Member Testimonies

My name is Rona Goldensher and today is a big day for me. A few moments ago, in Shawn’s office, I officially became a member of the congregation, as I was not able to be here last week for the joining ceremony. And I am quite excited to have the opportunity of speaking with you about my experience volunteering with Amnesty International.

When I thought about why I am drawn to human rights work, I realized an aspect of my motivation that hadn’t been as clear to me before. The fact that people have collectively channelled outrage over past ills and atrocities into developing codes for the rights of individuals is something that I find deeply reassuring. I also realized that having this feeling about human rights ideals is helpful in a fight that can be pretty daunting. Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written as a reaction to World War II atrocities, reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. I think my blood pressure goes down a couple of notches just from reading that statement. It might be a long way from the way reality often looks, but what a relief to have a shared belief about what is right and to do be able to do some small amount of work toward it.

I had a similar reaction when I first read the shared principles of Unitarian Universalists and the list started out with, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”. A big part of what drew me to this congregation is that UU members are constantly working to make these principles a reality in a number of ways. To welcome new members into the congregation without requiring that they are born into a particular group, fit a given lifestyle or believe a given creed. To grant ourselves and each other the freedom to exercise our individual conscience and our reasoning faculty in our own spiritual search. To participate in the democratic system of our institutions. To continue the long tradition of UU involvement in human rights work in the world at large. And the very fact that we have an Amnesty Sunday here pretty much blows my mind.

 Those people who do the hardest work, amid the most horrifying conditions, in order to advance human rights are people who risk imprisonment, torture, and even death for the sake of these rights. Prisoners of conscience – the phrase used by Amnesty -a poetic phrase if I ever heard one. These are the people that we Amnesty members write letters to support, to try to free from prison, or to try to protect their life. I am in awe of their courage. They are my heroes. To be able to do the smallest thing to try to support them and their work is a tremendous honour and satisfaction.

I can’t possibly begin to imagine what a prisoner of conscience goes through or to really relate to the conditions in the often faraway places where they live. But I believe that many of us, to some degree or other, have experienced the sting of our rights being violated, and conversely, the peace and vitality that results from being in an atmosphere in which people are treated with respect and dignity. Maybe we’ve experienced a rights violation in the workplace, even in the family setting, or some type of discriminatory violation. And maybe we have experienced firsthand how silence, isolation and denial of harsh truths are the breeding ground for abuses, while openness, commitment to speaking the truth, and solidarity against them are the only way to fight them.   Sometimes, the pain of a betrayal experienced by oneself or someone we care about can powerfully bring home for us how vulnerable one can be at times, as well as the sanctity of these rights and the universal need for these rights to be protected.

It is very gratifying to be involved with an organization that is striving day after day to advance these rights around the world in the gravest situations. I continue to benefit from the work I do with Amnesty. I learn so much about human rights issues in very different parts of the world as well as in my own backyard here in Canada. Writing letters to appeal for human rights in urgent action campaigns is a very satisfying process. For one thing, it’s easy and I never complain about things that are easy. The urgent action tells you how to frame your letter so off you go. It’s a satisfying exercise in polite assertiveness, as you are coached to use phrases like “I call on you to’ or, “I urge you to”, etc. It is also refreshingly apolitical; politics does not enter into it, it is simply a matter of supporting the agreed-upon rights of individuals. I am deeply moved and inspired by the work being done by courageous individuals against great odds all around the world to perpetuate human rights. I never know if my voice expressed in my little letter will help. But I know that, along with all the other voices of ordinary people politely and firmly asserting themselves over and over again, my voice has a chance.

Honouring our Allies

I have been coming to Toronto First Unitarian for about six years and I want to share a confession with you all. And that is, that one of the reasons I come to First,
is for the men.

Now, as a lesbian, this may seem slightly incongruent.

But on this Father’s Day and at the start of Pride week, I’d like to explain.

When getting to know one another, gay and lesbian people at some point will reference THE coming out. When did you know? How did you come out? We ask one another.

Whether it’s spoken when resting in one another’s arms, around a campfire, or over coffee, each coming out story is expressed as the individual’s unique event that sets them immediately at odds with the dominant culture, with family, with friends. Speaking our coming out stories is a rite that connects us to one another and to the larger queer community.  

In 1985, my coming out to my father was met with shock and “Well, at least you’re not a terrorist.” At that time and with my age, the word didn’t have as much social currency as it does today. Nevertheless, it did cause me to wonder what other subversive membership I’d signed on for through my sexuality.

After many years of rejection, distance, and anger, my father and I have built a loving relationship. Our reconnection was initiated shortly after my son Nigel’s birth, and a few years ago he commented to Karen and I, with love and respect in his voice, that he thinks we have a wonderful relationship.

While queer people have those critical moments, ultimately, we never stop coming out— from those people on the phone who asks for my husband’s name to coworkers, sales staff, hospitals, neighbours, social gatherings, the school system, and on and on.

When Karen and I arrived to check this place out, just as important to the spiritual values of Unitarian Universalism was the level of acceptance our family would find here. We were relieved to hear the welcome of inclusive language and felt the sincere embrace of both straight and gay congregants who’d worked together to educate against homophobia and make this a welcoming congregation.

