Member Testimonies

Hi everyone. My name is Jewels Krauss. Actually, before I go into sharing my reflections on my experience with The Vagina Monologues, I was hoping you could help me cross something off my bucket list. I was raised in a very conservative Christian church where there was no conversation between who was standing behind the pulpit and the congregation members. I love how interactive it is here, however, so I was wondering if, when I say “Good Morning”, you would all respond with “Good morning, Jewels”? That would be great.

Good Morning!

This is actually a very nice segue into my reflections. Being raised in a conservative Christian church, I would have never imaged something like The Vagina Monologues being performed there. I mean I don’t know, I haven’t been there for a while. But definitely not when I was still going. Which is weird and one of the reason I veered away from that church. I remember thinking as a 16 year old how curious it is that we body shame in church/society. That our bodies and their needs/wants are condemned as evil. When, if you believe in God (which I don’t), God himself created us and our flesh. So to me, body shaming ultimately means insulting God’s work. Which would be a sin. And therefore not something we should do, right? So, when Shawn told me in January he wanted to put on the VM here at UU, I thought “I don’t think I could have any more respect for this man!” How incredible to perform this piece of theatre in a sacred space.

I am an actor and director, and I am very interested in theatre as a scared space. Story telling, if you go back to the bible (“first there was the word”), is how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world. I saw the VM years ago at a university and it was very powerful. Young women claiming the space. And yet, having it at a university, with young men in the audience, I didn’t feel safe sometimes for the performers. It didn’t feel like a sacred space. Particularly, during the monologue where a woman reclaims all the various different moans women can make during sex. The reactions coming from some of the young men bothered me. So yes, when Shawn said it would be performed here, I could have not asked for a safer place to do so!

To me the experience was sacred because I shared space with women of all ages.How incredible for me, a young woman, to share a stage with women older than me who are standing powerfully in their sensuality and sexuality. I loved how Mona picked women who were so different from each other in age, cultural background, mother tongue, etc. Andwe all came together and listened. Truly a sacred thing.

I wanted to end with one thought. I think it is incredible that women are coming together to talk about their sexuality, sensuality, vulnerability, and hurt. But I also think that we’ve been doing that for a while. Women, I mean. And I wonder with all the recent talk about rape culture and violence against women, I think it is time for the Penis Monologues. I think it is equally important for men to explore their sexuality in a safe space and I wonder if that would move this whole conversation in a different direction. I mentioned this to Shawn before he left on his sabbatical, so we’ll see. Maybe he’ll come back with a fully written script. I would definitely attend and offer my full ears and heart the way the men here did for us!

Thank you.

Vagina. This word has been seen as sacred, as dirty, as fun and everything in between. I personally had never really talked about or considered Vaginas before joining our production of The Vagina Monologues. This is just one of the many gifts I received in being a part of that performance. Each one of us got to work one on one with Mona – our amazing director – for weeks before we ever got together as a cast. My experience with Mona was one of nurturing and exploration of the text and of myself, it was powerful, but the week rehearsing with the cast takes the cake! I felt privileged to be able to hang out with such a diverse group of incredible, smart, talented, gorgeous women! The respect and generosity felt among the cast members was tangible from the start, and grew as the week progressed.

Throughout the week I got to consider the monologues, their meaning, and their varied truths, while marvelling at the compelling and diverse performances, and enjoying the company of so many awesome women. By the end of the week of rehearsals – we were confident that we had a great show – and that is when the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. You. The audience. Both nights were sold out. Standing room only. And both nights we could feel that you were with us, cheering us and supporting us, and for two magical nights, we collectively went on a journey, and that journey lead to vaginas. When I tell friends outside of this community about my experience with this production, they are always surprised that the monologues were performed in a church. A sacred space. A place for families and contemplation and spiritual growth. Having lived that amazing week, with the cast and ultimately with you, I can’t imagine it being produced anywhere else.

(At the service marking International Human Rights Day and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.)

Good morning. My name is Gerta Moray and I want to bring some reflections, from my own experience, on violence, suffering and memory.

I want to start by thanking the Raging Grannies for sharing their song this morning. The Raging Grannies - now an international movement - began in 1987 with 11 women in Victoria BC. who felt strongly about the threat of nuclear powered and armed vessels in Victoria's harbour and on the BC coast. They developed humour and a disarming send-up of the older woman stereotype, to draw attention to issues of militarism and of environmental, social and economic justice. The Montreal gunman who shot the women engineering students at the Ecole polytechnique on December 6, 1989, had declared that he "hated feminists ... women were taking employment opportunities away from men. They were not fulfilling the role women were supposed to have.” The Grannies' song was devised in 1991, when they and other womens' groups were determined that the fate of these fourteen young women not be forgotten.

