This episode features a conversation with Lena R. from the We Agnostics Group in North Bay, Ontario. Lena discusses her experience of working with her District to approve a request to add the “secular” category for her group on the Area meeting directory. After considering Lena’s arguments, the District voted unanimously to approve the group’s request. This is an uplifting story about one group’s involvement with their local AA community and General Service.
00:00 John S: This is episode 111 of AA Beyond Belief, the Podcast.
00:13 John S: Today we’ll meet Lena R from the We Agnostics Group in North Bay, Ontario. Lena’s group recently won the unanimous approval from her District to add the secular category by her meeting listing on the Area website. It’s an interesting story and I think it’s one worthy of preserving for history. So without further ado, Lena R from We Agnostics Group, North Bay, Ontario.
00:48 John S: How are you doing, Lena?
00:49 Lena R: Oh, I’m fabulous, thank you, how are you?
00:51 John S: I’m doing great. I think you have an interesting and useful story about how you and your group worked with your District and your Area to overcome some obstacles that you were originally facing with having the secular designation listed on your meeting directory and I thought it would be nice to preserve this story for the sake of history, but also to help others who might be facing similar situations. So would you like to talk about that today?
01:13 Lena R: Oh, certainly.
01:14 John S: Let’s start by talking about you. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and about your first AA meeting and what was going on in your life at the time?
01:23 Lena R: Sure, sure, yeah, well, so I started… Basically, my problem with alcohol and drugs started in Toronto and things were really going off the rails for me, but I always knew that I was not even considering AA because of the God stuff, but it just so happened that one time I was having that conversation with somebody and they had heard of Secular AA in Toronto and as soon as I heard that my mindset changed from like, “Oh, I guess I’ll just keep going down the rabbit hole of drinking to, okay, maybe there’s some hope for me here,” so I searched it up online and in Toronto at the time, this is about maybe four or five years ago, there was a very healthy selection of secular meetings there, there was about I think six or seven a week, so it took me a while to get to my first one but eventually I did.
02:19 Lena R: I went to the Tuesday night group at St. Clair Avenue and needless to say my first meeting was a bit of an emotional mess, I think it is for a lot of us, but I remember leaving the meeting with my 24-hour chip in my hand and just feeling like, “Oh, there’s a chance for me here.” I was really grasping on to something. Unfortunately it wasn’t all uphill from there, I still had a couple more relapses to go through, and it’s really hard to… It was hard for me to make it in Toronto, because I didn’t have family. All the people I was staying with people I was… People I was with had toxic relationships with, for example, and it was really hard to make ends meet, so I just had so much to worry about.
03:06 Lena R: So, after struggling for probably about a year there in Toronto going to meetings, learning about the program but still struggling, I decided to move to North Bay because that’s where my mom is, so I had the opportunity to not work for a while, just go to rehab and just focus on myself. So there’s a lot of privilege in that sense for me in getting sober, but anyway, so.
03:32 John S: I think that’s interesting that you would not go to AA if it weren’t for a secular meeting.
03:39 Lena R: Yes, absolutely. Oh, I’m just… I’m really hard-headed and I know what I believe. I’ve been an atheist all my life, so I was so glad that was available to me.
03:51 John S: Well, I find the same thing in our group. I would say now, I’d say over half of the people that go to meetings at our group haven’t even been to a meeting with prayers and so forth. They wouldn’t even go to AA if they didn’t have this opportunity, so that’s kind of interesting.
04:09 Lena R: Yeah, absolutely.
04:11 John S: How did your group We Agnostics get started in North Bay? Did you play a part in that or was it already going when you arrived in North Bay?
04:18 Lena R: Yeah, so when I came back to North Bay, unfortunately there was only traditional meetings, so that was my first rodeo with the traditional meetings, because I wanted to go, I wanted to find my people in North Bay and so I was probably attending those for about a year, but of course I did encounter lots of problems with that. The worst for me was constantly being pulled aside after the meeting, someone like, “Oh, can I talk to you?” And they’d tell me about God and be like, “I was an atheist when I came into the program too,” but eventually I had pretty much had enough. I also had some other negative experiences in the program and I just thought it was time for me to carry the message as I had received it. So starting it up, just the logistics of getting a meeting space and all that stuff was basically done just by me.
