Testimony of Stan Yack, November 14, 2004
But it turned out that our temporary host's Christian symbols didn't change the spirit of our Unitarian services, so I hung in and a year later I marched back behind John Kiley's bagpipes. In our transformed home, I cherished architect Murray Ross's elegant, functional design, and artist Sarah Hall's breathtaking stained glass tower.
I have only a vague memory of the first sermons I heard here. But over the years I've learned about a religion without irrational creeds, where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, and where no privileged oligarchy rules by right of some mythical divinity. I very much value what I've learned from Mark & Donna, and from our guest speakers and teachers.
I've volunteered here in many supporting roles: painting, cleaning, typing, bartending, organizing ... and last year I was drafted to serve on the Board of Trustees.
Even before becoming a designated leader of this congregation I have occasionally incited people to action, but usually my contributions have been technical ones, facilitating and amplifying the effectiveness of others whose actions I've joined.
Witnessing the examples of others at First, eight years ago I volunteered at Out of the Cold, the Toronto housing project connected to our Food & Shelter Committee. Out of the Cold provides meals and warm beds for some of Toronto's homeless. At a midtown church, volunteers from six or so faith communities including our own prepare food, register guests, serve dinner, distribute clothing, ... I started there doing kitchen cleanup once every other month. Lately I've been a weekly regular, the "shift supervisor" for dining room setup.
Our complex world presents us with many moral conundrums where the proper course of action is unclear; but I have no doubt that working at Out of the Cold is the right thing to do. And that work is empowering, because no one can stop those of us who feel called to do it. I've recently discovered a new book, titled "The Impossible Will Take a Little While". That inspiring and uplifting "citizen's guide to hope in a time of fear" contains stories by and about activists who didn't give up their struggle, even when hard reason would dismiss any hope. Many of them are famous, like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Martin Luther King. But some are unfamiliar, or even anonymous, like the persons unknown who involved Raymond Parks in the NAACP, who in turn activated his wife Rosa, who years later refused to give up her seat and move to the back of bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
The collector of those stories, Paul Rogat Loeb, says that what the activists have in common is that though they realize that their goals might not be met in their lifetimes, they feel that "living with conviction is of value in itself ... simply keeping the flame alive is a victory"
It may seem pretentious of me to compare my setting up tables and washing dishes at Out of the Cold to sleeping for 28 years on the concrete floor of a cell on Robben Island, or risking the wrath of Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South . but not unlike resistors in prison, and protestors in Alabama, we volunteers at Out of the Cold are keeping a flame alive.
It has been a joy for me to meet other volunteers and staff there. Many have distinctly non-secular views about the place of humanity in the Cosmos, very unlike my own views; but we all share a commitment to try to leave the world a better place. In a couple of weeks I will be participating in another direct-action project: on Saturday, November 27th I will be helping to finish the interior of a Habitat for Humanity home. Last month many of you responded enthusiastically to an energizing talk by the local CEO of Habitat, which has changed for the better the lives of over a million people. Many of you will be joining me to hammer nails, paint walls, feed volunteers, ... There will be fulfillment in working together with others to do good work.
There are so many worthwhile causes, injustices are so well established, and progress is always so slow, that it is easy to despair of effecting change. But taking action brings relief from such discouraging feelings. By "not refusing to do the something I can do", perhaps my own world line will nudge that of some 21st century Rosa Parks.
As the activist and author Howard Zinn tells us in Loeb's collection of stories: "life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."
Testimony of Ted Wood, August 22, 2004
I have been a spiritual seeker of sorts for most of my life. What originally drew me to this congregation 15 years ago was hearing that we teach our children about all the religions of the world. That sounded like the church for me, a place that is open to many sources of inspiration. We teach our children to think for themselves and to find answers about the meaning of life and the mystery of creation from their own experience and inspiration. We love our children and we support them by nurturing them and hopefully providing them with the tools they will need to live fulfilling lives.
