Each day at the Convention I had spoken with many A.A.’s, folks of every description and persuasion: plainsmen and mountain people, city dwellers and townsmen, workmen and businessmen, schoolteachers and professors, clergymen and doctors, ad men and journalists, artists and builders, clerks and bankers, socialites and skid-rowers, career girls and housewives, people from other lands speaking in strange accents and tongues, Catholics and Protestants and Jews and men and women of no religion.
Of many of these people I asked the same questions: “What do you think of this Convention?” and “What do you think of A.A.’s future?” Each of course reacted according to his or her own viewpoint, but I was astonished when I sensed the unanimity of feeling and opinion that ran through all. I felt and still feel this so strongly that I believe it may be permissible here to introduce a spokesman for the whole Convention itself, a sort of composite character who nevertheless may truly portray what practically everybody at St. Louis really saw, really heard, and really felt. Let’s call our anonymous spokesman Mr. Grassroots. He hails from Centerville, U.S.A., and this is what he has to say:
“I went to the Kiel,” says Mr. Grassroots, “ahead of time for that last meeting. While I was waiting I thought of all that had happened to me in three days. I come from the small town of Centerville. I was born and raised there, did my drinking and got into my trouble there, and was about ready to throw in the sponge when A.A. came to town. Several years back a traveling chap tossed us the idea, and since then about a dozen of us alkies in Centerville have grabbed the life-line.
“The groups in my state are pretty small and scattered, and so we do not see much of each other. We’ve never had a state get-together. Our Centerville group has been just about all of A.A. for me. Good A.A., too. Of course we’ve had the Big Book and some pamphlets and the Grapevine, and now and then a traveler told us something about A.A. in other places. It was fine to know that other people like us were getting their chance, too. But our main interest was in each other and in the Centerville drunks that had not yet sobered up. The rest of A.A. seemed a long way off. There did not seem to be much that we could do about it anyhow, even if we wanted to. This was how it was with me before St. Louis.
“This Convention has been a terrific experience. I ran into hundreds of A.A.’s and their families charging around in the hotels. Then I saw thousands in the big Auditorium. I am sort of shy, but I got over that. I got mixed in with people who were having the time of their lives, people who came from five hundred, a thousand, maybe five thousand miles away—from places I’d only read about in the papers. Pretty soon I was telling them about A.A. in Centerville, rattling on as happy as anybody.
“These people were not strangers to me at all; it seems as if I had known and trusted and loved them all my life. I had felt that way about my A.A. group at home, but now I felt the same way about every A.A. and all of A.A. I can’t tell you what this meant. To me it was big. This was real brotherhood. These were my people, my kin and my kind. I belonged to them and they belonged to me. Every barrier, every thought of race, creed, or nationality dropped out of my mind. This tremendous thing happened to me in only a few hours.
“I took in every meeting I could. I heard those doctors tell how much their profession was for us. I went to an Al-Anon meeting and realized for the first time that A.A. is for the whole family, too. The sessions on prisons and mental institutions convinced me that as a drinker I had been a piker and that almost no alcoholic disaster was too tough for A.A. to help. At other meetings I saw that A.A. had been facing and solving a lot of problems I never knew we had; problems in the big cities and all over the world. I saw that we still had plenty wrong with us as a fellowship, but I was sure that our present troubles would iron out as well as the others had.
“On Friday night I heard how A.A. started—how many people, nonalcoholic friends as well as ourselves, had been required to do the job—at how many points we could have run off the road for a complete smashup, yet how we had never yet over skidded a curve or failed to take the right turn. The hand of a higher Power had been on the wheel all the time.
“On Saturday night I felt like getting worried all over again as Bill told us how he and Dr. Bob had wondered all the way from 1939 to 1945 if A.A. was going to hang together after all, what with the troubles of members, groups, and new beginnings in foreign countries. I got a jolt when I heard that the A.A. book and the New York Headquarters had once been the source of the most hair-raising squabbles of all. Maybe this kind of thing could get going again someday. But I calmed down when it was made clear that all this old-time grief and uproar had actually been very good for us and that without this experience A.A.’s Twelve Traditions could never have been written. And I felt still better when I heard that by 1950 most of those woes were things of the past and that the Twelve Traditions had been adopted unanimously at the International Convention in Cleveland in 1950 when Dr. Bob made his final appearance and spoke so confidently of his faith in A.A.’s future.
“On Sunday morning—the last day of the Convention—I found those Twelve Traditions still on my mind. Each of them I saw is an exercise in humility that can guard us in everyday A.A. affairs and protect us from ourselves. If A.A. were really guided by the Twelve Traditions, we could not possibly be split apart by politics, religion, money, or by any old-timers who might take a notion to be big shots. With none of us throwing our weight around in public, nobody could possibly exploit A.A. for personal advantage, that is sure. For the first time I saw A.A.’s anonymity for what it really is. It isn’t just something to save us from alcoholic shame and stigma; its deeper purpose is actually to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and public fame at A.A.’s expense. It really means personal and group sacrifice for the benefit of all A.A. Right then I resolved to learn our Twelve Traditions by heart, just as I had learned the Twelve Steps. If every A.A. did the same thing and really soaked up these principles we drunks could hang together forever.
“I watched as the big hall of the Kiel Auditorium filled up. Thousands of my new-found friends were pouring in for the final windup. I caught sight of Father Ed as he eased himself into a seat across the aisle. He was a wonderful reminder of our morning session on the spiritual part of the program. In that session something happened to me I’ll never forget.
“I had always carried a certain amount of prejudice against churches and clergymen and their concepts of God. Like many A.A.’s, my ideas about God were still mighty vague.
“But as these two spoke, it had loomed up on me that most of A.A’s spiritual principles had come to us through clergymen. Without clergymen, A.A. could never have started in the first place. While I had been nursing my grudges against religion, Father Ed and Dr. Sam had been going all out for us. This was a brand-new revelation. Suddenly I realized that it was high time I began to love them, even as they had loved me and the rest of my kind.
“When I knew that I could now do this, I commenced to feel warm clear through. The conviction spread in me that love is a mighty personal thing. Then came the feeling that maybe my Creator really did know me and love me. So I could now begin to love Him, too. This was one of the best things that happened to me at St. Louis, and there must have been a lot of others there who had the same experience.
“Our last meeting finally began, and it opened with a silence that was charged with confident hope and faith. We knew that ours was a fellowship of the Spirit and that the grace of God was there.”
Although these are only words put into the mouth of our created character Mr. Grassroots, they do represent much of the spirit and the truth that lived in the heart of many an A.A. as the St. Louis Convention moved toward its culmination.
From the Kiel stage I looked out upon the sea of faces gathered there, and I was powerfully stirred by the wonder of all that had happened in the incredible twenty years now coming to a climax.