05:10 Lena R: Finding a location was interesting because obviously we don’t want to have it in a church and in North Bay your options are more limited than in Toronto, I would say. We actually had one United Church that was willing to host us but thankfully we were actually able to get to, I guess, enter an agreement or whatever with an art gallery. So we started meeting, yeah, at the White Water gallery for free, they’re very generous. And yeah, and so I started that meeting, I think about two years ago and thankfully very quickly we picked up a couple of key players who do service for the group and yeah, so now we have a happy little group two years later.
05:54 John S: That’s great and at your group you read a secular version of the steps like they do in Toronto?
06:02 Lena R: Yes, exactly.
06:03 John S: Are they steps that your group created for themselves or is it that you adapted the Toronto steps?
06:09 Lena R: We got them off of… I think, I can never remember the name of the website but I think the website is AA Beyond Belief, unless I’m just channeling your podcast right now, yeah.
06:19 John S: Probably got it from AA Agnostica. They have a… We link to them from AA Beyond Belief, yeah.
06:26 Lena R: Right, yeah, so I just took the steps right off of there, and I’m pretty sure that’s the same one that they use on the Tuesday night group in Toronto.
06:32 John S: So I guess when you did that, did you have any… When you started your group and you were using these alternative steps, did you have any push back at all from the traditional AA people, the District, the Area?
06:44 Lena R: I mean, people definitely were not thrilled about our existence. [chuckle] But it was mostly in the beginning, more of just a passive-aggressive thing, because they couldn’t stop us from forming the group. The real controversy started coming along when we started asking for things. [chuckle] Like when we first asked to be listed on the meeting cards. We didn’t have much of a discussion about it at the time, but there was very suspicious delays in getting us listed on on the meeting cards. They had printed two new batches of meeting cards. They’d be like, “Oh, sorry, we forgot.” [chuckle] But anyway, that was still pretty much fine, but it wasn’t until recently when I emailed the Area website and asked them if they would list us with a secular category on their website, they have categories for an LGBTQ meeting and stuff like that. So I thought it was more than appropriate. But then they were like, “Oh, well, we’re going to have to talk about that at the Area meeting.” And it became this whole thing, because I sent that request on May 7th of 2018. So there was a lot of delays with it. Then they said District would have to gain more information and stuff like that.
08:04 Lena R: And ultimately, what ended up happening a couple of months ago was then they started questioning our use of the steps, they came in to our business meeting, apparently to information gather about why we would ever want this category and at the same time, they started saying like, “Well, you know, how did that human rights complaint go in Toronto? We need more information, we don’t really know if you can use alternative steps.” So we definitely interpreted that almost like a threat, if you would have kept quiet we would have let have your steps, but that’s what we got for being rabble-rousers.
08:37 John S: And your Area is it’s not the same Area as Toronto’s in, is that right?
08:45 Lena R: Yes, yeah.
08:46 John S: because I was wondering… So you were probably the only secular group in your Area?
08:53 Lena R: Yeah, so we’re in Area 84, which encompasses North Bay, Sudbury and surrounding Area. And, yeah, as far as I know, this is the first time that it has come up at that level.
09:03 John S: Okay, you know, that’s really interesting. This is something that I haven’t actually broached with our Area or District, or even our inter-group, they all list meetings here. At one time we asked our central office if they would put an agnostic atheist at the time, a designation for our group and they said, “Oh, this isn’t a good time, but why don’t you come back and ask us later?” And it seems like there’s never really been a great time, and we haven’t really been pushing it that hard. I have not yet asked our Area to do that, but one of our meetings is called the Secular AA speaker meeting, and they list it that way, so I don’t think they have a problem with the word secular. But what kind of obstacles were you given when you were asking for that designation and they weren’t wanting to do that?