In order to nurture our children we put our energy into providing for them. Our physical, emotional and mental energies and our money. And what is money but just another form of energy. Jacob Needleman in his book "Money and the Meaning of Life", talks about money as potential energy. It represents the energies we put into our work to earn it. Money is full of potential as it also represents what we will create when we spend it.
I came to this congregation looking for a spiritual home, a community, a sense of belonging. At the time I was going through a crisis of sorts, having recently lost a friend who had died suddenly. His death shook my foundations. It seemed such a waste and I found myself looking for meaning and reconnection to life. When I discovered this place that was open to the wisdom of all traditions, that sounded like a place I would like to be. It was then and it continues to be today. In the past 15 years I have learned to build my own religion, a religion that has meaning for me. It is an ongoing process as I find that I continually need to renew my place in this mysterious creation in which we live. This is what we teach our children and also what we teach and support in each other.
Many years before I became a member of this congregation I learned that life is a choice. Over the years I have also discovered that what we choose to do needs to be done with love. It is through love that our spirits grow. It is also through service given with love that we make a difference in the lives of others.
For me, money is just another form of energy which we put to service. What we do with our money is our choice but a very important choice. We provide food and shelter for our children, our families and ourselves. We provide for others who are in need. By supporting this congregation, we provide nourishment to our spirits: the spirits of our children and the spirits of each other. These are all possible choices for how we spend our money. The key for me is to look at money the same way I look at my other energies and to give the best I am able with love and generosity of spirit without asking for anything in return.
The money we have is full of great potential. In the same way as I aspire to live my life with meaning and a sense of spiritual purpose, I also aspire to put my money toward that same meaning and purpose. For me, our financial crisis is a spiritual crisis and the solution will be a spiritual solution. A solution which inspires us to live fulfilling, meaningful lives in service and with love.
Testimony of Mary Ellen Warren, April 18, 2004
Have you noticed the print hanging in the vestibule inside the front door at First? It is a reproduction of the “founding’ of the Unitarian religion in 1568 in the town of Torda, Transylvania, in what is now Romania. Francis David is shown proclaiming the principle of religious tolerance. Ministers of the four established religions were to be allowed to preach their beliefs without fear of reprisals - a form of religious toleration. That print is a symbol of my religious journey.
My formative years were spent in Galt now Cambridge Ontario. There, at that time, I learned that people were divided into two groups – “us” the Catholics and “them” the rest. However, my father declined an invitation to join the Catholic men’s group, the Knights of Columbus and chose instead to support the non-sectarian Humane Society. And my mother determined that playing bridge with Protestants was no problem. So my own discomfort with dividing the world into “us and them” was somewhat quieted.
When I came to First in 1991, I got to know and appreciate the Unitarian principles through teaching the Red Group in Religious Education. And through courses such as the Haunting Church, I gained perspective on my early religious background. I trolled the shelves of the library, for a range of theologies. I attended courses on the Muslim faith, joined in a Passover Seder dinner and participated in the in the Humanist Group. I had found a place of religious tolerance, just what I had been looking for.
At First, I encountered the Partner Church Group, a group of seven self-selected members and Hungarian-speaking friends. We set ourselves the goal of furthering communication with our Partner Church Bartok Bela, Budapest. There are major religious differences between the Unitarian churches in North America and in Hungary/Romania, what they share is a fair amount of tolerance of other religions. We had much to learn about each other, which was made possible by sponsored visits to First by the Bartok Bela ministers. In the near future we hope to have Co-Minster Sandor Leta and his wife Erika visit Toronto First.
That is the cutting edge for me. How to both espouse tolerance and to be tolerant. How to see white in black and black in white and not fall in and out of relativism, cynicism and despair. First Unitarian Congregation, and the Partner Church is a platform for me to be “open to the other”. As the saying goes, the most radical thing you can do is talk to one other person.
Last August after staying for a few days at Batok Bela and attending a service there, I traveled to Torda. I stood in the very same church pictured in the print in the vestibule. It is a Catholic Church. The Unitarian Church is a couple of blocks away, one of many that serves the 75,000 Unitarians in Transylvania.
