Our friends in A.A. and millions outside wanted to read and hear and see, and it was certainly up to us to help. It was not always a question of our communicating with them: lots of them wanted to communicate with us, especially alcoholics and families who were still suffering. The city fathers of St. Louis sent their warmest congratulations, and this reminded us of their generosity in giving the use of the Kiel Auditorium free of charge. We were further reminded of the wonderful cordiality of the local groups in town, the hospitable clubs and the many parties.
Telegrams came to us in the Kiel Auditorium from A.A. people and groups everywhere. One of the brightest highlights of the Convention appeared in this message:
Dateline: The White House; Sender: The President of the United States
Please convey to all who participate in your Twentieth Anniversary gathering my good wishes for a successful meeting. Your society’s record of growth and service is an inspiration to those who, through research, perseverance and faith, move forward to the solution of many serious personal and public health problems.
Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When this telegram was read to the Convention, we experienced great elation mixed with deep humility. A.A. had indeed come of age. In the eyes of the world we had now become full and responsible citizens once more.
The last day of the Convention moved from morning crescendo to afternoon climax. At 11:30 a.m. we began the meeting “God as We Understand Him.” Deep silence fell as Dr. Jim S., the A.A. speaker, told of his life experience and the serious drinking that led to the crisis which had brought about his spiritual awakening. He re-enacted for us his struggle to start the very first group among Negroes, his own people. Aided by a tireless and eager wife, he had turned his home into a combined hospital and A.A. meeting place, free to all. As he told how early failure had finally been transformed under God’s grace into amazing success, we who listened realized that A.A. not only could cross seas and mountains and boundaries of language and nation but could surmount obstacles of race and creed as well.
A great cheer of welcome greeted Father Ed Dowling as, indifferent to his grievous lameness, he made his way to the lectern. Father Dowling of the Jesuit order in St. Louis is intimately known to A.A.’s for a thousand miles and more around. Many in the Convention audience remembered with gratitude his ministry to their spiritual needs. St. Louis old-timers recalled how he helped start their group; it had turned out to be largely Protestant, but this fazed him not a bit. Some of us could remember his first piece about us in The Queen’s Work, the sodality’s magazine. He had been the first to note how closely in principle A.A.’s Twelve Steps paralleled a part of the Exercises of St. Ignatius, a basic spiritual discipline of the Jesuit order. He had boldly written in effect to all alcoholics and especially to those of his own faith: “Folks, A.A. is good. Come and get it.” And this they certainly had done. His first written words were the beginning of a wonderfully benign influence in favor of our fellowship, the total of which no one will ever be able to compute.
Father Ed’s talk to us at the Convention that Sunday morning flashed with humor and deep insight. As he spoke, the memory of his first appearance in my own life came back to me as fresh as though it were yesterday: One wintry night in 1940 in A.A.’s Old Twenty-Fourth Street Club in New York I had gone to bed at about ten o’clock with a severe dose of self-pity and my imaginary ulcer. Lois was out somewhere. Hail and sleet beat on the tin roof over my head; it was a wild night. The Club was deserted except for old Tom, the retired fireman, that diamond in the rough lately salvaged from Rockland asylum. The front doorbell clanged, and a moment later Tom pushed open my bedroom door. “Some bum,” said he, “from St. Louis is down there and wants to see you.” “Oh, Lord!” I said. “Not another one! And at this time of night. Oh, well, bring him up.”
I heard labored steps on the stairs. Then, balanced precariously on his cane, he came into the room, carrying a battered black hat that was shapeless as a cabbage leaf and plastered with sleet. He lowered himself into my solitary chair, and when he opened his overcoat I saw his clerical collar. He brushed back a shock of white hair and looked at me through the most remarkable pair of eyes I have ever seen. We talked about a lot of things, and my spirits kept on rising, and presently I began to realize that this man radiated a grace that filled the room with a sense of presence. I felt this with great intensity; it was a moving and mysterious experience. In years since I have seen much of this great friend, and whether I was in joy or in pain he always brought to me the same sense of grace and the presence of God. My case is no exception. Many who meet Father Ed experience this touch of the eternal. It is no wonder that he was able to fill all of us there in the Kiel Auditorium with his inimitable spirit on that wonderful Sunday morning.
There came next to the lectern a figure that not many A.A.’s had seen before, the Episcopal clergyman Sam Shoemaker. It was from him that Dr. Bob and I in the beginning had absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of A.A.’s way of life. Dr. Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. One showed us the mysteries of the lock that held us in prison; the other passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated.
Dr. Sam looked scarcely a day older than he had almost twenty-one years earlier when I first met him and his dynamic group at Calvary’s parish house in New York. As he began to speak, his impact fell upon us there in the Kiel Auditorium just as it had upon Lois and me years before. As always, he called a spade a spade, and his blazing eagerness, earnestness, and crystal clarity drove home his message point by point. With all his vigor and power of speech, Sam nevertheless kept himself right down to our size. Here was a man quite as willing to talk about his sins as about anybody else’s. He made himself a witness of God’s power and love just as any A.A. might have done.
Sam’s appearance before us was further evidence that many a channel had been used by Providence to create Alcoholics Anonymous. And none had been more vitally needed than the one opened through Sam Shoemaker and his Oxford Group associates of a generation before. The basic principles which the Oxford Groupers had taught were ancient and universal ones, the common property of mankind. Certain of the former O.G. attitudes and applications had proved un-suited to A.A.’s purpose, and Sam’s own conviction about these lesser aspects of the Oxford Groups had later changed and become more like our A.A. views of today. But the important thing is this: the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. He will always be found in our annals as the one whose inspired example and teaching did most to show us how to create the spiritual climate in which we alcoholics may survive and then proceed to grow. A.A. owes a debt of timeless gratitude for all that God sent us through Sam and his friends in the days of A.A.’s infancy.
As we approached our last session, a number of great questions still remained in the collective mind of the Convention. What would happen when A.A.’s originators and old-timers had gone? Would A.A. continue to grow and prosper? Could we go on functioning as a whole, no matter what perils the future brought? Had A.A. really come to the age of full responsibility? Could members and groups world-wide now safely assume complete control and guidance of A.A.’s principal affairs? Would A.A. now be able to take over from the old-timers, from Dr. Bob and from Bill? If so, by what agency, and just how?
For a long time these questions had been asked anxiously, and for over five years solutions for these problems had been eagerly sought, especially by old A.A. hands, people like myself who must soon relinquish their twenty years’ guardianship of A.A. and turn over their trust to the vast family now fully reared. The time had come for the answers.
High in the great hall of the Kiel Auditorium there hung a banner on which everyone could see the new symbol for Alcoholics Anonymous,