through AA Agnostica about what happened in Toronto and Vancouver in 2011 that I became aware of the devolution of AA the past 30-35 years into a predominantly Christian-only point of view throughout much of North America. I surmise that AA has devolved along with the rest of our society and culture to become more seemingly tilted to a conservative right point of view.

      My first PRAASA last year included a panel that demonstrated how shaming and shunning some meetings are to agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in some parts of North America. Both last year and at this year’s PRAASA, I was greatly impressed with how open and inclusive former AA delegates and trustees have been, a good number of them openly agnostic, atheist or freethinking.

  5. John S March 13, 2016 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    Thank you Thomas for writing this article about service in Alcoholics Anonymous. I have never been involved in General Service work until I helped form a new secular AA group in Kansas City. I thought it would be important to get involved in the service structure based upon what I have read from others in the agnostic AA community.

    Though, I had absolutely no understanding of how the AA service structure actually worked, I quickly fell in love with it. The District where our group is located is very supportive of secular AA, and I have tremendous respect for the people who work so hard for the district and the area. I am particularly fond of our DCM Floyd, who is in my opinion the “real deal” when it comes to  AA. He walks the walk. He’s a believer and a good Christian person, and he believes AA ought always be inclusive, and never exclusive.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendation that secular AA groups get involved in General Service, and I also agree that the inverted triangle of AA, does indeed do a good job of representing the individual AA member.

    The AA service structure is a mechanism for change. If we want to make a difference in AA, that is where the difference can be made. The people who are involved in service don’t care about what you believe or not believe, they are just happy to see you join them in the work of AA.

    This was a great article. Thank you so much Thomas. I am grateful for your friendship and for the contributions you make here on AA Beyond Belief.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm Reply

      Thanks, John, and indeed it is a great privilege as well as most rewarding to be working with you in evolving the voice of the secular AA Fellowship throughout North America.

      One of the most poignant points I took from last weekends PRAASA in Spokane, WA this remark made by one of the panelists:

      Bill’s intention through the Traditions and the Concepts of Service was to forge a pathway for deliberating needed change.”

  6. life-j March 13, 2016 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Thomas, thanks. Indeed being a GSR I have seen more openness than as an Intergroup rep. It is nice to see that your intergroup had ennough respect for your DCM to list your meeting. Our DCMC came to our intergroup several times during the year plus that we fought about it, and spoke out in favor of our proposed Freethinker’s meeting, but was ignored. It is indeed a problem that Intergroup is not really answerable to anything or anybody, other than whoever can be maneuvered into position as an intergroup rep, and I guess it is precisely because so few take service at that level seriously that this can be allowed to happen. Nobody wants to do it, nobody thinks that whatever goes on there is particularly important, so it is easy for anyone with an agenda of their own to influence it greatly, at least so long as does not greatly go against business as usual.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 5:42 pm Reply

      Thanks, life-j . . .

      Yes, we were fortunate to eventually get the Portland Intergroup to list the meetings of the two current secular AA groups, Beyond Belief and Secular Sobriety. A third group, a woman’s meeting designated “She Agnostics” has also been meeting the last several weeks, and hopefully soon they will be listed.

      Today, at the Beyond Belief business meeting, one of our members, who is on the Portland Intergroup Board of Directors showed us that both the printed version of the meeting list and the online version refer to the meetings of both secular groups as “atheist/agnostic.”

      We are most fortunate to be making great strides in Portland and the Northwest region through cooperating with Portland Intergroup and the General Service Structure of AA.

  7. boyd p March 13, 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Quite an uplifting story, Thomas, as a GSR and New York transplant to Oregon.  I too was challenged by conservative forces in AA, in the first year of my sobriety.  It was earth shaking, but did not disrupt my daily commitment to stay clean.

    While reading an AA piece used to open a small meeting I inserted a she for he and was immediately interrupted with the hostile question, “is that what’s written?” The attack was electrifying and left me in emotional confusion for months, even years.  My mistake has finally come to clear to me.  If the format of a meeting is to be altered go to the business meeting and make your case.  My bad.  I still have not apologized to the otherwise friendly fellow who boldly interrupted me.

