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The Twelfth A.A. International Convention
I am responsible.
If alcoholics in their cups are unlovely creatures," Mary said, "this, then, must be a picture of what lovely creatures are." Her expansive gesture included the crowds of people flowing up and down on escalators, sipping coffee, eating ice-cream, hugging, laughing, and peering intently at Convention Center maps. Her flushed face broke out into an even wider smile, "Welcome to the International Convention!" And, as quick to go as a fresh pot of coffee in a room full of sober drunks, she was off, shaking all the hands she could reach.
Just one in an army of host volunteers, Mary and hundreds of AAs like her helped make alcoholics from around the world feel welcome at the 2005 International Convention of AA, held in Toronto, Ontario, June 30 through July 3, 2005.
AA's International Conventions, held every five years since 1950, mark the anniversary of Bill W.'s first meeting with Dr. Bob and the birth of the Fellowship in 1935. So, at the 2005 Convention, 44,000 AA members, friends, and family members gathered for one big 70th birthday party. As one smiling man put it, "I hope I'm this much fun when I'm seventy."
Celebratory AA gatherings are rarely without earnest purpose, however. In the Big Book, in "Bill's Story," AA's cofounder Bill W. notes that there is "a vast amount of fun about it all. I suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness and levity. But just underneath there is a deadly earnestness." The theme of the convention, "I am responsible," reminded participants that they were sober and alive because someone, somewhere, was responsible when they reached out for help.
In a quiet lull, a woman found time to sit outside with a friend. "I feel so welcome here. What a great job they've done," she said. Then she paused for a moment and laughed, "You know, drinking like I did, in little bars across Texas, I wasn't really welcome anywhere. I always had to move. My welcome was all worn out. I ran out of boyfriends, ran out of people to hustle, ran out of luck. The fact that I feel welcome here, a thousand miles from home, is just part of the miracle."
Feeling welcome was a miracle to many of the AAs in Toronto, although veterans of other conventions were less surprised. AA members came with friends, family, partners, and home groups and left with more friends and family, as well as promises of visits. By Thursday afternoon, AAs had begun to arrive in twos, threes, fours, and whole busloads. Asked why they came, a group from southern California shouted, "To be sober!" Cornered for a more specific answer, Mike C. answered, "All these people here – they're all sober! No one should be alive, much less gathered in one place and celebrating sobriety. No one here got sober by themselves, so everyone here has someone who took that pledge seriously. What an amazing gift."
For many, the high points of the convention were the big meetings: three open AA speaker meetings held Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday morning in the Rogers center, the stadium where the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball.
On Friday evening, AAs filed into the stadium for the flag ceremony and the big meeting. The noise, laughter, and deafening applause of almost 40,000 people from the far reaches of the globe putting their hands together, cheering, whooping, and hollering filled the stadium as AAs expressed joy for sobriety and a Fellowship of likeminded individuals under one very large roof.
At the dimming of the lights, all noise quickly subsided as the flag ceremony began. And, one by one, ninety AA members appeared on stage bearing the flag of each nation represented at the 2005 International Convention. And when the AAs from Mongolia, Cuba, and the People's Republic of China took the stage, the crowd went wild. It was the first time these countries were represented. For many, it was a moving event, demonstrating that AA does cross cultural, racial, economic, and geographic boundaries to offer hope to hopeless alcoholics. For others, it increased the sense of belonging. As Matthew of Brooklyn, New York, said: "Anywhere I go, there I am, and there AA is, too. I have it pretty good." After the flag ceremony, three AAs spoke, bringing their own personal history and struggles to the podium.
Saturday night's big meeting was the Old-Timers Meeting. Old-Timers – defined for that evening as any AA member with forty or more years of continuous sobriety – dropped their names into an oversized Mountie's hat, and twelve were selected by twelve AA newcomers. It seemed to underscore that newcomers are AA's lifeblood; we stay sober by passing on the message of hope and recovery to the terrified and lonely drunk who hasn't yet hear of our parties, the alcoholics who can't imagine laughter without booze, or emotions without fear.