09:53 Lena R: I’d love to get into this because, yeah, they had a lot of arguments that I just thought were so silly. Among them, they were suggesting that people might not understand the word “secular,” which for me is totally irrelevant because it doesn’t change the significance of the word. And as the secular AA community becomes not more popular but more known and exists more, more and more people are going to understand the word, and of course, somebody who’s an agnostic or atheist is more likely to know the word secular, or they can Google it, or we have dictionaries. [laughter] There’s solutions.
10:31 John S: Yeah.
10:31 Lena R: And another thing, too, is they had… This one guy came to our meeting and he was like, “Have you heard of the Washingtonians?” And I hadn’t and I was really frustrated because he kind of used it as an opportunity to make me look like I didn’t know enough about AA. Anyway, I started looking into it, and the Washingtonians, they advocated for the abolition of slavery and prohibition, alongside their work with alcoholism. And as far as I understand, I think that they did great work as well, but to compare this situation to the Washingtonians and to say that we’re going to be doomed is to me completely ridiculous.
11:10 John S: Yeah.
11:11 Lena R: And then another thing that came up… Well, there’s two more. The first thing is that they were concerned that the use of this category would be divisive. And I just kept hammering home the point that this isn’t what makes AA divisive, traditional AA is already divisive and that’s why these secular groups keep popping up. And the final argument was that people could guess we were secular, based on the name, which I think is completely unfair because unless you’re familiar with the Big Book… We as We Agnostics just to tie in to the Big Book and because I think it’s like a traditional secular AA name, I guess, but, you know, unless you’re familiar with the Big Book, you’re not going to know. We have another group in our Area called Came To Believe, and I used to think maybe that was a secular group. How do we know this difference? And the onus shouldn’t be on us and every group that follows to make it obvious and there’s like two more titles…
12:09 John S: That’s right. That’s right, we shouldn’t really have to do that. And the We Agnostics name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s secular because there was one guy who came to our group but he thought it was just a group that was excited about the chapter, We Agnostics. [laughter] And then I actually was at the Florida State Convention once and they had a seminar or whatever, a meeting called We Agnostics, and I thought, “Oh, this is really interesting. This is going to be a secular meeting.” And I went there, and no, it was all about the chapter We Agnostics and how great it was. [chuckle]
12:45 Lena R: Oh, no.
12:47 John S: It doesn’t necessarily… The name, but I think that probably when groups started call themselves We Agnostics it was kind of a code word to let people know it was a non-religious meeting. What I find funny about the word secular and what I think that people would object to is that it would imply that their meetings are not secular but, you know, that never seems to bother them. It’s like they admit, “Yeah, we’re not, we’re not secular at all.”
13:14 Lena R: Yeah, absolutely. Well, even in the human rights complaint in Toronto, how the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup did essentially try to argue that they were a religious organization, so there’s obviously elements of that even if some AAs want to try and deny it.
13:30 John S: So you did this that both the District level and the Area level?
13:34 Lena R: Oh, so basically, this is technically still happening at the District level, and they’re going to bring it to Area. But to me, I consider it pretty much a done deal, because after all this happened, I wanted to make a presentation to District, and I decided I was just going to be… I’m going to stop trying to dance around the issue here, I’m going to directly say, “Hey, here’s all the things that you’re doing that are wrong, here’s what it feels like bullying to us, and if you really support our existence as a group, you would support this modest motion.” So I did that and thankfully, the two people who were originally sent to our group to kind of… I guess like get in the ring with us and present counter arguments actually changed their minds.
14:23 Lena R: And the thing that was most remarkable is that there is one man in particular who was in the service structure, and I think people have respect for him and part of it is like, dare I say, white male privilege as well, but he turned around and he said, “You know, I’ve thought about it, I was totally wrong. I’m sorry, and we should support this. Yes.”
14:45 John S: Wow.
14:47 Lena R: And then the whole room flipped. So then, we decided to vote on a motion, but the District was going to support our request at the Area level, so everybody voted yes on that, except for one person who abstained.
15:02 John S: Oh, wow.
15:03 Lena R: And yeah… And also, somebody in the room put up their hand last minute and was like, “Do you also want to be… Have a secular category on the District meeting card,” which wasn’t even something we had asked for. So that passed as well, but I feel pretty confident that when they bring this to the next Area meeting and they’re all in support of it, I feel like they’re going to pass it.