As a post script, after the Sunday service at our Partner Church, Bartok Bela in Budapest the members passed chocolates to honour their special guests from First. Today after the service, in Workman Hall a Partner Church Group member will pass a tray of chocolates and strawberries, our gift to you.
Testimony of Kalvin Drake, February 15, 2004
My name is Kalvin Drake, and I'm a Unitarian*Universalist… I've been a Unitarian*Universalist since Tuesday, September 12, 1972… since around 6:30 in the evening…
Of course, I didn't know that I was Unitarian and a Universalist. I didn't even know the terms, let alone a definition of the terms. In fact, I quickly discovered that I definitely wasn't a Unitarian or a Universalist when I read what scant definitions I could find in the encyclopedias and the other books in my teenage bedroom in the North of England.
You see, according to the books I couldn't be a Unitarian or a Universalist because I wasn't a Christian, and I didn't much care whether God came in one, three or 57 varieties. The "ultimate salvation of my soul" wasn't a major concern to me either, since I was confident that whatever "happened to me when I died" would be (or at least should be) determined by how I lived in this life. And if I was wrong, then I knew I'd have some pretty "good" company down there in Hell.
It wasn't until I came to Canada that I associated myself with the labels "Unitarian" and "Universalist". Even then it took some time! Too much time. In the days before that great Unitarian invention, the World Wide Web, it wasn't easy to find you! The definitions I found in the North American reference books were much the same as in the British.
It was only years later that I discovered that, while North American Unitarians and Universalists continue to use Christian terminology, they might mean something quite different! I guess that I, like many others I've talked to, hadn't stuck around long enough to listen to the "small print" that says "Well, when Unitarians say 'Church', 'Sermons' and 'Hymns', they don't mean 'Church', 'Sermons' and 'Hymns' like…" Well, you know what I mean!
In fact, it was only through Humanist and Buddhist groups in Canada that I learned "No, really, take a look at the Unitarians. Fortunately, they are not what the say they are!"
I suspect my story is not unique - and that many of you have stumbled across Unitarianism by accident…
Not only have we ourselves forgone the benefits of being "connected" for much of our short lives, I am convinced that there are countless thousands across this country - and millions across the world - who would be comforted and energized by simply knowing we exist.
And beyond the individual, I have come to believe that Unitarian*Universalism offers not only a religious, but a unique philosophical and political common ground where diverse people can come together from across this fractious planet to solve complex problems with mutual respect and trust.
It is for these reasons that I see the work of the Canadian Unitarian Council as so important, and why I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with such competent staff and volunteers at both the regional level as a Congregational Networker and at the National level as a member of several committees and task forces.
Together, as individual Unitarian*Universalists and as members of the CUC, our work is vital - for the peace and solace of individual hearts and minds, and for the very future of our planet.
Testimony of Bob McKenzie, November 23, 2003
Good morning. My name is Bob McKenzie. 50 years ago this month I joined this Congregation. It's hard to believe -- but it's true. I thought after 50 years I should say something wise.
I wasn't born Unitarian. My parents were staunch supporters and lay leaders in the United Church of Canada. It was off to church every Sunday whether I wanted to or not. Sunday school, church services, communion -- the whole lot.
On the whole, it was a positive experience. I enjoyed singing the hymns, hearing the biblical stories and learning what Christianity was about. But I questioned some of it. I remember that phrase "God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" and asking my parents "Who is this Holy Ghost?" I was questioning the concept of the Trinity way back then. During high school and university my attendance fell off -- other interests, studies, etc.
On graduating from U of T in the spring of '52 I was at loose ends. There was a film festival being held at a place on St. Clair called the Unitarian Church. While attending, I became curious about the strange looking church I'd never heard of. I picked up pamphlets in the foyer. It seemed interesting -- this Unitarianism. I started to attend services in the fall of '52. And the rest is history!