Fourteen women! Nine is the number of the African American women, and men, shot by a young white supremacist in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, just this year in June. One thousand and seventeen is the number of Indigenous women and girls that an RCMP report estimates to have been murdered in Canada between 1980-2012.

There is a Latin proverb once told me by a friend: "Sunt lacrimae rerum." It translates as "There are tears in things," or more loosely, "Shit happens."
The members of my Journey group, and of the Journey facilitators' group, will tell you that whatever the month's theme, Gerta is rather prone to remember that bad things happen.

I was born in Czechoslovakia, in 1940, the first year of World War 2. During the first 7 years of my life I only met my father, who had been drafted, on a few occasional visits. Then he was missing, presumed dead. I remember running into basements during air raids, and houses on our street not being there next day. We moved around a lot to stay with strange people. At the end of the war we were refugees, admitted to immigrate to England. My parents had been an affluent young middle class couple with a beautiful home in Prague - their world had vanished forever, save what my mother could carry in one suitcase. There was no Post traumatic shock counselling. My sister and I were sent to school - children beat our legs black and blue with hockey sticks and punished our dolls by making holes in their foreheads.

In my life, and for many others in the world, things after the war became steadily better. I ended up a professor of art history. Research on Emily Carr took me to First Nations villages in the 1980s. There I witnessed the vital leadership role of aboriginal women, and the burdens their communities bear. I taught in a Women's Studies program where I shared a long evolution - from amazement that what could not be spoken in public was now being named, to sisterhood, and empowerment, and finally to generations for whom it sometimes seems unnecessary to remember that bad things happen.

I have never forgotten my childhood world in ruins, nor the kindness of strangers. They have continually inspired my choices in life.

There are tears in things. I joined this congregation when I discovered that I cracked open and cried during services. I had found a home, a family where hearts and minds were open to all aspects of the world, where people were as committed as the Raging Grannies to try to prevent bad things from happening, and to assuage the pain. There are tears in things.

Good morning. I’m Ted Wood and I’m a member of First and a member of Amnesty International. Today is Amnesty Sunday when we celebrate Human Rights and participate in Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights.

Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people who campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. In addition to writing letters and signing petitions, we undertake research and gather information on human rights in all countries and we promote, protect and uphold those rights. Human rights do not have to be given, bought, earned or inherited. They belong to all people simply because we are human.

People sometimes ask me if writing letters really works. Of course I answer yes. And the answer is yes. There is good news as a result of Amnesty’s letter writing campaigns. People are freed and laws are implemented, changed or upheld to protect people’s rights to live in freedom and When I think about how one letter can help, I think about our city, our country and our world. It is the little things each one of us does every day which makes a difference in the lives of others and in our own lives. We are not alone; we cannot survive without the efforts of others. When it comes to Amnesty it is the effort of each one of us as part of the efforts of 7 million and as part of the efforts of countless others that makes a difference in the lives of all. It is in a world community that we live and create a better world for all.

During our service today we will have a Special Collection to support the work of Amnesty International. The white envelope in your order of service is for this purpose. Cheques should be made payable to Amnesty International Group 142 and you will receive a charitable receipt from Amnesty Canada.

For our Write for Rights during coffee hour we will have an action concerning the death of Indigenous leader Benecio Flor Belacazar and calling on the Colombian government to protect his family and other activists. There are also two Stop Torture actions: one urging the Canadian Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and another requesting justice for Miriam Isaura Lopez Vargas who was tortured and sexually assaulted by soldiers in Mexico.

Along with our actions, Amnesty greeting cards and other merchandise are also available during coffee hour.

At 12:30 pm please join us as we will have the opening reception for the In/visible Scars Stop Torture Photo Exhibit here in Sunderland Hall with our special guests from Amnesty International.

Thank you.

Good morning One and All. Not the best of mornings, but the fellowship we find within these walls makes up for the weather, don’t you agree?

My name is Shirley Grant, and I believe I am the only one in our present congregation who was actually “baptized” in the old Jarvis St. Church. Yes, that’s what my certificate calls it. I’ll let you guess how many years ago that was… quite a few.

One time my father, a good Unitarian who never lies (and none of us do, do we?) told me that I had the distinction of being mentioned in the 23rd Psalm. You don’t believe me? How about: “SHIRLEY goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

However, all that aside, I was asked to say a few words on the subject of volunteering. This must be because until someone corrects me, I affirm that I held my volunteer job for the longest time of anyone here - 22 years – not weeks, not months, but years. Yes, except in the summer, every Monday I was at my desk in the office, counting and tabulating the past week’s revenues in order to do the bank deposit. I am grateful to Sharon Mourer and Peter Brydon who have very capably taken over from me. I should add that Doug Campbell and his team still handle pledge and Sunday collection money.

