Testimony of Margaret & Rosemary Kohr, November 18, 2018
Why I say “Yes” to First
There are so many ways I could tell you about why I say “yes” to First. But to keep it simple, I say “yes” to First because of how First has said “yes” to me… and how the love and commitment and hope this community has provided to me over the past 23 years has virtually saved my life. Back then, to the casual observer my life was good…wonderful husband and kids, great job, friends… but inside I was dying from an extreme case of paralysis of heart and soul. I longed for a deeper connection, not just with others but with myself. I felt disconnected, insecure, irrelevant and unworthy... I was uncomfortable in my own skin but terrified of what I would find if I went below the surface.
Arriving here, I was particularly affected by the statement often used to set the context for the covenant…that First was a “community of love, commitment and hope”. I determined that I would put this assertion to the test.
And so, I plundered all of First’s resources and took advantage of every opportunity that came my way:
First gave me the courage to discover and value my authentic self and to be that person in the world. First really did save my life.
There is one more gift I have received from First… my voice… not my singing voice, alas… but the confidence to stand here and speak to you … which I have done a number of times, in a variety of roles over these many years. My most cherished role though, is as Worship Leader, when on a Sunday morning I have the joy of looking out at all of your beautiful faces … this really is the best spot in the house.
When I speak with gratitude of how First saved my life, I am actually speaking of each and every one of you… because you are First … we are First …each one of us creates this community of love and commitment and hope…this community of First Unitarian that means so much to us all.
This morning there is someone else who would like to add her perspective to my testimony… and to say a few words of her own, my sister, Rosemary:
Observing my sister develop in her relationship with First over the past 23 years — experiencing her wonderful personal warmth and humour blossoming.. has been such a joy for me and has given me a real sense of the importance of this community. Something transformative happened to her from her connection with all the people, the music, her community involvement at First: all things I value too.
I live in New Brunswick—but thanks to the Sunday services on You Tube, my connection to First has also grown stronger … I am immediately connected and feel at home.
So, I too say “Yes” to First-- as an experience that goes beyond the simple requirements of faith. I say “yes” to First, because this community welcomes and enriches with an open heart and a thoughtful mind, no matter where you are.
Testimony of Donald Cole, November 4, 2018
Good morning. When my perpetual internal questioner asked “Why Me?”, I decided it was time to share what saying yes to this community means to me.
Coming to First, I said yes to my mother who asked me to join her singing in the choir, because she wanted company and I wanted to be with her, deepening our relationship.
I said yes to Shawn when he invited me to become a member, because my history, values, beliefs and actions were consistent with this congregation’s mission.
And to Nancy and Terry Lee, who asked me to help fund David Foot, a speaker at the CUC conference in Toronto, I said yes because I am a fellow academic committed to better understanding our social-ecological world and its impact on our health and well-being.
I also said yes to Ellen Campbell, who suggested I strengthen connections with East African UU congregations, because I travelled often and could share their struggles and joys with our congregation.
To Peter Brydon, who asks regularly for choir members to bring snack, I said yes so we can share fellowship. And to Tanya Cothran, who organized a virtual Journey Group, I said yes to a wonderful opportunity to deepen our understanding of monthly themes, from wherever we were in the world To Karen Dunk-Green, who asked me to consider pledging more each year, I said yes because this congregation supports struggling members of our city. I have also said yes to resident musicians, who invite us to hear their music on line and support them is their work, as I appreciate their creativity To Paul Bognar, who asked me to be a worship leader, I said yes so I could be with myself and you all in a deeper way, and with Catherine Lake, I agreed to share this testimony, to reveal how First has become a bedrock for my being in this wonderful, crazy world.
Saying yes to First has meant so much to me that I am going to renew my annual pledge to First this pledge season. May saying yes do so for you as well as you consider how Yes Lives Here at First Unitarian. Be generous as your means allow to support all we do here together and all that First nurtures within.
The offering that we take each Sunday isn't just habit — like the annual pledge campaign, it's an opportunity to recommit to this place, and to this people.
Each offering is an affirmation — a “yes.”
When we give, we say yes to something we value.
With our gifts, freely given, may we say yes to the values of our faith.
May our offering help us practice Unitarian Universalism within and beyond our congregation.
Will the ushers please come forward to receive our contributions.