15:24 John S: I bet so. Now, do you attend Area assemblies yourself?
15:29 Lena R: I haven’t yet. I’m thinking I should maybe go to the next one, but…
15:32 John S: Yeah.
15:33 Lena R: Sounds like a real bore. [chuckle]
15:35 John S: It kind of is. [chuckle] To a certain extent it is, it’s like… I kind of jokingly say it’s kind of like being at war because it’s like they always describe war as being long periods of boredom broken up with short periods of excitement or action or whatever. That’s kind of what it’s like because you’ll spend like all day long in some boring committees talking about minutiae and so forth, but then all of a sudden, there’s something that’s really exciting that happens like getting your designation on the media list or whatever. [chuckle]
16:09 Lena R: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I definitely think that they might have a bit more participation just to witness the drama of our secular group.
16:17 John S: Right, right. And it is actually kind of… I guess what I like about it… I’m totally bored by all the committee meetings, for sure, but I do kind of like the little conversations I have with people between the meetings and so forth, and you do… You have that opportunity to kind of educate people about what your meeting’s about and so forth, and for me, I don’t attend regular meetings so it’s my only exposure to the thinking that is going on out there with people from traditional groups, because I’ll be talking to them about our literature, what I think about it, and they get like… They can’t believe I just said that, something like that. [chuckle] It’s like…
16:58 Lena R: Yeah.
17:00 John S: And it helps me realize that… Really why we do need our groups because… If I didn’t have the opportunity to talk about my recovery with other people like me, and I had to somehow either fit in with, or go against the grain all the time, I just couldn’t do it.
17:21 Lena R: Absolutely. And it’s so funny to see it like how weirdly revolutionary it is just to stand up and be like, “I’m an atheist and I’m sober.” It’s like the whole room… A chill goes over the room. [chuckle]
17:32 John S: I know. It is kind of funny. because… I guess that people… They buy into the book, they think, “Okay… ” because everybody talks up the Big Book so much. It’s not like a terrible book, but I think that the way that people put so much talk into it as if it’s all, you know, we all have to follow it 100%. And I guess if they do that, they look at the chapter with the agnostics and they think think that obviously an atheist or an agnostic, even the 12 and 12, we have to change if we’re going to be sober, and we actually proved them wrong, that’s not the case.
18:06 Lena R: Yeah. And that’s a big problem for me in terms of my own… I have my own internal struggles when it comes to accepting the beliefs of other people, because if you believe something and it helps you stay sober and it’s not hurting anyone, great. But I think in a way, believing in Christianity or things like that can go hand in hand with seeing the Big Book as in a way being from the mouth of God in a sense like God spoke through Bill W, and then we don’t have the opportunity to question the things that they said in the original text.
18:43 Lena R: To me, the idea that they didn’t get anything wrong on the first go round is ridiculous, but unfortunately, we still have to battle within the framework of what Bill W said and what Dr. Bob said, and thank heavens, there is this quote from the General Service Conference, the third one, where Bill W said something about how a lot of groups that use alternate steps are still groups because otherwise, we would just have to convince people that what they wrote was not gospel, and it’s just… To me, it’s silly and it’s unfair.
19:12 John S: Yeah. I read that in the letter that you wrote. I think you wrote it for your District.
19:17 Lena R: Yes.
19:18 John S: When you were trying to convince them to go ahead and accept this idea, and you mentioned that quote from Bill W. And I thought that was really a well-written letter, and I thought your arguments were presented really intelligently, and in a way that it would be really difficult for someone to say no, because you did tell the truth, I mean, Bill W and even Dr. Bob, they were not as strict about the Big Book even as the people are today. And a lot of people kind of forget that they even wrote in that book, that we only know a little bit, we’re going to know more later on. And people kind of forget that and they tend to, for whatever reason, think that it has to be just this way as it was in that book, but it doesn’t.
20:09 Lena R: Yeah, I remember reading in the book called, Don’t Tell, I think that’s published by Roger C.
20:18 John S: That’s right.