I liked everything -- the sermons, lack of dogma, music, it was different from any church I'd attended. In Nov '53 after one of Bill Jenkins rousing sermons I went to him and said I wanted to join the church. He pulled out this ancient looking tome, opened it, and said "Sign here". That's all there was to it! That decision would turn out to be quite significant in my life.
I joined then for a number of reasons: serendipity, curiosity, my religious background, the Unitarian philosophy, the Steinway Grand (I was never crazy about organ music) and the stimulating sermons. The whole package suited me, so I took the plunge.
I've continued to be a member for several reasons. Perhaps the most important is I've stayed involved. By being involved I've always felt a part of this community. I've been on the Board, taught RE, sat on committees galore, fundraising, choir, ushering, property committee and many special events. There's so much going on around here. You soon learn you can't do it all, even when you're retired. Making a contribution results in a good feeling. It makes for a full and interesting life. Without getting involved you aren't capitalizing on all this church has to offer. It's what's kept me coming back all these years.
And of course, my Unitarian beliefs, they still make sense to me, and as a late member Ralph Albrant used to say "You don't need to check your brains in with your coat when you come to the Unitarian Church."
Another reason I've stuck around is "YOU"......yes YOU. All of you. You're an interesting group of people. What a heterogeneous mixture! Different cultural backgrounds, religious origins, personalities ... and you're all so gifted and intelligent. It's amazing.
We've made some wonderful friends and have found a great community here. It makes me feel good to belong. The Sunday services, of course, have remained most satisfying and well executed.
There have been a number of changes over the years -- there was no chalice 15 years ago and no lighting of candles. The architecture and appearance of the building changed dramatically with the renovation. The art work - it all makes coming here an uplifting experience.
I'm fortunate to be healthy. My wife, Olga, feeds me the right things and provides TLC and understanding. Otherwise, I might be 6 feed under by this time and in Unitarian heaven ... If there is one.
I've belonged to this institution longer than I've belonged to anything else in my life, including my marriage. It's been a rewarding and enriching experience. Mark, don't be too hasty in preparing a memorial service for me. There's still some life in the old guy yet. I'm looking forward to the next 50 years!
Pax vobiscum. Merci beaucoup!
Testimony of Cameron Linton, November 16, 2003
My friend, you are not well – and it hurts me to see you like this. You know, friends help each other if one is down – and we have been close friends for over 14 years.
I’m fine, really – what are you talking about?
You know what I’m talking about. Don’t be resigned – that feeling is common with financial stress. Look – you cannot sustain your current lifestyle, your current standard of living.
Be careful what you say to me.
Yes, I know you are nearly 160 years old and have incredible experiences and accomplishments. But I’m talking about your living on the edge hoping the money challenges will resolve themselves. You have many friends who love you – so we are going to make sure you take care of yourself.
I have a destiny – built on a vision. Don’t change who I am. I beg you.
Look – it can lead to good things if you have an open mind. I want to help you – I NEED to help you get to this new outlook.
Things will turn around – did you see the spirit (and money) at the auction last night?
Oh I know my stomach was in knots at Agnes’ event last night. The community – the momentum – the dynamics of the bidding teams – the camaraderie – the children laughing – the spirit.
Was the canvass a success?
Yes, and Catherine’s energy worked wonders too, as did Art and everyone before.
How do you think I need to live?
Me? I think you need to cut your day-to-day costs.
But that would impact staff…they build the hope.
I know, as I said, I’m anxious and it hurts me to think about it. Take for instance:
I won’t go.
You are going to resist this change, aren’t you? It is not going to be easy to disrupt your delicate balance. But sometimes to understand who we are we must push ourselves beyond our limit and then deal with the realignment. Come back to the ‘B’ league if we’re not ready for ‘A’, so to speak.
Well, we’ve asked your close friends to meet here on the afternoon of November 30 after second service. We will explain the state you have gotten yourself into; let your friends speak about how you are a friend to them and how they think you should change; and we’ll outline the process to how we will decide what to change in February to spend $80K less in 2004.
What about you // Can I help?
As I said, I’m anxious about the pending changes; but I’m comfortable they will also create opportunity. I appreciate who I am, and who others around me are, because of you. Oh, yes, I have lots of plans once this is behind us.
