AA Comes to Willingboro, NJ in 1959
Monday & Thursday
AA began in Willingboro in the fall of 1959, almost the same way and for the same reason it began in Akron in 1935. However, the way was much easier because it had already been paved and the guidelines left “IN A VISION FOR YOU” in the BIG BOOK, by the founding fathers, the reason was the same; ONE DRUNK NEEDING ANOTHER DRUNK TO GET SOBER! This drunk had already had the help of psychiatry, numerous hospital stints and AA. Still continuous sobriety eluded him. His wife, being desperate and ready to give up on him, was assured that A NEW BEGINNING in another state, away from his old drinking buddies and bars would do the trick. So in February 1959, off they came to the wilderness of Willingboro where there was nothing but a couple of stores, a few occupied houses, lots of construction, “THANK GOD”, though the wife, “NO BARS – FREE AT LAST FROM ALCOHOL!!” How naïve she was! In a very short time he found the bars and buddies, came home looped swinging a bottle like a baby. Went door to door serenading the few neighbors with bar songs, thus causing his family to cringe with shame and be forever after excluded from all neighborhood social activities. So much for A NEW BEGINNING.
While the alcoholic continued on periodic binges, a few blocks away, the Rev. J. Kenneth Mart was busy establishing what was to become the Parkway Baptist Church, by holding services in the parsonage living room which the alkie’s wife and daughter started attending. Shortly this minister made a pastoral visit and not only received a most warm and drunken welcome, but was commanded to join him and the family in singing, “THE OLD RUGGED CROSS”. In spite of this unusual introduction, Mr. Mart (hereafter referred to simply as Ken) became much involved with this family’s problem, and though of different faith and very little knowledge of alcoholism, he became his constant listener and friend, thereby learning of his dream to start an AA group here.
Meanwhile, the Baptist Church, not yet under construction, had outgrown the parsonage living room. Therefore, the few members started converting the garage into a larger worship place. Guess who kept showing up drunk to help? When SOBER he didn’t know one tool from another, but DRUNK, he knew EVERYTHING ABOUT CONSTRUCION, which definitely qualified him to become their drunken singing SUPERVISOR. In spite of this supervision, which must have caused Ken much embarrassment, the garage was soon completed and became the temporary sanctuary.
Sobering up one more time, after a real zinger, Ken was again called upon for help. However, this time, full of despair and hopelessness, he told this alkie to straighten up and stay sober or he would advise the family to get out, because he had done all that he could do for him, and he truly believed he would die a hopeless drunk, To which the drunk responded, ‘I still have my dream of starting a group form the grass roots up as you are doing with a church, and I too believe that unless somehow I can achieve that goal, I can’t find any lasting sobriety. “Then stop dreaming, stay sober and start acting on it, and if you do, I’ll give you all the support I can,” he was told.
That must have been the needed incentive for within a week, John D, the dreamer and salesman, had met two other alcoholics, both sober, Bud M, a bookkeeper, and Tommy F, a musician and salesman with whom he shared his dream and gained their support. But where, when and how in this God forsaken place they all wondered. Monday night was decided as the When, the where was formulated the next day following the Sunday services when Mike D, John’s wife, advised Ken that John had found tow other alcoholics and was ready to start. “That’s great news, but Where and When?” When she replied, “tomorrow night and hopefully here, “Ken added impetuously and impatient to his knowledge of alcoholism and a state of confusion to his planned quiet Sunday afternoon.
After recovering from his shock, he started rounding up the Board of Trustees and began selling them on the idea of a bunch of drunks using their place of worship to meet in and discuss their drinking sprees which he knew was going to be very difficult. Hadn’t he already asked so much of these few people in helping him establish a church going so far as to ask for their help in enlarging the garage in their free time? Weren’t they SUPERVISED by a drunk who now had the audacity to ask for its use to meet with other drunks? Ken also knew the use of his wife’s kitchen and bathroom would be needed for coffee and donuts but felt Bonny would agree to this.
Now 23 years ago one rarely referred to a drunk as an alcoholic, and ALCOHOLISM AS A DISEASE? That was almost unheard of. Rather they were thought of as drunks, filthy, vulgar, boisterous and profane. Yes, they still carried the stigma of skid row bums. At least I have a week to prepare a sermon to sell the Word of God and they’ve given me one hour to sell them. At any tare he overcame all of the Board’s objections but two; smoking and foul language. These he had them discuss n depth by phone with John who finally convinced them smoking was an absolute must. But the profane and obscene language in their church with the pastor’s wife and children in the next room was of the utmost concern to them. “Our group conscience prohibits that and besides WE POLICE OUR OWN,” they were told. Then dead silence except for the pacing and sweating. Finally, the verdict: “We have decided that if meeting here weekly with a bunch of other drunks will keep you sober, we’ll vote yes and PRAY FOR FORGIVENESS FOR OUR ACTIONS AND THAT THE SMOKE WILL BE GONE BY SUNDAY.” John thanked them profusely and then asked bout the rent. “No rent; the use of the room is given in Christian Love.” Can’t accept that, our 7th tradition won’t allow it.” “Then how about $1 per month?” Make it $5, we pay our way!” A bit of irony: Their drunken singing supervisor later became a member of their choir!!!
