The Church Downstairs

WHAT CATHOLICS CAN LEARN FROM ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

The little church downstairs has a good problem: it needs more chairs. Every day of the week, sometimes twice a day, its growing congregation gathers in our church hall basement to share stories and a common identity. Sometimes they cry. Often they laugh. Usually, there’s applause. They mix it all up with a good pot of coffee, and somehow healing happens.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been meeting downstairs for as long as I can remember. I started thinking of those meetings as the “church downstairs” shortly after a parishioner told me how she came to join our parish after first going to church “downstairs” for several months. One Sunday morning, she decided to try going to the Mass upstairs and ended up reconnecting with her Catholic roots. She’s been attending both ever since. Her story gave me a powerful image of the spirituality of the AA meetings rising through the floorboards and enriching the vitality of the whole parish community. And sitting in on some sessions helped me understand how much we can learn from AA and the way its members practice their “religion.”

First there is a genuine and low-key sense of welcoming. This isn’t a matter of some grinning bobble-head standing at the door to shake every new hand. In fact, AA is at its most hospitable after the meeting is over. No one is bolting for the door when the last word has been pronounced. Instead, people stay around for another cup of coffee, especially if someone new has joined them. This sense of welcome stretches out into the parking lot as well, in the small groups that continue their private chats long after the official meeting has ended.

Another thing I’ve noticed is how well the church downstairs rallies around the weak and the powerless. Even those some might relegate to the social fringe are met with acceptance in the group, not least because a common denominator—we are all powerless over alcohol—remains central. Although this instinct to support the weak ought to come naturally for Catholics, who’ve grown up with a theology of the Cross and a healthy dose of St. Paul, sometimes I think we talk a better game than we play. It’s painfully obvious, for instance, that we’re not so good with people who live or love differently from the dictates of the marriage canons. Neither are we very supportive of those who don’t register a particularly strong blip on the parish radar. Can we offer alternatives to the family whose kids miss more religious education classes than they attend? Do we really want to understand and embrace those “once-a-month” Catholics who may be more likely to show up for pasta night than for the Eucharist? Are the people of the parish council a respected voice of the congregation, or just a maintenance crew formed in fulfillment of the law? All of us are needful beings, and keeping that reality in the foreground might go a long way toward fashioning a more open and attractive community.

One more thing AA groups demonstrate so well is the belief that everyone has a story to tell and a right to be heard. This belief is essential not only to the Twelve Steps, but to the sense of commonality and communion that is generated in the group. Everyone can learn something from another person’s story: this is another lesson we Catholics can profit from. In a church where so many people feel that their stories are ignored, encouraging this kind of productive conversation on a parish level would clearly be a hit. The challenge lies in providing opportunities for it. After-Mass coffee hours are not enough. Finding ways to provide adults some space to talk freely about their lives and concerns and faith is a crucial element for a dynamic parish.

The little church downstairs warmly welcomes strangers. They shore up the weak. They listen to what everyone has to say. Surely this is part of the reason why their church has to ask for more chairs, while so many of ours have empty pews.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 
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Fr. Nonomen (a pseudonym) is the pastor of a suburban parish. He has been a priest for more than twenty years.

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