The impetus and drive for that education came from queer members of First and our straight allies. The work was done before my family arrived here and I must tell you:
It made all the difference in the world.

And while I know that both genders of varying ages and sexual identities worked to accomplish this and that many of us continue to work at fostering inclusivity and breaking down barriers; on this Father’s Day, I honour the men of our congregation.

Now that’s not to say that I don’t love the women of this community...don’t get me wrong. But Karen and I have often had conversations about the men of First—straight and gay—and how they connect with women, youth, one another, and children of our community in a way that demonstrates our shared values: with honest interdependence, spiritual encouragement, and respect.

Unlike the public school system, I’ve not felt any concern with Nigel’s teachers in the R.E. program and I am particularly grateful for the men of this community who provide for Nigel such strong role models of gentleness, care, creativity, playfulness...
men who sincerely love women, and who embrace their mentoring roles to the youth of our community.

These qualities are not often evident or promoted in the dominant culture of hockey fights, white political elitism, and misogynistic violence.

The men of First provide for me an active reminder that we have many (and sometimes unlikely) allies in the call for social justice. There is a good amount of work that goes into acceptance, educating oneself educating others, asking questions and being open to hearing the personalized answers.

Now that this has become my community, I am quite at ease in coming out to people new to our congregation. Because this is my place and I am here with my visible family. And the men of this community have been instrumental in making me feel comfortable as a lesbian and as a woman in so many ways.

The mutuality of true connection arises even from just feeling listened to and in engaging in mutual laughter and sharing our experiences. In the larger world of gender segregation, this can be a challenge.

But you’ve made space for me, (and my road hockey antics at the Family Retreat). You’ve comforted Nigel through his nervousness before talent shows and recalled Karen’s finishing school advice with laughter.

So let me say that I am proud to honour my allies:
You’re not the typical great guys — thankfully
You truly are beautiful men.

Good morning.

The guiding questions for writing a testimony are: What brought me here? What keeps me here? & What is my growing edge?

Well, parenthood brought me here. When I arrived at First 15 years ago, I was a new mother and a former Catholic. I had recently participated in the “family pleasing charade” of having my daughter baptized in the Catholic Church. The hypocrisy of it, was embarrassing, so Jack & I looked for a church where we could be honest with our children about our beliefs. A desire for “religious community” also brought me here, though at the time, I really didn’t know what that meant.

Today, I now know that a “religious community” is a safe, supportive place, where members strive to encourage one another, towards personal and spiritual growth. My need for a Religious Community is what keeps me here.

When I joined first:

1. I cried at almost every service – which is ok here.

2. I was afraid to speak up; I didn’t think I knew enough.

3. and email & computers were a mystery to me

Despite all that, I was breathing….. so naturally, I was recruited as a volunteer.

Volunteering here is an opportunity for meaningful growth. Every time I’ve taken on a new role, I’ve been filled with self doubt. And every time, there has been one moment, (and I can recall dozens of these moments) when I realized, that the eyes that were looking into mine, were filled with encouragement and support.

This happened every year I taught RE, when I organized Family Retreats or Halloween parties, when I taught OWL, when I became a Worship Leader, and again when I became the Worship Convenor. Even as challenges & disagreements have arisen, there have always, been wise & encouraging eyes, to steady me, & to remind me, that we all have something to teach.

Part of my sales pitch for recruiting people to give testimonies, is to tell them that this is a “spiritually healthy exercise”. Today I can officially report, that I have been telling the truth!

It’s taken me two weeks, to figure out what the devil my “growing edge” is.

During my first decade here, I focused on building community for my children. After that I pursued my interest in “worship”. But my term as Worship Convenor will end next spring. Then what?

I’m realizing that it’s time to make some changes. I need to broaden my experience, to let my children test their wings, and to be a better partner. My growing edge is to anticipate & embrace the next stage of my life.

I am grateful for this healing community. You make me stronger, and more mindful, of the things that matter. Thank you.