My job also included counting all the coffee money collected after the services, and believe you me – it’s a lot of cash! However, some years ago Bill Belfontaine, as Monday’s telephone volunteer, took over that part of my job, for which I was most appreciative. A lot of banter went on between us, including my trying to steal his lunch when he was away from his desk.

I still have all the accounts on my computer, and while I was writing this, I added up the total no. to which money might be allocated. I found the number to be 42, and some revenue requires receipts; some doesn’t. 42 is a lot of accounts, but for me, - it was interesting and challenging. You might wonder why I kept at it for so long. There’s one simple answer – I ENJOYED IT. I think that’s the essence of volunteering. Many, many of you give untold numbers of hours to your volunteer jobs. I hope you too enjoy them. So why did I give it up? Well, some Sundays ago after I had retired, I received some words of tribute from the altar during the service. Some of you may remember that I got up and said I’d decided that I had passed my Best Before date!

If you are new to our congregation, and haven’t found your niche yet, I do urge you to talk to Susan Philips. She mans - if I dare use this gender-loaded word - the Engage and Connect desk just outside the Library. And I suggest that in First Light you will find many other ideas.

In closing, I want to tell you of a phone conversation I had just last Monday. A friend, who NEVER goes to ANY church, was thanking me for some small kindness I had done her. To my complete surprise, she said “Your Unitarian Church has brought you up very well”. Koodoes to First. However my parents would feel they’d had some hand in my upbringing!

Thank you.

When I flip through old pictures of myself I always find it curious how much I have changed and how strangely similar I am and continue to be. I think about how the rhythms that I spoke with were crucial to the truths that I held. How these truths were passed onto me and hold a flavour from where or whom I acquired them. And that these truths were not true for who I was to become. Some of their meaning no longer carries the same weight. And now the truths that I have don’t reflect in earnest who I was then.

I think evolution is this malleability of truth, and that truth is your current dialect or the language of our thoughts. It is what defines us.

Since we last spoke, I have changed. I realized that I am the only one that gives meaning to the things that I do in my life, call it self-affirmation. And I think I already knew that. But I need to share that meaning with my loves, my friends, or my community. I want to be affirmed by the people that I walk with. I want them to understand my inner dialect because I am a seeker and creator of meaningful connections.

I recently had one with myself. I carved my first wooden spoon and I have never felt more human. The experience of creating a tool as ordinary as a spoon renewed me with a sense of ancestral powers. I looked at a cedar branch and saw that it had potential to be something other than what it was. This experience changed me. It was the reply to a long standing question of mine: what it is that humans do that is of value? How we choose to direct our focus on projects that we bring into being, that then become meaningful. Redefinition.

I am learning how to track these shifts in inner truths that occur - those epiphany moments where all of my writing comes together to disclose a meaning that was obvious to everyone but me.

A major focus right now is to understand how to cultivate space for others to feel comfortable to let down their defenses so that we may connect and talk about the current truths. I want to help them affirm themselves without feeling silly or misrepresented for finding deep meaning in something ordinary.

Being a mentor for staff and youth at Unicamp enables me to set that tone and that creative space by being silly and celebrating our connectivity. What I’ve noticed after working there for so many summers is how at the end of the summer everyone kind of talks like each other incorporating their own dialect with the culture of camp. And to me this is spiritual, this is a genesis of truths, an amalgamation of passion and focus in this intergenerational micro-culture that keeps changing while staying the same. Playing a leading role in this community helps me define who I am going to be by affirming that potential to make those connections.

Even though I make my own meaning, it becomes meaningful when shared.

Hi. My name is Barb, also known as Mark’s mom! Mark and I and Mark’s support worker, Mathew, usually sit over in this corner. Today Mathew is away and Mira is accompanying Mark for the first time. You probably know Mark because you hear him singing with gusto in the service every week.

I am so appreciative to be here. Today is Friends of New Visions Toronto Sunday. New Visions Toronto offers residential support to children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities, like Mark. New Visions Toronto works to enable each person to live life to their maximum potential in their communities. They are constantly under budget pressures, including needing vans for transportation:

  • They have 3 homes and 12 apartments, mostly in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood.
  • The 56 people living there are between 15 and 47 years of age.
  • 4 people are in school
  • Only 22 people have full day activities
  • Only 1 person can leave home on a limited basis without staff support.