Testimony of Moara Sarah Barrett, October 21, 2018
Good Morning, Everyone.
I have been attending First for almost three years, now, and I’d like to share a bit about my experience singing in the choir.
When I first started attending, I was asking myself, if I may take some liberties with today’s theme, Where was I going to fit in in this community? Where to “Engage and connect” as the sign outside Workman Hall says. And there are several places where I have found that one can engage and connect but, when I arrived here, I have to be honest, I had ruled out joining the choir early on. Although I have sung in several choirs, in the past, I just didn’t think that singing in the choir at First was a viable option. There was the time commitment, for one. But there was also the fact that the choir was really good and the music was excellent and I assumed that in order to be in the choir, you had to audition and, frankly, for many reasons, I wasn’t especially confident that if I were to try out, I would be up to snuff, so to speak.
Then, two years ago, I realized that I really missed singing in a choir. And, right around the same time, I found out that not only was no audition required to join the choir at First but that the prerequisites for joining were only (1) showing up for rehearsal, (2) being present, and (3) being enthusiastic. And I thought, I can do all of those things most of the time and so decided to join.
And upon showing up for my first rehearsal, it wasn’t long before I realized that this choir was very different from any I had participated in before.
First of all, during warm up, the choir director, Dallas, didn’t just tell us to make various sounds on various pitches; he told us why we should make various sounds on various pitches and what to focus on. When we rehearsed a song and he stopped us to enhance or correct something; he didn’t just tell us what we needed to enhance or correct but he asked us to tell him what we should do to enhance or correct. Perhaps this is how most choirs rehearse. I don’t know. I only know that it was new to me. I had no choice but to develop as a musician.
Secondly, there are resident musicians leading the sections. Having a professional singer to learn from and attempt to emulate is incredible. Their mentorship is priceless.
Thirdly, and finally, and this is something that has become more obvious to me as a felt experience as time has gone on: the choir is a community. I lean on my fellow Tenors as we sing. Every member is supportive as we try to grow as musicians. Dallas makes sure that our efforts support the goals of the Sunday service. We support each other through life transitions and events (good and bad). But, more than that, the choir is an opportunity for its members to grow spiritually and intellectually through community and service.
So, when faced with the question of Where am I going to fit in here? I have to say that choir is definitely a place within this congregation which is an answer to that question.
But there is a financial cost to maintaining the music program. And, if I may be direct, beyond being able to purchase music, we have to be able to pay our Music Director and Resident Musicians a fair wage for their leadership and professional contributions.
I want to support the music program and all of the activities that First Unitarian runs. And I also want our leaders and participants in the entire congregation to be able to organize and attend activities without having to worry so much about whether or not we can pay for them. So, I will be making a financial pledge and I hope that you will too.
Testimony of Doug Buck, March 4, 2018
Good morning; I’m Doug Buck, a member of this congregation.
York University, where I taught, ran on committees — so it was easy for me to fit right in at First Unitarian. I understood.
Once, in the late 1980s, I made a progress report to a departmental meeting as chair of a faculty search committee. I said that each candidate would be given an orientation tour of the campus and, for women candidates, we’d include a visit to the campus day care centre. Yes. One of the few women faculty kindly suggested that male candidates also visit the day care. Embarrassing. I was clueless.
At that time, my cultural experience was that a man would be less interested in child care choice, and a culture is powerful. It’s the air we breathe; it’s hard to see outside of it, and the culture of men was and still is different than that of women.
We read and hear stories about some men whose ego is so thin that they become easily enraged and violent. Those who feel threatened may take out their frustration on less-powerful others, including women. Rarely, however, are men violent against their bosses.
This morning we’re looking at “Risk.” Indeed, virtually all women are at risk of marginalization, discrimination, abuse, and assault. For Indigenous women, the risks are even higher. But think also of the risks to our society: how many symphony conductors, physicists, and Olympic athletes will Canada never have because of the abuse that limits women’s horizons.
While cultures change slowly, I’ve learned that I can help this change by being aware of my speech and actions. I apologize when I suspect I’ve offended. I try not to let remarks or actions of others slide past me If I’m silent, I’m complicit.
If my wife, Kate Chung, sees someone being mistreated, she goes and stands near that person to offer moral support, and to be a witness, like those who accompany people in a war zone. I want to do that, too.