When will you speak with me again?
We’ll talk again November 30. Till then, take care my friend.
Testimony of Douglas Campbell, May 4, 2003
We Unitarians sometimes like to contrast our liberal faith with that of "traditional religions", emphasizing the modern, broad-minded, inclusive character of our own with the opposite characteristics of some others. Ours must be a creature of enlightened 20th century North America, wouldn’t you say? Well, your sceptical response is right, our liberal faith did not originate either in the 20th century or in North America.
We are just the latest beneficiaries of centuries of liberal religious thought and engagement with the world. Modern liberal religion arose in Central Europe in the middle of the 16th century and put down its sturdiest roots in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania. In stark contrast with most of Europe at that time, Transylvania enjoyed a high degree of religious tolerance, at least among the four major faith traditions that were well established there, including Unitarianism. The high point of those early years came when Francis David, a priest who had converted to Unitarianism through his own study of the bible, succeeded in convincing King John Sigsmund, and the Diet (or parliament) meeting in the town of Torda, to issue an edict institutionalizing that official toleration. It provided that no citizen could be persecuted because of his or her religious beliefs. The year was 1568, and the Unitarian Michael Servetus had been burned at the stake in Geneva by John Calvin for expressing his beliefs only 15 years earlier.
Now let’s segue to the late 20th century and the Partner Church Program. This program began as an effort by North American Unitarian Universalists to save Transylvanian villages from demolition by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu. Once that danger had passed, North Americans realized how rewarding their interaction with the Transylvanians had been for participants on both sides of the Atlantic. So instead of folding up, the Partner Church Program expanded to include Hungary and several other countries. Our congregation "signed up" for the program in 1994, and we were paired with Budapest Second Unitarian Church, which is now renamed for Bela Bartok whose family were members.
In recent years, we have brought two successive ministers of our partner church to Canada to get to know us. The first one, Jozsef Kaszoni, is now the minister of First Unitarian Church of Budapest, the cathedral church in Hungary. The second one, Csaba Razmany, has now become the Unitarian Bishop of Hungary, though he retains his position as senior minister of Bela Bartok Unitarian Church. Our Partner Church Group is now corresponding with the new assistant minister of Bela Bartok, Sandor Leta, who was brought in from Transylvania to take over the day-to-day ministerial work from Csaba. We had hoped to bring Sandor to Toronto this Spring, but his Romanian passport wouldn’t allow it.
A number of our members including Ellen and myself have also visited our partners in Budapest. Last August following an international meeting in Budapest, the two of us spent a memorable afternoon with Sandor and his very charming young family, which reminded me that our Hungarian counterparts have a great deal to give us North Americans; our partner relationship is certainly not a one-way street. Our relationship challenges us to recognize our faith as the result of a long period of development, not as a New Age Johnny-come-lately on the religious scene. It also challenges us to apply our avowed principles of tolerance and appreciation for diversity to their more conservative theology and traditional institutional forms. And they have things to learn from us such as the way our ministers and congregations interact in a non-hierarchical way.
We also toured parts of Transylvania after the meeting with a busload of (mostly) other Unitarians, led by the assistant to the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania. Among other places we visited was the ancient Roman Catholic church in Torda from which the Edict was issued. The interior looked like it had hardly changed in 4½ centuries. How do I know? Because there is a famous painting depicting Francis David orating before King John and members of the Diet. The resulting Proclamation of Religious Freedom is so important in liberal religious history that this painting can be found hanging in every Unitarian church in Central Europe. In fact, Jozsef Kaszoni recently wondered aloud how there could be a Unitarian church without this painting on the wall. Well, we’re going to have to rectify that. Your Partner Church Group is proud to donate the Edict of Torda to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.