    To give an example, Mark can go out of his apartment on Tuesday afternoon and evening, Friday afternoon and Sunday morning for Church. The rest of the time he is at home. The need is bigger than the staff resources available. Can you imagine that for yourself?

  • 9 people living at New Visions Toronto have no planned outside activities

That’s why Friends of New Visions Toronto is the newest Eco/Social Action Project taken on by Toronto First. We want to support Mark and his peers by actively getting involved and helping with fundraising. If they can’t get out, maybe we can come in. That’s the supporting New Visions Toronto part.

There is another equally important part to the Friends of New Visions Toronto project. That is the disability-awareness component – or stepping into another’s shoes. Here are some examples of what we’ve been up to:

  • Mark’s ‘Our Story’ video on the Toronto First Website. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do check it out.
  • Collecting donated Canadian Tire $$. The jar is in the Office downstairs, so please continue to bring in donations.
  • Annual Golf Tournament. Talk to Matt Virro or Paul Scott. They had a super day!
  • Fashion Follows Form exhibit at the ROM. Check out the video about disability mannequins. It will touch your heart.
  • 68 people eating lunch in complete darkness at O’Noir Restaurant.
  • Read about all of these excursions on our Friends of New Visions Toronto webpage.
  • Today there is a special screening of Alive Inside after the service at 12:15 in Shaw Hall.
  • And for February, there is an upcoming Valentine’s Day Dinner and Dance on Feb 7th. Join Mark in dancing up a storm.

Every month there will be new, exciting challenges. Please check the website under the Eco/Social Justice tab. Check the lime green bulletin Board in Workman Hall. Watch for notices in First Light.

Life has its challenges. What I want in my life is a nice big fat tool kit that I carry around with me. Inside are my tools and my skills that I can pull out when I meet ‘someone’ who is very different from me.

‘Someone’ who looks unfamiliar, communicates very differently, thinks differently and emotes differently.

That ‘someone’ might be a family member, changed by disease or old age.

That ‘someone’ might be a friend who is at the end of their life.

That ‘someone’ is Mark and others at New Visions Toronto.

I want to be able to learn to connect, support, and just be with people who challenge me in our differences.

Friends of New Visions Toronto hopes that by developing many opportunities for all of us to engage with what is unknown, that we will move towards and include individuals who can’t approach us.

Friends of New Visions Toronto allows us this opportunity to learn and practice. You can help us build this. Talk to me, Judy Clark or Wendy Dines.

Today, you have a white envelope in your order of service. Your contribution will go towards a very-needed wheelchair accessible van for New Visions Toronto. Thank you for your support and see you at Alive Inside screening today and maybe at the Valentine’s Day Dance on Feb. 7th.

Thank you.

Good morning, my name is Bill Glassman, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts and experiences as a member of First, as we observe the Day of the Dead.

My first contact with First Unitarian goes back 26 years, to 1988, when my wife Lies and I were planning our wedding. Neither of us were active in the faiths of our childhood, but we wanted a wedding service that was not purely secular. Eventually, this led us to June Sanderson, who was the chaplain at First at that time. June was warm and supportive, and I am still grateful when I think of her role in our wedding.

We did not join First immediately after our marriage. When our first son was about two years old, we decided we wanted a spiritual foundation for our family, and our contact with June led us to First Unitarian. I must admit to being a bit hazy on the dates, but I believe it was about another two years before we actually became members—but today, I’ve been a member for approximately twenty years, and ultimately both of our sons participated in both RE and the Coming of Age program.

Over the first several years, I came to First on most Sundays, and enjoyed the sermons, particularly those of Mark Morrison-Reed, who eloquently combined head and heart. Yet during those years, Sunday attendance was the limit of my involvement, and it wasn’t until 2001 that things changed: at that time, I was directly approached by Donna Morrison-Reed, who asked me to take part in a congregational committee—in those days, this was known as “being Donna’d”, because Donna was near-undeniable when making such requests.

I agreed, partly because the project—developing a Safe Steps policy for First—was time-limited. However, it then led to my becoming a member of the Board, and eventually, a variety of other service positions. While my experience on the Board was initially somewhat challenging—Board meetings do not always emphasize the most spiritual aspect of First and its members—over time, I discovered two things: First, that the more I did, the more I felt a part of this community. Second, I learned that when our credo refers to “service is our prayer”, it bears a truth for me that is very spiritual. In essence, the more I give, the more I get.

At this time of year, “giving” often seems to be about money, but in fact I want to talk about a different sense of “giving”.

As we observe the Day of the Dead, I find myself thinking about the legacies we each leave through the living of our lives. I think of June Sanderson, who died earlier this year, and how her chaplaincy led me to joining First Unitarian—and how her life impacted many other people, both in and out of First. Hers was a wonderful legacy, and there are others like her who live on in my heart and memory, and I am grateful for their gifts.