I’d like to ask for men to think about this and to help as you can. I was corrected by a woman, but it isn’t fair to ask only women to remind me when I’m clueless.All of us are a combination of strengths and weaknesses. As I’ve listened to women speak of their own experiences, I’m gaining a better appreciation of what it means to be respectful. I want to be a good ally.
One way to demonstrate support for women is for men to wear a Moosehide Pin.
The Moosehide Campaign is a west-coast First Nations initiative that asks Indigenous and non-Indigenous men to honour, respect, and protect women and children, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as together we work to end sexism in our culture.
Several years ago, the Campaign was started by Paul Lacerte and his daughter, Raven, and a million pins have now been given away. Following the service, these pins will be offered to men in the Narthex, although women can wear them too. If you are able, wear one, please. Take the risk. It could save a life.
Together, we can change the culture. We’ve done it with smoking, and this is far more serious. Thank you.
Testimony of Catherine Lake, November 5, 2017
We often hear in the call to worship that wherever you are in your life’s journey, you are welcome here. My name is Catherine Lake and I’ve been a member of this congregation for about 15 years and throughout that time, I have brought so much of my self to this place —my political passions and personal penchants, my despairs and delights — and have always felt welcomed and embraced.
I also bring my inner doubts to my faith community and am not always soothed, sometimes I am deeply challenged and sometimes I am simply held like how my journey group meeting monthly for almost a decade now--holds my experience as they listen to who I am, and who I’ve been, and who I am becoming.
One of my journey group sisters, Brenda Ponic, has been coming to First for 17 years and talks about this place as providing “the ground where she can focus her quest for meaning.” Through the years I have become accustomed to saying that I am a Unitarian Universalist and part of a vibrant faith community called Toronto First. This place is part of my identity.
Where else in the world do I get to call out my sorrows and joys?
Where else do I get to hear wisdom and beauty and have my soul, myself, my person stirred and steadied?
Where else do I get to spiritually connect with others and feel connected and then I get to take this “here” out there?
Out there to the hard places of work and school and family and neighbours and traffic and the blur of cellphoned faces in the streets.
I love running into a Toronto First person out there in our cacophony city. It’s exciting like — hey that’s one of my people, that person shares something with me. Something called community, search, commitment, support and struggle for a better world.
Like when I ran into Anne Montanges in the AGO years ago and having never before spoken to her but in having seen her here, I sat with her and she talked to me about art. Anne has been a member of First Unitarian for 67 years. Last Sunday I asked her why she comes and she said “for weekly sustenance” and then I asked why she gives and she said that “everyone needs to live practically as well as spiritually and the church needs it too.”
So in this our pledge season, I am calling on all of us to be generous. Don’t do it according to how many times you come or if one particular Sunday service was better than another. See giving as more like paying for roads and schools and health care. Your contributions pay for this here—and this here supports you personally and in doing so, this here supports those you meet on the road of your journey, those who study life alongside you, and those who strive with you for a healthier world.
As a previous Board member, I know that the Board and people that run this place here really need your commitment and specified pledge for budgeting purposes. You can’t freelance a congregation. It’s too hard not knowing what budget and goals you can set, what people you can hire, what you can offer to the community for the coming year. A firm monetary number and the commitment of planned giving from each of us is a huge weight of worry off of those volunteer shoulders that keep help this place going.
A place to be heard.
A place to be held.
A place for your health and your journey not just within the walls of this place here but out there where we all really need it.
So today, make your pledge. And then pat yourself on the back—for giving to our community that gives to our wider world and for giving to yourself that in turn gives to others as together, we seek, connect, and serve.
Testimony of Ruth Tait, January 22, 2017
No, no, no, no, Yes!
The title of my testimony comes from a quote by humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was once asked how he was able to take such evocative photos. He responded, “I lift the camera to my eye, I look through the lens and I say: ‘No, no, no, no, yes!’”
In my own journey, I too have taken the opportunity to strive at various undertakings. I might be doing work in my studio, honing my professional skills or, as is germane to this testimony, becoming a Unitarian. What do I strive for in this enterprise?
