Twenty-two years ago, I never imagined I would be offering a prayer before your children. I know you know, but it is good for me to tell you. Of course you know. You watched me struggle for a long time. You put people in my path who helped me. My willingness to accept and grow from your guidance and grace saved me from myself. That willingness did not come easily.
Before my recovery, I never imagined I would spend so much time in your churches. I was raised a free-range agnostic. My family passed along the social justice of a Unitarian-Universalist tradition. For the few years I was at Sunday school, I learned the importance of spiritual principles and was given a brief introduction to the established religions. I’m grateful, for long after my family stopped attending, I had an early appreciation of history.
Years later and deep into my adulthood, I realized I had a serious problem with alcohol. After many attempts to cut down or even quit drinking, my spouse and family left me. I was devastated by the loss. I knew after so many lies and broken promises that my wife was never coming home.
The pain of causing the breakup of what I considered the most precious part of my life dogged me for almost seven years. During that time, I managed periods of sobriety and sought the elusive eye of my inner storm of shame, fear, guilt and remorse.
Eventually I turned to the only solution left to me—the insanity of ending the agony of being alive. Instead of following through with my suicidal impulse, I surrendered to my parents, who escorted me to the hospital emergency room and a detox bed. That was where my recovery began and where Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) found me.
Although I was now in a teachable state, I still had a long and deeply held resentment towards organized religion in general. Don’t get me wrong, I would have willingly stood on the steps of your mosque, temple or church to protect others’ right to worship—but going inside, closing the distance between myself and a house of God, was another matter. Yet, I would soon find that AA would bring me off the steps and into the building.
AA had long brought their meetings to houses of faith—not because members were converting to those faiths, but because our mission of community service is compatible with yours (not to mention that the rent is usually cheap). So, I found myself desperate and visiting these churches multiple times a day.
My first home group meeting—the meeting that I aim to attend without fail and where my service to AA lives—was at 7 a.m. In the same church six days a week there was also a noon meeting and a 5:30 p.m. meeting. Some days I sought sanctuary and reassurance at all three events. As members of the fellowship who had recovered helped me to work the spiritual program of recovery, I found myself attending other meetings throughout the city, suburbs and countryside. I was no longer going to meetings “because I had to.”
I had always been interested in the history of religion, because, after all, some form of spiritual practice had always been a central part of human history. Now, gradually, I learned how to forgive myself by understanding that religions, at their best, were wonderful sanctuaries of spiritual learning and centres for community services. Religions, at their worst, were human institutions most vile and contrary to their ancient tenets. I now had “the wisdom to know the difference.” My resentment abated.
In my recovery, I became a friend of every church I frequented, every congregation I got to know. I did service work to help the churches and relaxed at celebrations, weddings, memorial services and baptisms my friends invited me to attend. My second marriage was even presided by an Old Catholic minister and, within their tradition, my adult children took communion. Many of the souls who enter your sacred spaces may never consider themselves to be Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, United, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Methodist, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, of Indigenous religion, Hindu, Sikh or any of the myriad ways your people have come to know you—but as Creator, you know that the depth of love that people like us have found for you and for your people through this simple gift of hospitality. And as your faithful members have reeled from losing access to their sanctuaries, their networks of support—so have we.
We’ve all lost a lot. The toll of this pandemic continues its horrendous march over our planet. At present I have lost a dear family member to this disease—49 years old with no underlying preconditions. In recent days I have talked to several people in my life who have also had loved ones taken from them. At the same time, the coronavirus is indirectly taking its toll in our communities—from unvaccinated children to untreated mental illness and addiction, from delayed “elective” surgeries to the subjects of domestic violence. The numbers have yet to be tallied of negative health consequences with unfortunate outcomes on the horizon. But we should be prepared for many to show up at the church’s doors—some to the front, some to that side door that leads into the parish hall’s basement. You know, God, as I know from my own life, that spiritual suffering can bring profound change. It will bring people in.
To your church, God, I ask that plans to reopen be accompanied by the awareness that, among our fellowship, the lease of a quiet room or an unused hall means that we can offer a message of hope. Your open doors and clean basements have seen many thousands of hopeless people rise from the ashes of calamity. Resurrection is possible.
God, I want to thank you for houses of faith. Thank you for allowing them to play a part in your grand design. Thank you for their tolerance and the patience you have shown us, for we certainly can be unlovely creatures when we wash ashore. And thank you for allowing us your grace to renew our lives to play a part in your grand design.
Finally, one thing I’ve learned in my recovery is that 50 per cent of my prayers must be actions. I offer this letter as a prayer of thanksgiving: I am grateful today for your children’s compassion and care. Church leaders looking for a way to actively pray for the well-being of alcoholics and addicts, especially in this time of pandemic, might consider contacting a local AA district representative (find the info on Google), a regional correspondent or the AA General Service Office in New York.
Sincerely yours (and amen),
One grateful alcoholic
(The Anglican Journal has withheld Jeffrey’s last name by his request and in keeping with Tradition 11 of AA’s Twelve Traditions: “Our public relations policy is based upon attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”)