I have also been thinking about my own legacy within this congregation. Lest that seem too egotistical, let me note two things in my defense: First, while I may not have thought about legacies 30 years ago, at this point I’m a lot closer to the end than to the beginning, even with the most optimistic estimates of life-span (which is probably pretty obvious to you!). Second, whatever my life-span, I know that my time at First is drawing to a close, because in about a year from now, Lies and I will be moving to Victoria, BC. So, I find myself thinking more frequently about what leaving a legacy involves.

As I see it, there are three primary possibilities. Service, as I already mentioned, is one aspect—and at this stage, I would say that I’ve gotten much more from my various service roles than I’ve given in time and energy. Most notably, it’s helped me get to know some wonderful people, as friends and as exemplars of what a life of spiritual commitment can be. So, while I can, I will continue to give my time and energy in service.

Second, since many of my service roles have been finance-related, including Finance Convenor, Treasurer, and the Funds Management Committee, I am also very aware that pledge contributions make the day-to-day functioning of the congregation possible. For example, even maintaining our ties to the CUC costs approximately $100 per member each year. So there’s the pledge message—what we give is what makes First possible.

There is also a third form of legacy, based on gifts in the future. Over the years, I have become much more aware of the history of First Unitarian, and that before I ever walked through the door, there were thousands of others who had previously done so—and their service and their pledges and their passion meant that First was here when I was seeking a spiritual home.

As Chair of the Funds Management Committee, I know that our Endowment and other funds only exist because others who came before wanted to pass something on, as a gift or bequest. Some of you will have heard of the Rouff/Mackie-Jenkins Fund, but you may not know that Emily Mackie was a congregant and Bill Jenkins was a minister, and that Ken Rouff wanted to honor their memories. The names of most donors are less visible, but all gifts and bequests serve to foster the long-term well-being of our congregation. Such gifts are legacies from the past that extend into the future. Recognizing that, Lies and I have made provisions in our wills, so that even after we move to Victoria, we can do something to contribute to the future of First. Legacies come in many forms—and planning to give when I am no longer here is one option I wish to exercise.

In the end, I am not so egocentric as to try to judge my contributions to First—either through service, or pledge, or bequest. But I am vividly aware that this is still my community and my spiritual home, and that I continue to get far more than I give. In that sense, the books may never balance, but I will do what I can to strive for a balance--and on this Day of the Dead, I am grateful for the many legacies of others.

Hello. My name is Ariel Hunt-Brondwin – I am a member of this congregation and it is my deep joy to share a part of my story with you all this morning.

A few things about me to start:

I moved to Toronto about two and a half years ago and so still consider myself a newcomer both to this city and to this congregation.

In my short time at First I served a term on the Healthy Congregations team, I’ve gotten involved in the Twerty-Somethings group and up until a few weeks ago many of you might have known me as ‘that girl who had pink hair, who sings in the choir.’ In my work life, I serve on staff of the Canadian Unitarian Council where I work to support the 50 or so UU congregations across Canada in their youth and young adult ministries.

Before coming to Toronto, I lived most of my life on the west coast where I grew up attending the Unitarian Church of Vancouver. When I moved to Victoria and later Kingston for university studies I got involved with the Unitarian churches there too. I am a decided church nerd and – yes – I am one of those mythical people you hear about who was raised Unitarian and went to church throughout their late teens and 20s!

As a lifelong UU – as someone who works for our denomination and whose partner is studying to become a UU minister – it’s not an exaggeration to say that I think about church a lot! I spend a lot of time thinking about how we ‘do’ church but I also find myself increasingly reflecting on the ways in which ‘church’ – as in our whole, larger UU tradition – has shaped and continues to change and shape my life in myriad ways.

And so I think that’s part of why, when I found out that the Pledge Drive Team, another group I have been helping out with a bit, was lining up a few people to do Testimonies – and that the theme of this year’s Pledge Drive was going to be Changing Lives - I volunteered right away.

Because I am inspired over and over again by the messages and examples of generosity and compassion I see coming from this free faith and because being UU has left an indelible mark on my own life’s journey.

One of my most enduring friendships is with someone I met in my Coming of Age class when we were both 12. Together we attended countless youth group meetings and youth sleepovers at the church, helped out with sandwich sales to raise money for the youth group, planned multiple youth led Sunday services and of course we went to Youth Cons too. At the time we met, I lived in a small, conservative suburb of Vancouver and coming to church felt like such a breath of fresh air – being with other youth who cared about what was going on in the world and believed that helping others and our hurting planet was more important than whether we had the ‘right’ clothes or make-up. Going through high school having those friends at church and knowing there was not just a small group of teens, but a whole church and really a whole religion that cared about the inherent worth and dignity of others, that cared about each other’s search for truth and meaning, that cared about the interdependent web of existence that we are all a part of was a deep source of light and hope during my uncertain and change-laden teen years.