This marked the fourth International Convention for Tom M., from Tallahassee, Florida. "I always love the teary-eyed, goosebump moments at the ICs – 40,000 AAs praying together, the bagpipe and drum corps, singing Amazing Grace, and people cheering as we ran around with the ICYPAA banner Friday night. – all that was great stuff. But nothing prepared me for the introduction of the long-timers on Saturday night by those young people. Holy cow, I knew it was coming, and it still floored me."
The meeting began with a sobriety count-up; all AA members present were asked to stand until their sobriety length was announced – under one year, under two years, etc. As the count got higher, the cheering grew louder, and by the time one gentleman from Michigan with sixty-three years of sobriety was left standing – the applause and cheering nearly brought the roof down. One woman was overheard explaining to a newer member "We applaud not for the person, but for the idea and the hope that we all have the opportunity to live full, sober lives."
Bu Sunday morning, the thousands of AAs sitting in the stadium seats had opportunity to recall moments in their own past when they'd reached out for help and were given the hand of AA. In a perfect gesture of thanks, the 25th million copy of the Big Book was given to the warden on behalf of San Quentin for its long history of making AA available to inmates (to read more about AA's history in San Quentin, see note at the end of this article.) In addition, the 2005 International Convention commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bill W. turning over the operation of the Fellowship to the General Service Conference in 1955.
Before the big meetings, AAs kicked off the Convention with a giant "Party in the Park" outside the Metro Convention Centre. As the weekend wore on, there were more dances inside the Centre. And, at midnight on Thursday evening, the Marathon Meetings in English, French and Spanish began.
Many alcoholics reveled in the chance to hear new speakers and old favorites. And, although AAs from around the world may call AA story-telling something different – "qualifying" or "leading" – each alcoholic filing into the meeting halls knew that identifying with another alcoholic – either on the podium or in the next seat – had the power to dispel a little of the isolation that often darkened our drinking days and separated us from our fellows.. With over 200 topic meetings calling upon the services of over 800 speakers and chairs, Friday and Saturday seemed to promise that everyone might find what they needed. Among the meeting topics available to convention-goers were: Satisfaction of Right Living; Sex; Security; and Society; Principles Before Personalities; Prayer and Meditation; Bridging the Gap from Treatment to AAa; Carrying the Message to Older Alcoholics; Women in AA; Twelfth-Stepping the Old-Fashioned Way; and many, many others.
By Sunday morning, all assembled had heard variations of the theme "I Am Responsible," by Tom I., of Aberdeen, South Dakota, reminded us what can happen when AAs take responsibility to carry the message in their hearts and into prisons. "The first place I felt freedom was in a maximum-security penitentiary. It was the first place I felt decency, integrity, and worth." After release, Tom went on to the highest command a state penitentiary ever rewarded to a former inmate. He said, "Miracles happen. Miracles happen when preparation meets opportunity, and God intervenes. If you do the work, the walls come down."
If you didn't get a chance to go to Toronto, consider a trip to Texas for the next one. San Antonio, the site of AA's next convention, is preparing for a deluge of alcoholics in 2010. However, if you can't wait to party with a crowd that has a little experience with big bashes, check with your local intergroup, district, or area for upcoming events. As one alcoholic put it, "International Conventions and group anniversaries are really the same thing – just a rowdy bunch of happy drunks who not only have discovered how to live without booze, but want to dance and shout about it."
Editor's Note: The July 2001 AA Grapevine article "A Prison Program for the Rehabilitation of Alcoholics (1942) by past San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy, is available from the Digital Archive at www.aagrapevine.org
Love and Peace, Barefoot
As in so many things, especially with we alcoholics, our History is our Greatest Asset!.. We each arrived at the doors of A.A. with an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That Do Not Work" .. Today, In A.A. and In Recovery, Our History has added an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That DO Work!!" and We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it!!
KEEP COMING BACK!
On the Web Oct 26, 2002 in the Spirit of Cooperation
Three mighty important things, Pardn'r, LOVE And PEACE and SOBRIETY