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Step by step: Retired minister preaches sobriety

John Williams of Geneva has been sober for 35 years and in a 12-step program. Williams is a retired Unity Church minister and facilitates weekend workshops at churches based on the spiritual principles of the 12 steps.
John Williams of Geneva has been sober for 35 years and in a 12-step program. Williams is a retired Unity Church minister and facilitates weekend workshops at churches based on the spiritual principles of the 12 steps.

John Williams drank a bit in high school, but nothing serious until he was 17, when he said he was at a fraternity party that offered all the beer you could drink for $2.

“At first, I liked being known as a drinker,” Williams, 70, of Geneva, said. “I bragged about drinking – ‘We drank a case of beer last night.’ It was a badge of honor. It was part of who I was.”

Today, Williams is more proud to say he has been sober for 35 years with the help of a 12-step program.

“When I tell my story, I always say, ‘If I drink after that, I’m an idiot.’ God shoved me in that meeting,” Williams said. “It’s a miracle how I got there.”

He pays it forward, encouraging others to sobriety. Alcoholism used to be considered a moral failure instead of a disease and going to a 12-step meeting had a stigma, he said.

“But not anymore,” he said. “These days, everybody goes to rehab – except the people who say, ‘No no no,’ and wind up dead.”

A retired Unity Church minister, he facilitates weekend workshops at churches based on the spiritual principles of the 12 steps.

Williams also ministers to others at meetings – as well as strangers if he senses they could use some help. How does he know a complete stranger might be an alcoholic?

“It takes one to know one,” Williams said.

• • •

Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. About 17.6 million people – or one in every 12 adults – suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, according to the council.  

Excessive alcohol use, including binge and underage drinking, is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Williams said without divine intervention to get sober, he was headed for death. Williams was 34 when he quit drinking Feb. 4, 1977.

“I would not have lasted another two years,” Williams said. “I would have been dead. You have three choices if you have this disease. One is to wind up in an institution, [the second is to] die – and the other one is to abstain and get into a program.”

Jerry Skogmo, executive director of Renz Addiction Counseling Center, said addiction to alcohol or any substance is a progressive or chronic disease when a person becomes physically addicted. Health consequences are severe.

Renz, with offices in St. Charles and Elgin, serves people with addictions through intensive outpatient programming and hosting 12-step meetings.

“We see people from all walks of life, all situations, all conditions,” Skogmo said. “Their life is out of control, and they need to do something about that. We found that the people with the best prognoses are those involved in treatment and 12-step program, as well.”

• • •

Not only was Williams’ life out of control, so was his ability to drink.

“It was getting pretty miserable, especially the last six months,” Williams said. “Your tolerance [for drinking] gets higher and higher and higher, and then it hits the top. Then the amount you drink before you get drunk starts to drop.”

Williams said his sister took him into her house on New Year’s Eve 1976. He was getting divorced from his second wife and had nowhere else to go. The family was getting ready for a party, and Williams was set for a night of drinking.

“I made myself a scotch on the rocks, and I drank it and the room started spinning,” Williams said. “It was that way from then to February. I could not drink, and I couldn’t not drink. It was just horrible.”

But to tell how he got to his first 12-step meeting, Williams’ story goes back to 1975 when he was tending bar. Usually, he worked the night shift. On this particular night, he switched with another bartender and was working a day shift.

“A woman came into the bar, she said, ‘The kids are driving me crazy, I’m going to get drunk.’ I gave her a dime and told her to make a call,” Williams said. “Ten minutes later, she ordered a 7-Up, and another woman came in and they both left. I don’t know why I said that, I just did.”

He later figured out the second woman was the first woman’s sponsor – someone to help stay sober. In February 1977, the same woman was trying to get some cash, but the banks closed at 6 p.m. and there were no ATMs. She called her friend who owned the bar where Williams worked and asked whether she could cash a check.

“So I’m sitting at the end of the bar drinking anisette and water, and I’m miserable,” Williams said. “And here comes that woman I gave the dime to two years ago. I said, ‘When are you going to one of those meeting things?’ She said, ‘I’ll take you.’ ”

Williams believes the true reason that woman was in the bar that night was not to cash a check, but to take him to a 12-step meeting and give him a chance to save his life.

“I knew people who went to [12-step meetings] but I did not know what they did,” Williams said. “I just knew they did not drink – somehow.”

• • •

After his first meeting, Williams admitted he was an alcoholic.

“It was the first time I said I was an alcoholic,” Williams said.

At his second meeting the next night, Williams said all he could think of was that he wanted to be sober for two years. Then Steve, the speaker for that night’s meeting, started talking.

“I’m an alcoholic, and I wanted to be sober for two years,” Steve said. “Tonight I am.”

That was it for Williams.

“I got a sponsor, and I started doing the 12 steps,” Williams said. “One day at a time. I had a coming realization that the only thing that exists is right now, this very moment. Yesterday does not exist. Dinner tonight [does] not exist. That is how you do one day at a time.”

The hard work to stay sober was worth it, he said.

“I have enough to eat, a roof over my head, and my children love me,” Williams said.

• • •

Williams had been sober for eight years when he became a minister at the Unity Church when it was in St. Charles from 1987 to 1990. The church now is in Batavia.

He said he has had many jobs – from delivering newspapers to waiting tables, working for Chicago’s first Mayor Daley to a publishing company. Currently, he drives a limo part time and does 12-step workshops on weekends.

But he looks upon his journey to sobriety as a purposeful divine effort to save his life – and to give him the opportunity to do the same for others.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Williams said.

And so, he pays it forward whenever the opportunity arises. Recently, he met a woman while driving the limo – again, on a different shift.

She was facing driving under the influence charges, had big fines to pay, her car was impounded and she still hungered for a drink. Williams encouraged her to go to a 12-step meeting, gave her his cell number, then dropped her off.

Many text messages later, the woman told him she was outside of a building with a 12-step meeting inside but she could not bring herself to go in. Then, she got as far as the lobby. Each time, he texted back some encouragement.

He said hours later, she texted him that she went to the meeting and thanked him for saving her life. Williams choked up a bit when he considered his role in helping a fellow sufferer on a journey to recovery.

“I look at life like a tapestry: ‘This is an interesting-looking thread,’ ” Williams said. “But you put them together, and you have something beautiful.”

Resources on alcoholism:

• Alcoholics Anonymous –
• Renz Addiction Counseling –
• Breaking Free –
• Central DuPage Hospital Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment –
• Hearts of Hope –
• John Williams’ 12-step workshop –
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention –
• National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism –

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