My life was changed again when, once settled in Victoria for University , I started going to one of the UU churches there and I began to discover that this tradition could also be an anchor for me – that I could hold onto it even as I explored and expanded my spiritual experiences, including living in an intentional Christian community for three years as a UU!

And then when I moved again and found myself in Kingston, and getting involved in a congregation much smaller than I’d been a part of before, I discovered that church could be ‘family’ when my own was far away and when my life fell apart as I decided to leave my partner – it was those friends I’d made at the fellowship that I knew I could share my pain and fear with. These profound gifts of light and hope, of an anchor and of deep love were all unexpected and mostly unrecognized in the moment. But upon reflection I know I was changed and shaped by all those experiences – and because of them I gained a deep belief in the basic goodness of all people, I learned that I could belong to something and still be free, and I learned that I could be resilient when I allow others to share my burdens.

I can tell you I was also changed when I learned that church could disappoint you. There have been times when as a young person in one of our congregations where I have felt alien and like so little was expected of me – as if showing up on a Sunday morning was all I could offer.

And part of that I think, has to do with what they say about people like me – Millennials that is. That we are bailing on organized religion, we don’t give like previous generations did and as a result churches are having a hard time raising the funds they need.

I know there is more to that over-simplified story and I think I am living proof that not all people of my generation have no use for religious community.

I can also say that in continuing to stay in community over the years – even when I was disappointed I came to grow past those feelings and gained the spiritual practices of trying to assume best intentions of all I meet.

I also came to know in sticking around church through my twenties, that just because you are young or you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you don’t want to contribute. And I also came to know that no matter how small a gift may be – it is always wanted – it is always valued and gratefully received. And so as our Pledge Drive has reached the half way point (and we have received well under half of the number of pledges we are expecting (and ok shamless plug - if you would like some information about the Pledge Drive or if you would like to make a pledge, please feel free to talk to me or anyone else from the Pledg Drive team after the service)

I want to tell you why I am giving to this congregation. But first I want to tell you why I am not giving I’m not giving because we could have a deficit, because staff hours may have to be reduced or cut, or because we don’t know how we will afford to move or renovate…if these are compelling reasons for you, that’s great and I don’t mean to diminish them because they are real pieces of our collective story here at First – and while they are certainly part of my consideration – in the end these reasons are not what make me want to give.

I am giving because I believe in the power of this community to act as a force for good – in each of our lives, in our city... I believe in our ability to be family and neighbours to each other and to the stranger we have yet to meet, Because I believe this community and this living tradition we share, calls us in – into relationship, into deeper understanding and compassion, into being keepers of the field, and ultimately into changing, growing and living more and more into and as our best, most generous selves.

We first came to Toronto First after many months of wandering in the wilderness. We had stopped attending church as it had become a chore for both our children and us. For our children because there was nothing to engage them. For us because our efforts to engage them during the ritual completely negated any benefit we could receive by our attendance. This coupled with the furtive glances of disapproval cast our way by other members of that church whose children, seemingly, had never behaved this way....

Of course abstinence is always fraught with conflicting emotions and so it was with us. Forcing them into an hour of drudgery was pointless and unfair. However the absence of any spiritual exposure weighed heavily on our minds.

One afternoon I got to chatting with another parent, Rachel Morris, who told me of the marvelous RE program run by Toronto First. I was intrigued as this seemed to be the way to get them back into a weekly environment where they could explore and develop a sense of their values.

We decided to attend a service the next day. Having arrived late we entered with much trepidation. We experienced our first miracle as Gillian Burton came over with pencils and crayons for our kids and helped us to find a seat. This was all done wordlessly but she exuded a warmth and goodwill that deeply touched us.

The children’s Re program that day consisted of creating The Golden Rule song which was performed by the kids several weeks later. This exceeded my expectations and we begin to see we had made a good decision.

After church we attended coffee hour. Normally, for first timers, this would be an occasion of awkwardness and tentative interaction. The experience for both of us was the opposite. We felt as if we had returned home and were among old friends. To this day the miracle of this experience continues to amaze us as neither of us had ever experienced this before.

We marvelled at this on our way home that day and during that week prepared ourselves for a lesser experience putting our feelings down to being new visitors. Our initial experience, to our amazement, continued each week afterwards.