    This lesson has served me well and has informed service as a GSR and now Intergroup involvements. I look forward to understanding differences within the fellowship and even have moments of enlightenment where I see opportunities for AA to create mechanisms that could benefit the world at large.  Pretty grand.  But the Oregon Assembly commitment to a second hearing of minority opinions certainly counts.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 5:24 pm Reply

      Thanks, Boyd, yes, I experienced AA in some parts of Oregon to be radically different to the inclusive AA I experienced in early recovery in New York City. However, on several trips back in the last decade I have been aware that there are groups even in the heart of Manhattan that are just as rigidly dogmatic about the language of the Oxford Group-influenced Big Book and other foundational AA literature, as I encountered on the southern coast of Oregon and that you experienced in your meeting.

      My experience within Oregon Area 58 both regarding the passing of the motion to request this April’s General Service Conference to consider publishing a book of our stories and the treatment of minority voices, as you pointed out, bolsters my confidence in the General Service structure of AA as Bill conceived of it originally in the 12 Traditions with the approval of Dr. Bob  and later expanded upon in the 12 Concepts of Service.

      The two PRAASAs I’ve attended also boost my trust in the slow, at times onerous, process for evolving change within AA in accordance to our history, traditions and concepts of service.

      Is it perfect? No, but it certainly is more inclusive of all voices and points of view, including radically minority voices, than most organizations. Perhaps, the most cogent description of AA’s service structure is the one Bill once described in 1946 as a “benign anarchy.”

  8. Willow F March 13, 2016 at 10:42 am - Reply

    Thank you so much, Tom, for your service and your inspiring accounts of your experience. I also feel “responsible” to offer my service at broader levels than I have before in order to help ensure that AA’s message is accessible and accepting regardless of belief or lack of belief.

    For now, I am keeping myself open to the experience following the path as it reveals itself. I was very glad to have a chance to attend the meeting in Portland – it was really moving to be in a room filled to over spilling with like-minded alcoholics of every age and ilk. Our own homegroup in Burien, WA also doubled in size last week – from 5 to 10! We are also hosting one of the panels at the Burien Little Assembly next weekend and I am excited to see how the conversation will go in our area.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm Reply

      Hello Willow,

      So glad to have met you at the Olympia Northwest Secular AA Fellowship Convention in January and to have you visit the Beyond Belief group in Portland. Congrats on doubling the size of your homegrown in Burien, WA !~!~!

  9. Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) March 13, 2016 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Like Thomas, I think make a personal effort to get involved more than being an armchair quarterback. Many (not all, but many) of the harshest critics of the Twelve Steps are those who haven’t worked them. It’s not that rejecting them doesn’t entitle one to an opinion, but it isn’t the same as someone who’s sharing experience on a topic.

    The same is true about AA (or any 12-Step) service. Some who criticize GSO or AA’s actions or in-actions have never spent any time as part of the framework. Obviously there is a difference between an opinion and an experience.  I had opinions before I got involved and I have opinions now, but they’ve been altered by first-hand experience.

    Of all the people who are exposed to AA only a few will get involved. Of those that get involved in AA culture only a few will get involved in the service structures. It’s worth saying that there is a lot of ways to be of service to our fellows – some work with new members, some go to a lot of meetings, some work on committees, some run websites and podcasts, some support treatments centers and other institutions, a few will engage in the General Service Structure. The great thing is it doesn’t create different classes of members. Everyone gets one vote at a home group business meeting and that’s not going to change with years of sobriety or service.

    I find service to be character building. Working with others is not natural for me; going it alone is more my style. So service work builds muscles that would otherwise suffer from atrophy.

    There is not much god-talk in service. If you find meetings mind-numbing, “God” is only mentioned once in the Traditions and never in the Concepts. There are still egos and personalities to maneuver around in service work (mine is one of them) and often I don’t want to go, but I do. But over the years some of the closest friendships that I’ve formed in recovery are with people I’ve rolled up my sleeves with to do thankless work.

    An unexpected consequence is that  I have seen people’s views change about atheists just from working along side us in committees and in AA work. People fear what they don’t know.  As a result of showing up and putting in my time, others have overcome their knee-jerk reactions to AA atheists. I might have overcome some of my prejudice, too.

    • Thomas B March 13, 2016 at 9:47 am Reply

      Thanks so much, Joe.

      To be truthful knowing about your experience in General Service work was one of the motivations for me to become likewise involved. Thanks exceedingly for your respectful example of being a trusted servant.

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