As I look out towards the congregation, consisting of many people that I have come to know over the years, whose community I enjoy, I am filled with gratitude for the sense of connection this affords me. From my perspective, this is one of the best things about the Unitarian faith, as I have come to appreciate it. Would I not find the same thing outside this place? Possibly. But, in my life, opportunities for connection are less certain. In the weekly comings-together, I find myself feeling a sense that we are all of us drinking from the same life-affirming well – to evocatively build our own sense of humanity, to whatever extent possible. To share, within the bounds of our covenant, our vulnerabilities and our hopes.
I am well aware, as I have come here for many years, that coming together in community on a regular basis is not all there is to Toronto First. I also know that ways that I am able to choose to deepen my faith depend on many factors, some of which I am unable to control. It is this aspect of the Unitarian that I see in me that I want to address – and for which I derived the title.
In my efforts to meet effectively the challenges of my life, I have frequently had to step away from greater engagement. I have had to say ‘no’ to many initiatives that I would clearly have enjoyed, were I living a different reality.
One of the most painful, from my perspective, of these ‘no’s’, happens when our community finds itself in desperate need of funds. The appeals that issue forth are persuasive. Still, I must say ‘no’. I am someone whose income, as a professional artist, is unstable and well below the poverty line – and I have to be realistic.
Or, a wonderful project is brought forward, calling for volunteers. How I wish I had the time! But I am someone who must work many hours to gain my living. I cannot realistically be so diverted. This is indicative of many workers in the arts in Canada.
With each ‘no’ I feel my faith as a Unitarian wobble.
I grew up privileged in a home knowing there was always enough food to eat. Today, as a working artist and a senior, I do not have that same privilege. This is a challenge requiring all of my creative thinking.
I realize that I am up against a huge global vortex. I also know that in the discussions around how to approach this problem, my voice cannot be viewed as a token one. I am resolved to bear witness to the situation that I face with equanimity and even with gratitude but also with truth. I felt I needed to say how it is for me. In our services we invite 'those who are able' to stand. I think that, in consideration of the problem of income disparity, pledging and collection might also declare of giving, only – 'as you are able'.
Where the 'value' of a person may well equate to earned income – what of those less ‘valuable' who wish creatively to contribute to the greater good? Community is founded on a representation of unique perspectives engaged in common purpose. A purpose of this community as I have come to understand it, is to insure that all are invited to the table and to act for all.
This is how I evoke my self as a Unitarian: I represent a part of that which exists in the world. Each day, I have the opportunity to create that self and that world anew, to my best ability.
Within the confines of my limitations, I pledge to draw from the wellspring of my own gifts, tools, experience, opportunities and questions, such as they are, to engage my faith, to support this congregation and grow spiritually. I may say ‘no, no, no…’ but be assured that I am also actively striving for ‘yes!’
Testimony of Ted Wood, December 4, 2016
Good morning. I’m Ted Wood and I’m a member of Amnesty International.
Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people who campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.
Today is Amnesty Sunday when we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 and participate in Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign.
Today our ministers are in Standing Rock, North Dakota attending the Interfaith Day of Prayer. Amnesty International USA has been monitoring the situation and has sent observers. Amnesty USA has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate police practices.
Amnesty Group 142 focuses on the rights of Indigenous peoples as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which our congregation endorses and supports. The Declaration asserts the rights of Indigenous peoples including the right to Free, Prior and Informed consent to projects that affect their lives and lands.
In Canada, the Site C dam project in the Peace River region of northeast British Columbia is a microcosm of the Canadian resource economy. By actively promoting intensive resource development federal and provincial officials have emphasized economic benefits while largely ignoring serious and sometimes deadly consequences for the health and safety that disproportionately impact the lives of Indigenous people who live there. The hydroelectric dam would flood more that 100 km of the Peace Valley submerging hundreds of cultural and historic sites, destroying vital wildlife habitat and lands where the Dane-Zaa, Cree, and Métis peoples hunt, trap, and gather berries and medicines. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have challenged the dam in court, arguing that their treaty rights have been ignored.
The federal and provincial governments approved construction of the dam even though their own environmental review process concluded that flooding the valley would “severely undermine” the ability of Indigenous peoples to carry out hunting, fishing, and other traditions protected by treaty, the Canadian Constitution and international law. The two governments have claimed that the need for electricity “justifies” these harms, however the province has pushed ahead with the dam without properly considering less harmful alternatives – or even if the electricity is really needed.