Good Morning, my name is Paul Bognar, and I am humbled and honoured to be a member of your Ministerial Search Committee. Many people have asked me lately ‘how is the search going?” and I will answer that question for you in just a minute. But first let me tell you a little about my own search.
Raised a Roman Catholic, I was for many years “unchurched.” I began attending the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton some 11 years ago, as that congregation was in the final stages of a ministerial search. Compared to my Catholic background, the Unitarian approach to calling a minister was nothing less than revolutionary: I was captivated by the idea of a faith that would, first, grant the authority to the people of a congregation, and then expend such an effort to find just the right minister for each congregation. Hamilton called a bright, talented minister who many of you know as a former member of this Congregation: Allison Barrett. I remember the anticipation in Hamilton, as we began a new ministry together, the excitement was almost palpable, and the first couple of years were dynamic, culminating in a new building. I was, you could say, from that point, hooked on UUism.
In 1998 I came to this congregation as you began the relationship with your first Director of Lifespan Religious Education, Diane Bosman. As her partner, I found things to do here, apart from being the “DLRE’s wife”: I led Coming of Age classes several times, I led and coached Living in Spirit groups, attended and then organized annual Men’s Retreats, and a number of other things. Living with a paid staff member gave me insight into some of the more intimate and intricate workings of this congregation.
And now, now that our past ministers fade from the “current events” to the “history” of this congregation, and Diane no longer brings home talk of happenings and issues of First, what role would I play here, what would I do? Initially I thought I’d like to take a year or so, and just be ‘a guy who comes to church.’ No committees, no teaching, just Sunday services.
But when the Nominating Committee put out a call for applicants for the Search Committee, I began to think about it. I have some experience: I worked in human resources, including interviewing and recruitment. Because of my unique position in this Congregation, (that is, as the partner of a staff member) I very often have had a close, personal, (and frequently behind the scenes) look at the lives, joys, hopes and struggles of church ministers and staff. But mostly, I thought that the search for a new settled minister would be the most important work that one could do for this congregation. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that if my insights and experience could be of use, then I would be willing to dedicate myself to this work.
At First Unitarian, there are three things that a testimony should address:
1) What brought you here?
2) What keeps you coming back?
3) What is your growing edge?
Now you know what brought me here (Diane), and you know what’s keeping me here (ministerial search), so what’s my growing edge?
It’s three things, all of which I can attribute to my participation in this search:

1) a growing sense of who we are, and what this religious community is. With all our warts and flaws, our loving hearts and dedication to this place, the diversity, and our all too human relationships, some good, some difficult, but a richness that’s impossible to ignore.
2) It’s an increasing awareness of our place in the UU movement. One of the Search Committee members, Helen Iacovino, talks about the “thousand other UU congregations out there” where people volunteer to pour coffee on Sunday, sit on boards and committees, attend small group meetings, and struggle with church finances. From references we have phoned, newsletters we have seen, we know we are not alone, in our day to day struggles, whether theological or in matters of social justice, and we are not alone in our successes in the larger world. And this leads me to my third growing edge:
3) My sense of anticipation, excitement, and yes, even hope for this congregation is growing, daily. This place is going to look very different in a couple of years, and I for one, am very excited. I think it’s safe to say that the other six members of the committee are also keyed up.
So, how is the search going? I think it’s going very well. We have been hard at work, putting in many hours creating and tabulating surveys, attending meetings, creating packets, reading and listening to sermons and rites of passage, more meetings, phone interviews, reference checks, …still more meetings, and much planning.
And now, we are about to embark on a series of in-person interviews with our short list of candidates. Any of these ministers would be wonderful ministers for this congregation. As our chair, Catherine Schuler puts it: our task now is to discern the truly excellent from the merely excellent. We anticipate presenting a candidate to you sometime in mid to late April.
This task is far from complete, there is much work for this committee yet to do. And I want you to know, this is a labour of love, to which all members of the committee are deeply dedicated.
It is, for me, a significant part of my own spiritual growth, and I am grateful for it.
Finding Unitarianism was not difficult for me. I am third generation Unitarian. Finding my own way to worship has been a challenge.

I was raised by two Humanists. We didn’t talk about God in our household, or prayer. Instead, we concentrated on doing what we knew was right, based on logic, reason and the scientific method.

The best thing about Unitarianism, however, is that it allows members to grow and change. As I became an adult and began to live my own life, I realized that many things in this world just don’t make a lot of sense. I realized that sometimes what is "right" isn’t what is logical. I started to listen to my "gut" more when I was making big choices and to consider the messages I got from my dreams, from my art and from forms of divination like Runes and the I Ching.

In short, I became a mystic.

Now, mysticism doesn’t really require Sunday church attendance. I can commune with my higher power almost anywhere, without sermons, rituals or a beautiful building. But living my beliefs is another story. Sometimes, I can barely hear my inner voice and don’t know what to do next. Sometimes, I have a concept of how I want to live, but no idea how to go about it. In the most difficult times, I know exactly what I need to do, but don’t know if I have the courage to do it. What if people reject me?

It’s then that community really helps. Here, we have a large enough group of people that I can see so many ways of living ones beliefs. If I want to learn more about reducing poverty in Toronto, I have only to look those of you who have helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity. or who volunteer for Out of the Cold.

If I want to become more environmentally friendly, I can speak to those of you who bicycle to work, who use TTC or who belong to ride share. I can meet with the members who grow and eat organic foods. I can talk to those who advocate for recycling.

As a lesbian mother, I love this place. Here, my children can see other families with same sex parents and know that they are not the only ones. There are people of all sexual orientations in leadership roles, not merely tolerated, but respected by the community.

I love our range of ages, from the inspiring services run by the Youth group to the women older than me in the women’s group, who have shown me the kind of woman I might become.

The challenge in a place like First is that it isn’t static. Since I’ve joined, friends have moved away, groups and committees have folded, our staff has changed… and will change again. It’s a real exercise to trust to believe although First will not look the same next year as it does today, it will still be full of people with strong values and inspiring lives. As we struggle to chose new staff and to find new ways to connect and to run programmes, I hope that we won’t loose sight of our strengths both as individuals and as a group. This place deserves to thrive.