That is how the AA fellowship began in Willingboro 23 years ago with the Rev. J. Ken Mart, greeting each person at the door with “Hello, I’m Ken M., Welcome. He then sat down and listened to the AA’er’s spread the message of AA from behind the same lectern, where, on the day before, he had spread the message of God. You can bet your boots the speakers had trembling voices and shaking knees speaking from a pulpit and staring at the figure of Jesus on the Cross! Had they also know that Ken,>, their welcomer, was the Rev. Mart, pastor of this church, me thinks smelling salts might have been needed.
The speakers and listeners might have been nervous and awe-struck in this atmosphere, but Ken and John were composed and elated. And why shouldn’t they be? John was sober, the AA group started, now they could sit back, relax, and take it easy. Wrong! Wrong! Neither of them had yet read the chapter ”INTO ACTION”. But the founders had, and they knew in order to help the group and keep them active required a lot of leg work as outlined in “A VISION FOR YOU” from the Big Book. One must remember that alcoholism at that time was a disgrace and one’s anonymity had to be preserved at any const; therefore, the duties were assigned wither tat restriction taking first place.
Tommy F., and Bud M., both worked locally so anonymity was a must for them on the home front, but they could take commitments and attend other meetings and announce the new group. Also their wives, Molly B., and Alice F., could contribute by baking, attending and helping out at the meetings, but to call on the professionals, tell them about alcoholism, give them their name and phone numbers to hand out to their problem drinkers? They just couldn’t do it. But John could, Why not? He had already lost any anonymity he ever had. He did have plenty of notoriety as the town drunk with all the localities including doctors, clergy, neighbors and his boss. So why shouldn’t he call upon these VIP’s (sober for once) and ask them to refer their drunks to him? That’s how the group got its first unofficial answering service. It was used day and night, to the extent that pretty soon anyone who could even pronounce alcoholism was called upon to help, even it the help consisted of merely taking someone to a meeting.
During this epidemic, Jack McNeill moved to the area and attended a Moorestown meeting where he met a Willingboro member, who, upon learning that he had almost to years sobriety, never let him get way without a commitment to the Willingboro group. He became its first sober new member. Shortly some of the newcomers obtained enough sobriety to accept some of the responsibilities, plus other sober ones joined the fellowship. The original members were then able to spend an occasional night at home. The biggest problem was the phone calls. We now had an answering service so, many of the calls came on Monday nights following a weekend binge. Whether they called direct, on their own, or were referred by a doctor to John’s phone number, Mike ended up with them because all the contacts were at their meeting. Therefore, a call from her to the parsonage could mean someone wanted to be picked up and taken to the meeting, or was waiting for a home visit. One of the strangest calls came from a phone booth on Route 130, from a guy who, on a weekend binge, had gotten lost and used his last dime to call. She ascertained his location and assured him someone would be there shortly, thinking that by turning him over to the group, she had done her job. Another surprise was in store for her; when he was picked up, taken to the meeting they learned he really was broke. The hat was passed for his bus fare, but no bus was running until morning. Who had an extra bedroom? Most of the members had five or six kids, but John had only one, so being very logical and full of generosity, they decided he ass just the person to take this stranded stranger home to his wife as an overnight guest! As the group became larger, the passed hat grew fatter, stranded and lost alkies were put in a motel for the night. That was a real blessing. A few weeks after the group’s first year’s anniversary, Mike’s Monday night call to the meeting was a person one. She was in labor and the next morning our first official AA baby, John III, was added to our family…Wonder if she planned this to eliminate that extra bedroom? Es, the fellowship was truly a family in those early days. It had to be for there were no detox., or rehab., facilities. That too was done in homes with an AA doctor friend on call for emergencies.
In time the parsonage was outgrown, and taking with them many happy memories of their first Monday night home, where so many had found their first sobriety, plus the love and close association with Ken & his wife Bonny, the fellowship moved to Christ the King Church.
During the ensuing years of personal and group growth, great inroads were made in the acceptance of alcoholism as a disease, women drinkers came out of the closet a few at a time, and Thank God, Gloria, a sober alcoholic, moved here and became the first woman member. Boy, was she ever needed! Now a man wouldn’t have to borrow a wire so often to 12 step a woman.
In spite of the growth in numbers, there was no loss of concern for the newcomers. The vacuum cleaner was no longer used to suck them in, but at the first hint of a problem with drink the afflicted one was conned into attending a meeting. Then taken to subsequent meetings which were held nightly in some member’s home. This chauffeuring nightly to a meeting and then a friendly person visit afterwards continued until they thought he would come on his own or go back to the bottle. In either case, he had learned a lot about the disease and AA, and they had planted the seed which might grow immediately of sprout years later.
There was tragedy and heartbreak too. One early member lost a n infant to a crib death, another member lost his only son in an auto accident, some marriages failed, at least tow couldn’t accept their alcoholism and blew their brains out, and some old timers returned to the bottle; a few never to return. Yes, as in all walks of life, there were births and death, successes and failures.
After 8 years at Christ the King, a new pastor arrived who wasn’t too happy about our meeting there, so we moved to this church. But the group didn’t fail. It grew and soon a priest and township mayor were added to its membership. Interested doctors and ministers attended meetings to learn and care. Alanon was founded and then came Alateen. Yes, Alcoholics Anonymous had arrived in Willingboro to stay, because one drunk still needs another drunk to stay sober. One of the founders can testify to its love, for one Christmas, being stone broke and no way able to buy gifts for his kids from Santa, upon opening the door to let the dog out, he found a stack of beautifully wrapped gifts for every member of the family. What miracles hath God wrought through AA!!