20:18 Lena R: Don’t quote me on that, okay. But anyway, somebody said in that book to say that traditional AA is the only thing that works is saying that because penicillin was the first effective antibiotic it’s the only effective antibiotic, which is so silly, and I wish that we could just open up our horizons. I try to keep hammering the point home about our primary purpose to help the alcoholic that still suffers because ultimately, people don’t get drunk because there’s a secular meeting listed on their meeting card, it just doesn’t happen.
20:49 John S: Well, there are other groups that have had problems like this, and some even more serious, I know there’s a group in Illinois, the Many Paths group, where their District wouldn’t list them on their meeting directory, because they were… Because their group was also listed on the secular AA website meeting directory, yeah, they’re still trying to work that out. And then the Free Thinkers group in Denver, the Denver Central Office won’t list their meetings because they just don’t like them, they said that they don’t want a newcomer’s first impression of AA to be the Free Thinkers group. Yeah.
21:31 Lena R: Oh, my gosh, all I can say on that is, thank heavens that that work has been done in Toronto, because without that, we would all still just be scrounging in the dark, but I think we can all reference that. And I don’t know if anybody’s tried to do this, but I would think if you just emailed New York AA World Services directly and said, “Hey, we’re having a problem just like the people in Toronto had. Can you tell our Area that they need to list us?” I feel like there’s a chance that would work, I don’t know, I haven’t tried it.
22:05 John S: I think it would, I think it would more now after the lawsuit in Toronto, because before that, the position of the General Service Office was basically, they weren’t going to intervene in a local central office’s decision, because that central office isn’t really part of the general service structure, and that all that the General Service Office does is share their experience or whatever, but I think now because of that lawsuit, I think that they would be more likely to say, “Oh, yeah, you should list them.” I mean, that’s our experience for sure, is to list those groups. Besides that, the General Service Office is now listing secular AA as a special international contact, along with the international conference of young people in AA, gays and lesbians in AA and other special interest groups. That might help as well, so that if anyone really wants to see, are we a legitimate special interest group, they can just check it out.
23:01 Lena R: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And I can only hope that, when we had this whole battle come up, in a way it was actually really exciting for me. Like it was the opportunity we were waiting for because this is, if we hadn’t had this battle about getting our category, we wouldn’t have been having these discussions and ultimately, now we’ve convinced a room full of people that we’re a real AA meeting and so yeah, in a way it’s good that all these fights are happening now because at least we have everything on our side, we have quotes from Bill W and we have the human rights complaint and we have just logic and empathy and just so many reasons to do this. So for me, maybe it’s just because I enjoy being a mouthy activist, but I had a great time with this.
23:51 John S: And actually, it’s really good work that you’re doing too, because it’s going to help a lot of people. The number of people that don’t believe in God is just growing all the time, people when they go to a AA meeting and they’re confronted with this whole idea that they have to change their belief system, they would just rather say no, thank you, so it’s nice that you are letting people know that this meeting is secular. You can see it right here. It’s like are you going to get that designation, and also it’s AA. So do you feel like your group and you are part of AA just like any other group?
24:33 Lena R: Oh, that is the perfect question. I will say I definitely did not feel that way one iota, until we had this District meeting, where everybody turned around, I was so divorced from the humanity of the people in that room just because it was such a constant struggle. Just like… We’re constantly having to justify our own existence, and it got to the point where we had people from the service structure coming into our meeting, and they’re allowed to be there, but they’re being disrespectful jerks, because they’ll start trying to convince us about why they believe in God, and we know why they’re there. So. But I mean, there is really something to be said for the fact that they reconsidered what they were saying. They apologized to us and just last week, I went to a traditional meeting for the first time in many, many, many months and I felt pretty good about it, so I’m really glad this happened.
25:30 John S: Well, good, yeah, it’s like these things, there’s always a silver lining in these things and it’s a really nice story because the people listen to you and they change their minds. And then you had a unanimous vote at the end and they basically, they did the right thing. And I’m glad too that you and your group have had the experience that you feel like you’ve kind of reconciled and feel like you’re more part of AA now. Our group has not had anything like this, and a lot of the people that go to our group have never been to another AA meeting and would not go to another AA meeting, and I sometimes think that they don’t really feel like they are AA, they feel like they’re something separate from the rest of AA, and I wish that there, I wish that I could maybe, I wish I could do a better job of explaining to them how this is a special interest group. We are AA, but I guess it’s just because everybody… Everybody thinks that to be in a AA meeting, you’ve got to have these steps. You’ve got to read this book. And that’s just really not true. That’s not true at all.