Testimony of Ilene Cummings, December 1, 2002
Good Morning. I’m Ilene Cummings and I’m currently a Lay Chaplain for this congregation. Today we say thank you to Harriet Xanthakos and Ken MacKerracher who have completed their four-year terms as Lay Chaplains and officially welcome aboard our two new Lay Chaplains, Beverley Grace and Tracey Szarka who began their terms in October. As the one in the middle, having completed two years and with a further two years to go, I have been asked to give this morning’s testimony.
I’ve been a member of this congregation a long time and have had the privilege of participating in many roles here. Over the years I’ve been a member of the Board, the chair of the Arts Committee, the Religious Education director, the chair of the Caring Committee, Sunday Worship leader, a member of the Pastoral Care committee plus a more than twenty-five year member of the choir. But I must say, I’m enjoying this experience as Chaplain as much or more than any of those other opportunities. (At least so it seems right now.) However, at the end of October, having had only one free weekend since June first, I was very relieved NOT to have any weddings scheduled in November!
I performed my first wedding on April 28, 2001 and have now officiated at nearly fifty weddings. To be precise, next Saturday will be my forty-ninth wedding—my apologies in advance, I won’t be able to attend the Christmas potluck this year. Each wedding is a mini-adventure for the Lay Chaplain. There are of course, similarities between the ceremonies, but no wedding is identical to another. And there is a whole new cast of characters at each wedding. It’s a great privilege to enter into the lives of couples who are getting married and I feel I’ve gained as much as I’ve given in this role as Lay Chaplain. I am also proud of the Unitarian materials we offer for the ceremonies and the way we allow our couples to take an active part in the planning of their ceremony.
People ask me what’s the most memorable wedding I’ve done and I can mention the one on-board a sailing yacht last summer or the Unitarian-Hindu ceremony done right here at First Unitarian the previous summer—but of course, the most memorable wedding for me personally was the opportunity to perform our son Chris’s wedding to Pat Joyes on August 3rd this year . I certainly never expected that would be one of the blessings of the job when I applied for the position in spring 2000. But what a privilege!
In addition to weddings, Lay Chaplains are also called upon to do memorial services and child dedications from time to time. I have done seven memorial services and four child dedications. When I mention memorial services, people always say, that must be so hard and yes it is hard but not only in the ways you might immediately imagine. It is unsettling to be called upon to do a memorial service as they often come up quickly and you have to be willing to cancel planned events and fit them into your schedule somehow. But it can be very satisfying too when you find the right readings for the service and put together a eulogy for the deceased—this feeling of helping people through a difficult time. At home I practice and practice saying the words until I can say them without getting all choked up—memorial services are emotional even when you didn’t personally know the person who died. By the time of the service you’ve had long talks with family and friends of the deceased and you almost feel you did know the person.
There are of course some disadvantages to being a Lay Chaplain. The major one is that you can’t take long summer vacations because every weekend you have weddings. The wedding season lasts from June through September and May and October can also be busy. Fortunately the rest of the year is not nearly as busy so the three of us can spell each other off. In February John and I are heading to Cuba for two weeks and I’m really looking forward to that.
I’d just like to add a word of thanks to Harriet and Ken for all their help when I was first starting out. It’s been a pleasure to be chaplain colleagues. And welcome, Beverley and Tracey. I hope you find Lay Chaplaincy as much fun as I do. And I’m sure Harriet, Ken, Beverley and Tracey all join me in thanking all of you for allowing us the privilege of acting as Lay Chaplains on your behalf.
Testimony of Cameron Linton, October 20, 2002
A year ago I said that the timing was right in my personal and spiritual growth path to engage in a leadership role with the Board of our Congregation. I wanted to contribute to a community-oriented, nonprofessional organization that respected the concept of a vision; that was caring; and had unlimited potential for growth. In exchange for the opportunity to serve in this role I offered my community and professional experience and my willingness to embrace the work at hand.
My vision was that I could strengthen the Congregation’s governance; orient the Congregation’s capabilities to help build the unfolding national community; and yes, just help keep the place running.
Being sensorial I prefer to grow through experience, not through study. Of the many Small Groups that I could have joined I thought the Board would best enable me to embody the principles of this organization. The Board may not be a quiet, contemplative, meditation group. But it is a Small Group with its own rituals, exploration of meaning, and interface to the rest of the congregation.
