Every Sunday morning about 20 men and women gather in an upper room on Madison. In some ways the gathering sounds and feels like church. There are confessions-many confessions-and testimonies. Prayers are prayed. But everyone there would deny that the meeting serves a religious purpose.

That’s the way Alcoholic’s Anonymous works. In what AA members refer to as “The Big Book,” the preface to the 12 steps of recovery states that “Without help [recovery] is too much for us. But there is One who has all power-that one is God. May you find Him now!”

Bill Wilson, who co-founded AA in the 1930s, began to recover after he himself had a religious experience. He believed firmly that without God, sobriety for an alcoholic was impossible. Nevertheless, as the movement grew, he recognized that the AA fellowship included not only people from different denominations but also agnostics.

That’s why the 20 people who assemble every Sunday morning in Forest Park insist that their program is spiritual, not religious. Some are quite strongly against organized religion.

“I always believed in God,” Mike, an AA member said. “I grew up a Roman Catholic, but by the fourth grade I knew I didn’t believe in Catholicism.”

For the sake of anonymity, AA members are identified only by their first names.

“We didn’t just happen by accident,” Chuck, another member said. “A higher power created me and takes care of me. My higher power is whatever … could be Jesus, God, Buddha.”

Jack, who studied at a Catholic seminary, still attends Mass but said he doesn’t belong to any one parish. His thinking about God has become much less rigid over the years, he said.

“I don’t need black and white answers. Maybe it’s maturing. I used to want to define God,” Jack said. “I choose to call my higher power God, but my concept is probably a lot more nebulous than many years ago.”

Jack other recovering alcoholics and addicts in the fellowship avoid debating doctrine and focus on what works. What works, they said, is honesty. About 95 percent of the men and women who meet on Madison every Sunday morning are gay.

“What happened to me was honesty,” said John who taught in Catholic schools for 22 years. “I needed to start accepting myself as a gay man. That immediately lowered a wall, because I felt like my religion had never even admitted my existence or sanctioned it. I have a lot of axes to grind with officials in the church, because I had to live under cover.

“When I was a drunken crack head,” John continued, “I looked down on other people thinking they never had the fullness of faith. In my new life as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous I have a much more inclusive sense. I believe that God loves each person as much as every other person.”

More than 70 years ago, the founders of AA tried to clarify what it means to surrender to the fact that they are not God. Selfishness and self-centered behavior is often believed to be the root of an addict’s problems.

“I always used to think it was all about me,” said Mike of selfishness. “Step three, turning our will and our lives over to the care of God, all that is is me getting out of the way … and God is there.”

What works is using the members of the fellowship to discern what the will of God actually is. Whenever Jack said something in the meeting, he follows the tradition of starting his statements with, “I’m Jack, I’m an alcoholic.” He’s been sober for 22 years.

When he finishes, everyone responds with, “thanks, Jack,” and that’s it. No one is allowed to argue or debate what has been said. The rule is to listen, be respectful and learn.

Chuck, for example, said that when he listens to the stories told at meetings, he often recognizes himself in what the other members have said.

“Someone at a meeting recently talked about how we never take care of ourselves,” he said. “I said to myself ‘wow, that makes sense to me,’ and I thought about all the times I hurt myself because of my drinking.”

Members of AA maintain that practicing alcoholics never get sober on their own. They need to be with other recovering alcoholics.

Finally, the group attempts to function as an absolutely egalitarian culture. No decisions are made by the group without giving everyone a chance to express their thoughts. “Our leaders are trusted servants,” John said. “They do not govern.”

“I’m going to make one last crack at Catholicism,” John continued. “I think that a lot of problems in Catholicism are rooted in its hierarchical nature. Sexism, homophobia, all these things because of the need to retain power.”

He paused for a moment and realized that his need for honesty had perhaps conflicted with the importance of being non-judgmental. “I apologize if I’ve hurt anyone’s religious sensibilities.”