26:40 Lena R: Yeah, and I think we do put a lot of… Not we. Traditional AA puts a lot of pressure on atheists, agnostics and freethinkers to do their mental gymnastics around the wording and around the books and just kind of accept that they do count, but it’s almost like all the evidence around you is to the contrary. Thankfully, there are secular AA groups and just people who think differently, who hopefully the more of them that there are, the more our experiences are shared, like in the grapevine as well. Hopefully, it will all start feeling a little bit more connected.
27:13 John S: Yep, I’ve seen a lot of change over just the last four or five years with first of all the Grapevine Edition that came out where they had the stories from atheists and agnostics. And then you had the publication of the book for atheists and agnostics. And then the God Word pamphlet. That and now secular AA getting listed as an international contact for AA World Services. So, that’s some big stuff. That’s a lot of change in just the last four or five years.
27:44 Lena R: Oh, it’s beautiful.
27:45 John S: Yeah, and prior to that, I’ve been in the program for a long time. And I spent literally decades, not really as a believer but just trying to fit in with what everybody was saying. And I got to where I couldn’t do it anymore. Especially when my… Oh, am I atheist? I just really came to accept I was an atheist and I felt very comfortable with it. And I was very comfortable with a secular interpretation of the program and my recovery, I felt like that’s what I was doing all along anyway. So the more that I accepted my own atheism, the more difficult it was. And really, I couldn’t any longer, I couldn’t just pretend to be anything else, you know?
28:26 Lena R: Oh, absolutely. I actually wrote a letter to the Grapevine a couple of years ago and back then, I was still calling myself an agnostic and they just published it. And it’s kind of funny to see but ultimately I know deep down in my heart that me saying… And don’t get me wrong, being agnostic is completely valid in and of itself.
28:46 John S: Sure.
28:46 Lena R: But for me, I knew it was just my way of compromising with AA to try and mold myself into their program and ultimately fully coming into my identity as an atheist has really strengthened my sobriety and just my quality of life.
29:00 John S: So tell me about the letter to the Grapevine.
29:02 Lena R: Oh, so I wrote it right after they published the atheists and agnostics members of their issue of Grapevine. And basically, I just told them how thankful I was that they posted that and that I ordered 12 copies of it, which I did. [chuckle] I don’t really know what prompted them to publish it this month, but I’m glad that they did. And it was rather good timing because it happened right after this whole District debacle and people have to contend with the fact that I’m a real member. [chuckle]
29:33 John S: So, it’s in this month’s Grapevine?
29:36 Lena R: Yeah, the April issue. Yeah.
29:37 John S: Oh, cool. I’ll have to check that out. Well, that’s neat.
29:40 Lena R: Yeah, it is pretty neat. I’m excited about my new fame.
29:44 John S: Well, thank you, Lena. This really has been a nice story. And I appreciate you taking the time to share it with us. Do you have any other thoughts that you want to share before we…
29:56 Lena R: No, I just wanted to say thanks so much for having this podcast. I’ve been bingeing it this whole last week [chuckle] and it’s been so useful to me. I love it so much.
30:04 John S: Well, thank you. Thanks a lot. I was for a long time, I was doing these every single week. And it seems like for the last few months I have not been very consistent and I’m going to try to get back into it because I do enjoy it. I just like these conversations. To me, this is like the best meeting that I have of the week. So anyway, thank you for listening to those. I appreciate that.
30:24 Lena R: Oh, of course. Of course. Thank you so much.
30:26 John S: Bye-bye. Take care.
30:29 Lena R: Okay. Bye.
30:35 John S: And that concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief. Thank you everybody for listening. I appreciate your support. We’ll be back again real soon with another great podcast. Until then, you all take care. Be well, we’ll talk again real soon.