So, where am I in my growth?
After the first item of the first Board meeting I chaired – I barely survived a non-confidence vote. By my third meeting I couldn’t construct an agenda with relevant content. Then I heard that voice that told me I was missing an opportunity and needed to redirect my energy. Of course, the voice was Donna’s and the message was to engage the Board in the shared responsibility of owning the future and mobilizing around a vision. So at that meeting we established a small vision. Interesting for me, the team’s vision did not match mine of a year ago. Instead of governance, national identity and survival we had intimacy, local identity and celebration.
Through my Board experience I have experienced how leadership goes beyond management, beyond the governance process that enables management, and beyond the establishment of a vision. It is not found in dealing with administrative details, not in lobbying for volunteers to do initiatives, and certainly not in waiting for guidance. And the test for success? Does this organization support your individual ministry and service for a common good?
Testimony of Art Brewer, October 6, 2002
Why do we want to grow? Most of us feel we have found something quite unique in our Unitarian Universalist faith and we believe it’s worth sharing. That’s challenging for us, because we don’t proselytize or evangelize. Let me just say: this religion is not like others. So, if you’re visiting today, and have been suspicious of – or perhaps even "burned by" - organized religion, I congratulate you on your attendance today, and encourage you to come back a few times to see just how different we are.
The sign outside our entrance says "WARNING: Entering here may seriously change your life." In her sermon last week, Laura Friedman, our Intern Minister asked "How many Unitarians does it take to change a life?" In my case, the answer is about 400. I joined this congregation in 1993, and that’s how many members we had then. As I came to know the people here, I realized that –unlike most religious communities- this is a safe place for a gay man.
So, in 1997, I came out to the congregation in a testimony like the one I’m delivering right now. I was 53, and had spent 40 years living a very single, solitary life in the closet. This was a life changing event. Well, not really an event. Coming out is a never-ending process because our heterosexist society leads most of us to assume that people we meet are "straight." I have more friends now -of all sexual and affectional orientations and gender identities - than ever before, and I consider these to be the best years of my life. Here, my sexuality is acknowledged and affirmed when appropriate. The only closets we need at 1st Unitarian are the ones in which people hang their clothes. But my sexuality is also ignored when appropriate. This is exactly as it should be. My sexuality is only a part of who I am, and a faith community like ours reaches the zenith of its potential when it cradles its members in their hurt, welcomes them in their diversity, and facilitates their opportunities to change the world.
In 1998, this congregation voted unanimously to become a Welcoming Congregation (capital W, capital C). A Welcoming Congregation is one which has completed a program and publicly affirms that it welcomes the membership and active participation of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and/or transgender people.
With this as the backdrop, Laura’s question ("How many Unitarians does it take to change a life?") for me, morphed into "How many lives can this Unitarian change?" I have become a Welcoming Congregation activist. While two-thirds of Canada’s Unitarians belong to officially certified Welcoming Congregations, many have still not done the program. During the past year, I have delivered a Sunday service speech (call it a sermon if you wish) on this program to six Unitarian congregations in Ontario. On half of those occasions, members came out to their congregations right after the service. I believe I helped change some lives. Next week, I’ll lead a workshop on the Welcoming Congregation program at one of our Vancouver congregations. Yesterday, I was asked if I would be interested in addressing the Albany, New York Unitarian Universalist society.
One of my other passions is service to this congregation. Because of all it gives to me, I am happy to contribute my time, talent, energy and money. There are many rewarding opportunities. This year, I am serving as leader of our All-Member Canvass, the campaign to receive pledges of financial contributions from members and friends for our 2003 operating budget. It costs about half a million dollars a year to keep this community operating.