We were convinced that we had found the right place, however we kept waiting for this first blush to pass. Sunday after Sunday we attended, marveling at the warmth and friendliness we encountered and the fact that this remained consistent. It was due to this that we agreed to join the family retreat 6 weeks later.

Almost four years later attendance at Toronto First continues to be the highlight of our week. For our children as well as for us.

In my mind Toronto First is one of Toronto’s best kept secrets. Each week we have the privilege of experiencing the prodigious talents of Shawn Newton as he uplifts, inspires and stirs our hearts with his homily. Lisa Iwasaki, our pianist, plays music of deep beauty, delivered with virtuoso quality. The music talents of the resident musicians and the choir repeatedly moves us to joy and gratitude for their gifts to us.

The RE program directed by Angela Klassen is the feature for our Kids. It affords them experiences they would probably never otherwise have, in a safe and supportive environment. Our kids hate to miss it.

And then there are the members, yourselves. This is a community rich in goodwill providing fertile ground for one to find and express their authentic self. The variety of personalities within our community is testament to this.

This church is a model of what our world could be. Of course, it can only continue to exist with support from us. Through the continuous investment of ourselves and our resources.

As many things of beauty in this world its existence is fragile. This church depends on our commitment to it. On choosing this over the many other things that compete for our attention.

There is much good work being done here which is worthy of our investment.

In the meantime, I look forward to the years ahead as our family continues to grow in this community and stand committed to welcoming newcomers who find their way here in the same spirit which we ourselves were welcomed.

Reflection

I am usually pretty comfortable speaking publicly, but I won’t lie… I’m feeling pretty nervous about doing this… addressing what is quite possibly the MOST polarizing, MOST incendiary topic of them all; the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Please be gracious with me.

Why me? — I married an Israeli.

2002… exactly one year after 9-11. The events of 9-11 and the war on terror that followed brought me passionately into the world of geopolitics and social justice. I became increasingly interested in the Middle East and in Israel-Palestine. My daily reading routine was commondreams.org, The Guardian; Democracy Now....

I went to Thailand. I had formed my world view, but I was going out into the world to learn more; see more; be more. I was looking for love — for someone different; someone who would shake me up; teach me things; challenge me.

My third day in Thailand, I met Rinat, the petite Israeli beauty; who at 18 became a Gulf War veteran during her compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force.

The first day took the normal path of courtship; a song, a dance, a drink, a walk on the beach, a massage… that was about it. After less than 24 hours we parted for different Thai islands, exchanged emails, and kissed each other goodbye… Soon after our encounter, she returned to her life in Israel and I started my new life in Thailand. We chatted via MSN and emailed daily.

Here’s me… progressive, left leaning, west-coast-hippie-pacifist. I wrote to her:

“First, let’s both agree that we may not see issues the same way… and let’s agree that we have two completely different perspectives on the situation; me, being an outsider with no experience, only knowledge I gather through — and you, having grown up with the conflict and having lived in terror (I almost hate using that word because of its over-use in the past year). Now let me also say that I LOVE talking about these things with you because you teach me so much — and it lets me know you better as you speak of your personal experience. If I say anything that drives you to anger… well, I hope that doesn’t happen…”

Well, it happened… quite a few times… enough to build a formidably strong foundation for our relationship; not based on common beliefs, but based on mutual respect for our differences and the effort and interest we showed in seeking to understand those differences:

So, Rinat… the IDF levelled an apartment in Nablus, home to 10 families and 150 people in it yesterday… tell me about that?
What about the massacre at Sabra & Shatilla?
Apartheid wall. Security fence. Apartheid wall. Security fence. It should be built on the Green Line! It’s land grab!
Did you hear about Rachel Corrie??

and so it went on...

And in response I received replies, often thousands of words long, explaining her view of the conflict, her interpretation of history, her personal story — and with every email, we fell more deeply in love. I listened, and learned what it was like to live in fear during the height of the Second Intifada: To always be avoiding large crowds; deciding which bus, cafe or square might be a less-likely target of a suicide bomber; the horrible anxiety of waiting in line; the trauma caused by the setting-off of benign fireworks… and what it is like to fear for the very survival and existence of your country, and your people.

… and before we were even married, I got a taste of these things first-hand; in 2005, the night of Rinat’s stagette there was a bombing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv just a few blocks of where we were partying. Years later in November 2012 I went to my in-law’s wedding in Ashdod with tensions extremely high as the numbers of rockets fired from Gaza reached unprecedented numbers. The next day Israel commenced their relentless bombardment of Gaza and the assassination of Ahmed Jabari. Our next two weeks were spent taking cover; in the apartment stairwell; during a patio brunch in Shenkin; on the highway as every car frantically pulls over and passengers run to and fro to find shelter. We witnessed rockets being intercepted overhead, and felt the frenzy of cell phones ringing as loved ones checked in on each other.