In addition to our action to halt the Site C dam we also have two other actions. One will support Máxima Acuña, a peasant farmer in northern Peru who has taken on Yanacocha, one of the biggest gold and copper mines in the world, over the ownership of the land where she lives with her family. The other will call on Honduras to protect the lives and personal integrity of all the campesino human rights defenders and to investigate the murders of José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George and bring the perpetrators to justice.
To support the work of Amnesty International, there will be a special collection today and the white envelopes in your order of service are for that purpose. Cheques should be made payable to Amnesty International Group 142 and charity tax receipts will be issued by Amnesty Canada.
For holiday shopping we have Amnesty merchandise available in Workman Hall during coffee hour. There is also the opening art reception here in Sunderland Hall at 12:00 noon for our December exhibit by Indigenous artists.
Amnesty International believes the campaign to stop Site C is so important for international human rights and justice that we are spotlighting it in our worldwide Write for Rights event. Amnesty supporters in over 200 countries will be sending hundreds of thousands of letters to Prime Minister Trudeau. We will also be sending letters to Premier Clark. We will be signing letters today to support and protect Peace River communities from an injustice that, if allowed to happen, cannot be undone.
Testimony of Nacia Miller, November 6, 2016
For the things we save; for the things that make us who we are. And for my uncle, my dad, and millions
of others who lived through extraordinary times and went on to live very ordinary, honourable lives.
These are the things in Uncle Johnnie’s box. The things saved, the things
left behind when he died at 91. Or maybe he was 92. (We weren’t close)
Dad’s older brother, the one who’d quit school at 14 and went to work
to support the family. The one who became, for a time, tyrannical
boss of the house. Still in the end he was alone, and his Arizona
nursing home mailed this small, battered wooden box of things,
mailed it to my dad. And then it came to me. After Dad died.
These things, now mine:
A telephone book with faded names and numbers of insurance companies,
drugstores, long-dead friends from Miami, Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens.
A number for the time of day and temperature in Phoenix. And one for
C & T Fashions on West 36th Street, the factory where he worked
for 40 years, sewing ladies coats. A partly torn snapshot of his wife
and a tarnished bracelet engraved with her name: Mollie.
And also these:
His 1945 Honorable Discharge, listing his height as 5’3”, weight 120 lbs,
so small he could squeeze into the nose cone of a B-24 bomber, out there
gunning in mid-air, a perfect little target, trapped in a tight space
with the insane roar of the plane’s engines making clear thought
impossible, which was probably good. (I never asked)
Souvenirs from the battles of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes,
Rhineland. He flew 30 missions, Dad said. Or maybe it was 20.
(I wasn’t listening)
His European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, a British Army pin,
his Army of India medal. His dog tags on a crude silver chain. A photo of him
in full bomber gear, and one where he’s dressed as a Scottish Highlander.
(I don’t know why)
Last, a silk escape map of France, Spain and Portugal. In case
he was shot down, wandering alone in an unfamiliar land. (I guess)
Folded over twice, creased, muted, still intact.
When I was a child Uncle Johnnie visited only on holidays. He was loud,
argumentative, mostly deaf. From the war, Dad said. (It meant nothing to us)
He had no time for kids and mocked our excitement with Christmas trees
and presents and Santa. He seemed mean, clipped, harsh to us who knew
nothing about him, nothing really.
Testimony of Margaret Bryant, May 14, 2016
I am Margaret Bryant and I'm a member of this congregation. My husband Dominic and I were married at First, and our daughter Alix attends the Grade Five/Six RE program. I'm participating in the leadership development program, a member of the social events team and past co-leader of the Family Retreat.
You might be surprised to know that I've been attending First since I was a child.
There are few of us who have made the transition from child to youth to adult.
This morning I'm going to tell you a few of the things that I remember from when I was a kid here.
Most obvious are the physical changes to our building.
Our RE classes were held in dark, cold, cramped rooms in the basement. They were classrooms that you ached to get out of. The curriculum was uninspiring and traditional, though delivered by kind and caring teachers. Those classes began to change as I became a youth with first what was the precursor to OWL called About Your Sexuality, and a program that endures today, Neighbouring Faiths about learning about other religions. On one memorable Sunday, we visited The People's Church up on Sheppard East and were amazed to watch kids our age responding to the call from the pulpit of volunteering to go on missions right then and there, while we Unitarian youth slunk low in our seats.
