Member Testimonies

My kids and I have been coming to First for almost nine years now, since Hazel was six and Henry was four. Over the years, they’ve attended uniquely Unitarian religious education classes. They’ve celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali, built a shrine for the Mexican Day of the Dead and participated in some unusual renditions of the nativity story. They have held bake sales for UNICEF, bowl-a-thons for breast cancer research and have cooked and served a formal brunch to teenagers at a youth shelter

They have both participated in OWL, a program that has taught them about healthy relationships and their changing bodies. They have had the benefit of some of the best sexual health educators in the city and have been exposed to diagrams and sketches that are so very tasteful, yet so undeniably explicit that both kids have described the experience as similar to looking at a car wreck - you feel you shouldn’t stare because it’s so horrific but you just can’t seem to turn away.

My kids helped eat the world’s longest banana split at this year’s picnic, they’ve participated in countless central American Sundays where they’ve joyfully whacked the living hell out some poor piñata and they’ve attended the family retreat for eight years running, where they have awoken on silent winter mornings to fresh snow and the promise of tobogganing and ball hockey with their Sunday school friends.

Now, Hazel is closing in on 15 and Henry will turn 13 a few days later. I’m not going to sugar coat it: getting them to church is not always easy. Henry always begs from under his covers for more sleep. Hazel is more vocal in her opposition to doing something as un-cool as attending Sunday school.

One Sunday morning several months ago, Hazel was challenging me about why I force her to go to church. After a few of my explanations were rejected, I finally said, “But what about all of the great people we know there?” Hazel said, “Well, okay, some of them are nice, but have you, like, looked at those people Mom? They’re nothing but a bunch of misfits!”

Hazel made this observation with a certain amount of disdain but I will repeat it with a great deal of affection: Seriously, take a look around. We’ve got old men with long hair, middle-aged women who seem on the verge of breaking into interpretive dance, folks with odd bumper stickers. I bet several people are wearing Birkenstocks even though it’s November. A few of you may be braless (I don’t like to speculate). We’ve got Raging Grannies and a curious overabundance of bald guys with guitars. I know “unsightly” is too strong a word but, at the very least, this is all somewhat disconcerting.

So you are misfits, but misfits in the best sense of the word. Individuals who have chosen to make your own decisions about what you believe, how you live and who you love. Folks with a unique perspective on life, who don’t simply accept the party line, whether it’s politics, religion or any other topic calling for an opinion. I am thrilled to have my kids grow up in a community like this that reminds them to follow their own path, make their own decisions and know that they will be loved no matter what.

Despite all of the great activities and experiences I listed off the top, it is the people of this congregation that keep me coming back, keep me dragging my kids out of bed on a Sunday morning to see what is waiting for us here at First. I feel immense gratitude to the misfits of this congregation and that is why, every year, I give generously to the pledge campaign.

 

My name is JP Pawliw-Fry and I’m an enthusiastic member of the First Unitarian of Toronto. I’m inspired, or honoured, to be here to be asked to give a testimonial. Elizabeth and I are the proud parents of three amazing, thoughtful, whimsical, energetic young children: Brigitte, 15; Gracie, 13; and Wes, 10.

If there is one big idea that I think of around First it’s to remember. When I come here, I think that on the wall behind us there is a big sign that just says “Remember.”

Look at that. What is that? The art behind me I think of as a reminder to remember. What do I mean by remember? What is this art all about? I think that there is two things that its does for me in terms of remember. Two things. Two driving human needs that we have. One is for purpose and one is for connection. And I want to speak to both of those, shortly, or for not too long this morning.

Purpose. What do I mean by purpose? Viktor Frankl is known for many famous quotes. This is not one of them. He said … and excuse the male dominated language… he said, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him (or her). What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of the potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him (or by her).”

Purpose. What do we need? We need to have a sense of why are we here. And First does that for me. When I hear, you know, the journey is long. When I think of the contribution that Dallas makes with the music here. Wow. That reminds me. When I think of the messaging we get from ministry, or community, it reminds me of why I am here. I think we are definitely material beings, of course, we have to live in this world. We have to contribute to pay mortgages and to put food on the table. But, it is so easy to forget that we are also spiritual beings. And when I come every Sunday, or when I am part of an activity, it just reminds me. Ahh. That’s right. And I don’t want that part to whither for me, nor for our kids. And so that purpose piece for me is so powerful because I think, our kids are inundated with messages, as we all know, that nudges them into material and I am so grateful. I love James’ point about giving. I am so grateful for what this place, this community, does for us, and for me, in terms of purpose.