During the most recent conflict, things became pretty tense in our house. Reading the posts on Facebook can stir the strongest human emotions. I know this was particularly difficult for Rinat, as she viewed the very worst of anti-Israel rhetoric from people she has considered to be “friends”. And she suffered the numbing virtual silence and rejection of Facebook, procuring just a handful of likes — almost always by Israelis — on her posts in support of Israel. And what of me? Considering the safety of my family in Israel and my upset with Israel’s heavy-handed use of violence is hard enough… adding having to determine whether to ‘like’ my wife’s posts on the situation was almost too much. I couldn’t do it — even when much of me agreed with some of her posts. I couldn’t align myself so strongly. I won’t take sides as long as both perpetuate violence. // Rinat decided that she would attend one of the pro-Israel rallies. This seemed out of character — she had never had this desire during the previous Gaza conflict or the war in south Lebanon — but for whatever reason, perhaps partly due to her alienation on Facebook (and at home), and what she perceived to be a pro-Palestinian bias around her, she decided to attend the rally. When she told me, we made eye contact and in a split second, had a silent conversation… my look said, “you know I can’t go with you” and she replied “I know, but I hope you’ll respect me and my decision to go”... and then we continued aloud with her saying, “so, you’ll stay with Noa?” — very challenging indeed. I told her that she should expect to hear terrible things from both camps and urged her not to get sucked into the vortex of anger. I encouraged her to be an instrument of peace. She nodded knowingly.

I have not given up on my pacifist principles nor my commitment to aiding the oppressed. I have plenty of condemnation for the actions and policies of the state of Israel... but what I once thought was a cut-and-dried matter, will now only illicit the simple response of “it’s complicated”... and if anyone really wants to take the next step in the conversation, I will quickly take a centrist (or Devil’s Advocate) position and debate all comers; in my online community of football fans, many with conservative leanings, I more often speak up for the Palestinian cause. In my liberal progressive communities, I’m more often trying to invite staunch opponents of Israel to resist dehumanizing Israelis by diminishing their well-founded fears and security concerns as being an evil desire to oppress and control. Certainly their actions are not justified; but they are explainable. Without understanding, there can be no peace.

What we need is compassion. Compassion for the inherent worth and dignity of every victim of terror, every sufferer of oppression, and even every aggressor, every martyr, every zealot, every bullheaded politician, every terrorist (state sanctioned or rogue).

People directly affected by the conflict will no doubt align themselves with one camp; this is understandable and tolerable. But as outsiders, viewing the situation with our ideals and principles, opining from afar, never having donned a gas mask, seen a rocket intercepted overhead, done military service at a check-point, lost a loved one… we’d be best to do more seeking of perspective, and directing our efforts to being the bridge for peace to occur. Neither side needs any more combatants… once anger fuels our activism we are only throwing that fuel on the fire. Once we so firmly align ourselves with a side, the dehumanization begins. Counting women, children, civilians, soldiers, combatants… all of the data carefully manipulated to show ‘the truth’ — from one side.

When someone says “1000 rockets have been launched at Sderot,” the response lacking compassion jumps to comparing atrocities; to counting dead; it plays the best rebuttal in defense, saying, “those rockets have never even killed anyone!” The compassionate response reflects on what it must be like to be a family in Sderot; a parent at work, with a child in school, as the sirens go off, day after day.

To be a true peacemaker, we must force ourselves to see all sides; to empathize, to sympathize; to understand; and to be able to articulate the positions of both sides to both sides, without inciting anger, suspicion, mistrust or hatred. Aligning oneself in the center does not mean being apathetic or cowardly. It can be strongly activist and truly committed to peace — having the courage to speak up for either side, giving reasoned, well-articulated responses to those at the extremes. Where was this group during the rallies? Who was standing in the centre of the road, inviting people from either camp to join them in dialogue, peacemaking and understanding. This is where ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’, and ‘the interconnected web’ meet. The bridge to peace starts in the space-between, and it is where the building must begin.

A couple days after the Israel rally we were at Nathan Phillips Square, enjoying a free concert… Noa befriended a boy with her dancing (just like her parents!), and Rinat and the mom ended up in deep conversation. She was a Palestinian. They shared their common dreams for their children, and their disdain for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. They hugged each other warmly, teared up a little, and wished each other peace and safety for their families. In that moment, their connection did a little to increase the sum total of love and justice in the world...

— and so may we all.