Now, our RE program is incredibly varied and dynamic. Today my daughter isn't sitting in a cold, damp room, or even one of our bright, carpeted rooms, but heading to Winston Churchill park for a nature walk. On any given Sunday, you see kids tearing up and down the backstairs, and chasing each other through Coffee Hour. Our popular Family Retreat stretched the limits of Cedar Glen this past January with over 80 participants.
Another physical change is the layout of the sanctuary which has rotated 90 degrees. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, my mind wanders, with apologies to the service leaders, and I challenge myself to remember what the building was like before. Moving the front of the sanctuary over there, with the floor to ceiling opaque glass windows on either side through which you could hear the sounds of the streetcars.
When I was a kid, there was a room on the side of the chancel which was called the minister's study, although I think it was used as the library. It was a mysterious room in which we were never allowed, and amongst the kids it was rumoured to have a door to a secret garden.
Although the chancel moved, some things have remained the same. The piano for instance, and the playing of our pianists. I have always sat where I can watch the pianists' hands. Many of you will be familiar with the dramatic and wonderful changes in our music program. When I was a kid, the music for each service was announced in the monthly bulletin. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that if we saw that the choir was singing, my mum and I would skip that Sunday's service. Now, the opposite would be true.
It's also hard to believe that the kitchen moved so significantly. Where the kitchen now is, was once the smoky welcoming lair of church secretary Bunny Turner. I spent many boring hours in that office while my mother volunteered as the collections and pledge bookkeeper.
And in the old kitchen, my mum introduced me to the pleasures of giving service. We regularly helped out at social events including the men's lunches making what seemed like hundreds of sandwiches. It might have been tedious work to a kid, but it wasn't really. I got to listen to the women chatting, and felt a real sense of belonging and the joy of feeling useful. This is something we're trying to pass on to our daughter. You'll see her helping out at the AGM lunch, with the social events team that has made her welcome and a team member. It's through active participation that we feel most comfortable here, and that hasn't changed at all.
One last physical change, I'll share with you. You may occasionally use the back stairs. Well, I use them all the time, even at risk of being locked in them. Hanging on the wall is a beautiful wooden wall hanging that once hung in the front of the sanctuary, where now we have the copper sculpture that complements our chalice. When I was a kid, we had only a small wooden chalice lit at the beginning of the service and extinguished at the end. The new large chalice with communal candle lighting didn't exist, and actually the chalice was not a focal point, more a bookend to the service.
I walk by the wooden wall hanging and am nostalgic for my childhood, and for a time of my grandparents humanism, cooperative games and Lotta Hitschmanova-led service to others. Of my parents popular and robust youth groups, of robe-less ministers and minimal rituals. And of my childhood, here, where I belonged.
I'm not really that nostalgic. I know ours is a perennially changing faith. I like looking at the colours and workmanship of Shawn's stoles. And I'm so proud of our recent service towards the Syrian refugees. And of our amazing music program, wonderful and challenging Sunday services and of our enhanced RE program for kids and adults.
Despite the constantly changing nature of Unitarianism, to me, one thing stands out as not having changed at all.
There are few of us here, and at other congregations, who have grown up Unitarian. We remain a faith of predominately first generation Unitarians, whose experience of our faith and of this congregation is largely limited to the recent past.
We still are challenged to bridge the transition from youth to adulthood.
Testimony of Kimberley Watson, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
Good morning. My name is Kim Watson, and I’ve been attending First for about a year.
Women stood in a sacred space, a place of reverence and respect, and told women’s stories.
As someone who currently falls in the agnostic-atheist range, I sometimes feel perplexed at attending a congregation that comes out of the Judeo-Christian tradition – a tradition I left at the age of 13. Looking back, in the version to which I was exposed, I experienced it as didactic, prescriptive, emphasizing shame and sin instead of life and celebration. There seemed to be no space for my questions or for direct experience! Later I tried neo-paganism, where there was an embrace of the feminine principle along with the masculine, and where as a woman I had a place in the sacred circle. But, ultimately, at the time I didn’t know how to compromise that approach with my science training.
And now, here I am, back to a place that comes out of the tradition I left, albeit with some welcome variations – talking about what it was like to tell women’s stories in a sacred space.
