A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
(I'm just going to leave that statement there without explanation and let you think what you will.)
One of the speakers that evening talked about the experience of walking into a 12-step meeting for the first time and finding it "full of people who didn't look like me, talk like me, or dress like me." Another said his first 12-step meeting was full of bikers in their 50s and 60s, and he figured he had at least 30 years more partying ahead of him. The same theme came up again in the talk of a speaker at another NA meeting — these people are not like me, and I'm not like them.
The three speakers' words reflected the discomfort and intimidation of an alien environment — a 12-step meeting — and how that strangeness was magnified by things like the age, dress, and drug of choice of others in the room.
The speakers were very different from each other. The first was male, white, under 30; the second, male, African American, upper 30s; the third, female, African American, early 40s.
Yet they all spoke of feeling like outsiders. They felt "other."
During a break, a young woman leaned over to me and asked if it was my first NA meeting. I said I'd been to AA meetings, but this was my first time to NA. She told me she liked NA better — though the steps and the traditions are the same, she said she felt more comfortable at NA. Her words surprised me, because I honestly hadn't noticed a difference.
Later, as I thought about it, I realized something: to me, because I don't battle an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, AA and NA seem pretty similar — equally strange, equally intimidating — and those in attendance seem equally "other" from me. (Or maybe it's better to say I felt equally "other" from them.)
But I realized that even among those "others," there can be a sense of "otherness" when in the midst of people who are in a different phase of life, or who represent a different race or ethnic group, or whose substance of choice is a different one.
As an outsider (albeit a supportive one) to the experience of addiction recovery, it was easy for me to see the commonalities between the people in the room. To me, their chief "otherness" was the addiction that had led them to this place in their lives.
But as I tried to enter the experience from the perspective of a participant, I saw how every facet of "otherness" that can separate us as humans — skin color, age, lifestyle, etc. — can be a real barrier to people getting better.
And that's in an environment that welcomes struggling people. How much more is this true in the church, where congregational discomfort can send struggling people further into hiding?
How do we lower the barrier?
I think maybe the answer lies in our focus. If we're focused on how we're different from someone else, and how they're different from us, the "otherness" is all we can see. We're living as if the Fall and the Tower of Babel hadn't been overcome by the Kingdom of Heaven.
But if we can focus on our commonalities, on the fact that we are all created by God in His image, maybe we can live in light of the Kingdom rather than in the darkness of the Fall.
My friend Steve Argue words it this way: “There's a difference between a Genesis 1 or Genesis 3 theological starting point. Where you start shapes your youth ministry practices.” (And, I would argue, Steve, this is true of every other ministry practice as well.)
Between you and me, I think everyone should attend a 12-step group once in a while. It might make us a little more compassionate toward people who battle addictions, and a little less smug about our own less obvious battles.
Search here for a local NA meeting, and here for a local AA meeting.