This is the first time in fifteen years that we have run our annual pledge campaign as an All-Member Canvass. How does it work? Every member becomes an active participant in the process. In small, informal, face-to-face meetings, we discuss the role of this congregation in our lives, and the valuable work we carry out in the larger community. These discussions help us to develop a renewed understanding of our individual and collective missions - "who" and "why" we are in the world. There is a very real link between our mission and our money, or at least there should be. We hope that this year’s canvass approach will help people determine a pledge that reflects their mission and how they honour it through membership in this community.
As leader of the Canvass this year, I’ve carefully considered my approach to charitable donations. I’ve thought about what 1st Unitarian has done for me. I’ve thought about how wealthy I am compared to so many in the world. I’ve thought about my giving potential. I’ve thought about all the good work carried out by people in this and other Unitarian congregations...from Out-of-the Cold volunteer work in Toronto, to social justice issues in Canada, to helping build schools, women’s shelters and housing in Central America. I’ve even looked at old income tax returns and realized that my approach to giving in the past has been ad hoc and reactive. From now on, it will be proactive. Starting this year, I’ll pledge 3% of my before tax income to Toronto 1st. I’ll give additional amounts to the Canadian Unitarian Council and other charitable organizations on a planned basis. 3% seems like such a tiny portion of my income for an institution that is so important to me, so I’m considering increasing that percentage in future. If everyone gave 3%, we’d easily cover our operating budget. If you’re a member or friend of this congregation, please consider pledging 3% of your before tax income. If you’re a visitor, allow me to put this testimony in perspective. We don’t talk about this stuff every Sunday! Our annual pledge campaign is only held once a year. You just happened to visit when we’re doing it. And if 3% seems like a lot, consider that an average wage earner in Canada would spend as much on a couple of cups of coffee each day.
More than one hundred members are actively working on the canvass now, and we’re planning to finish the project by October 31st. To all who have participated to date, I say "thank you!"
There are still several openings for Canvassers. It’s a short term volunteer opportunity that requires only a few hours in the coming weeks, and provides an occasion to spend some time with another member whose company you enjoy, or to get to know one of our newer members. We’re not asking you to ask others for money. I know many feel uncomfortable doing that. We’re asking you to share your stories about your relationships with Toronto 1st. If this seems like something you’d be willing to contribute to this community, please see me after the service.
Testimony of Pat Skippon, September 22, 2002
My name is Pat Skippon; I have been a Unitarian Universalist for many years, since the day I walked into the UU Community Church in Santa Monica, California. There I found my spiritual home, and I have never looked back. After I returned to Toronto, First Unitarian Congregation became that home for me, and for most of the intervening years. I have always been an active member here, serving on committees, leading workshops and, my great love, singing in the choir.
All this changed four years ago when, after a period of unusual fatigue, I underwent medical tests, and was diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer called Myelodysplasia. It is thought to be caused by environmental factors.
This was devastating news to me, and to my partner, Jeannelle. Our information from the Internet was frightening. Some patients die within months. We eventually found out that my category of the disease was given 2 to 5 years, and we set about learning to live with that diagnosis. It has changed our lives dramatically. Because of fatigue I have had to give up evening activities, including, to my sorrow, the choir. Traveling has become increasingly difficult requiring finally, wheelchairs and other supports .
For three years little changed except that my hemoglobin was very slowly dropping, until last February when I needed a blood transfusion. I have had four so far, and I am now dependent on transfusions about every 8 weeks.
Although my quality of life has diminished somewhat, my zest for life has not. I exercise, read, paint and continue some morning activities here at the church. All this is possible because of the help of my partner, Jeannelle, and my extended family.
I have been blessed by the support of this religious community. Mark and Donna are available whenever I need to talk. Shortly after my diagnosis, two women from Interweave visited, bringing a long list of tasks the group was prepared to help with. We haven’t needed the help as yet, but were deeply touched by the offer. And I always find someone here willing to listen when I feel down, and to cheer me on when things look better.
I was going to talk about facing my death, but right now I can think only of my sister, who is slowly and peacefully dying in palliative care. My fear and grief for her are mixed with feelings about my own death. Since I have no belief in an afterlife, I am thankful to be here and sustained in this place as I continue on my journey.