In retrospect, I didn’t carefully consider being in The Vagina Monologues. Sistering is a good cause, it was a way to get to know people here, it’s a classic play. Never mind I hadn’t auditioned for anything in 30 years! This seemed like a safe place to take chances. Our director Mona el Baroudi asked how brave did I feel – would I consider a monologue reclaiming a fallen word now considered the most profane, AND do it with orgiastic ecstasy to boot? Why not? – This seemed like a safe place to take risks.
The realization of the absolute profundity of this project only slowly unfolded for me. Women stood in a sacred space and told women’s stories! The play speaks to the feminine across a range of issues including: sexual desire, body shame, genital mutilation, rape, love, birth, lesbian and transgender experiences, embodiment. My monologue was about the celebratory, healing power of sensuality and sexuality, and the joy and freedom in claiming the right to define oneself.
We named all these things, in the pulpit, which historically has been a seat of power from which women were excluded, women were persecuted, and women’s bodies were controlled.
Remnants of neopagan ritual come back to me. I hope that together as a cast we lifted up a sort of incantation that aids a transformation of those difficult truths we declared, and a transformation of the relationship between women and institutions of worship. May there be transmutation in naming these things from a powerful and loving centre.
Our Minister Shawn Newton affirmed this project was his long-time dream. I don’t recall him saying – but surely it was intentional? – that The Vagina Monologues was performed the very month we focused on the theme of Reconciliation.
WE women spoke of women’s realities, in THIS sacred space. We held this place of reverence and respect, and we TOLD the stories.
Our minister, and many of you, attended the show. You listened and bore witness, sometimes despite discomfort. You did not turn away from, interrupt, dismiss or silence us.
You. Bore. Witness.
And that, also, is Truth and Reconciliation.
I stood in this place of reverence and respect and I spoke women’s stories, together with other women.
This process healed an old wound that I didn’t even know was still there. For that I am ever grateful to all of you.
And yes, I feel renewal. Did you know related words are restoration and restitution?
And yes, this is a safe place.
Testimony of Yvonne Raaflaub, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
How does this wordsmith, who expands small topics, reduce an extraordinarily layered experience to 451 words, the length of Eve Ensler’s monologue finale I was 4 privileged to perform – “My Revolution begins in the body” – and that I continue to recite once each day? I can but try or I may just cry, speechless.
Inseparable, “My Revolution” and I. The most powerful piece I’ve taken inside me.
How could I not love this poem that honours females, reveres earth, and respects all human beings, especially those who “feel too much”?
To “feel too much” is to “feel just right”. Mona, you feel just right.
Mona offered me something Unitarian ears might cringe at. Two words. Any guesses?
Validation and visibility and voice. Validation as an artist – first-time actor that I was. Visibility – me alone at this podium in my little black tube dress (which I’ve nicknamed my fallopian tube dress), sharing the spotlight with nobody. Voice – “You have a big vocal range.” That’s something I hadn’t known.
What I do know is the power of monologue combined with Mona’s contagious mindfulness. Here’s looking at you, Mona!
And here’s looking at my VagSisters and our respectful rehearsal week together where I was awed by their hard work and buoyed by all the laughter…
But I had come to resent my monologue and struggled with it. Imagine hating a poem about love!
I’d ignored my soul, my reading, my writing and done what I most abhor in others: I’d abandoned the tried-and-true when something new and exciting came along.
I cried, wrote, asked my books for forgiveness (I hope I used all 5 apology languages), made a nest out of my favourite books and slept inside.
“We missed you,” they said, “but you looked busy. Please come back and write in our margins. We’ve missed your touch.”
“I’ve missed yours, too.”
Books are my personal refuge, my sanctuary. I love them. And this sanctuary at First Unitarian, I also love.
When I performed “My Revolution” here, the two things I most cherish in the world came together for the first time in my life. One – the arts, not part of my childhood, fully embodied here. Theatre, with music, poetry, stories…
And I was a performer. Validated, visible, vocal.
Two – my village, population 300, contained within these walls both evenings. Familiar and friendly faces. Just like back home.
Because of you, I am made whole!
Because you live community.
“A great community,” writes Lois Smidt *, “creates conditions where people can fall in love.”
“It is a place where we can make a fuss about one another.”
“A place where we can ask, ‘How did I ever live without you?’”
* Lois Smidt in John McKnight and Peter Block, The abundant community: awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. San Francisco: 2010, p. 148.