For me personally, it’s also to wake up and be aware. To take a risk. To step in, to live large, as Shawn would say. And I know this is probably the wrong example to use. But in some of the work I do, we work with the US Navy, and there is this great saying in the Navy, which is that ships are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for. And our lives are not meant to be lived in the harbour where it is safe, it’s meant to be outside of the harbour, yes there is risk but there is also reward. Whether you are a pacifist like me or not, or you like that or not, I think that it speaks to the power of taking that risk and I feel like I get here and I am so grateful for that. So there is purpose and there is connection.

Some of you know, we moved from Geneva, Switzerland here. We didn’t live there long but we were part of an incredible community there. A church. I was talking to Wes this morning and he said, “Dad, I didn’t understand a word they said at that church.” But what was interesting to me is that when I was first here, three years ago, it was like I was kicking the tires a little bit and I was in the comparing mind and I thought, “Well, this isn’t a 17th Century building and when we walk out we don’t need to have café, coffee, in the square of this ancient Geneva, the city.” And then it was really interesting to me how over time, things have changed and I realized that what I really value about that church in Geneva was not the walls. I mean we are coming upon a really big discussion about our walls and our space. But that wasn’t nearly as important, or what you walk out to, but it was the community. If the social science research says anything about what drives our happiness, our wellbeing (however you measure it), and our ability to deal with heartache and suffering, it is social support, there is no question about that. You can take that to the bank.

And for me this, community, so fulfills that. When I am suffering, when I, and our family, are challenged and we come here, Wow, I just, oh yeah. The people here have just added so much to my life, to our lives, and I am so grateful for that.

It is probably cliché in this place, but I was brought up Catholic and my parents were very involved. My mom was the president of the Catholic Women’s League, which I am very proud to say. I think Shawn has heard me say that five or six times since I have been here. And I love how much they contributed. I didn’t necessarily like the message, but that’s beside the point. What was the point, I remember every week getting dressed, you know, nicely, going to church, the ritual, it was about being together as family. And again, that reminds me. It brings me back to what matters.

And so community is, it’s something that I think we want to keep thinking about. And Shawn challenges us with this. But when you are suffering it is so easy to isolate, and to step away and what I get reminded of, what I remember, is to actually approach, to step in. Take a bit of a risk. Be honest about how things are going and, boy, does the community here just hold us.

If you are new here, the people you will find in this community are eccentric, they are odd, they are lovely, they are interesting. And you will only get out of this community that which you put in. You know that I don’t need to tell you that. But there are things that you just want to mark in your calendar like the family retreat, or some of the other activities that are outside of the Sundays because that is where, for us, community has really come together. It’s been fantastic.

I want to finish with one thought, which is that if this art, where the sign says remember, you know, our purpose, what is meaningful, and our connection to this community. I want to say that I think, more than anything, the world needs us. Seriously. The world needs this place and this message and this reminder purpose, this reminder of connection and community. We live in this world that nudges us towards the material. And I think that it is more important than ever and so I am so honoured to be up here and speak about my passion for this place and so I want to thank everyone in this community for all that they have given to me and to our family. I am very grateful for it. Thank you very much.

Good morning.

Six years ago, Kate Chung and I moved to a condo building at 235 St. Clair Avenue West. This is exactly a two-minute and fifty-second walk from our home to First Unitarian.

This is very convenient. We can leave home at 10:27 a.m. on a Sunday morning and glide in just before the service begins. And, either of us can leave home at 6:57 p.m. on a weeknight and be on time for a 7:00 meeting.

But if we get halfway here and discover we’ve left important papers at home, we’re late — and, we may be teased by fellow committee members who have struggled with traffic and erratic streetcar schedules. Unlike us, they’ve allowed extra time for delays, thus managing to be on time.

So I want to tell you that if our congregation decides to move  — anywhere  — it will be an inconvenience for Kate and me.

But — I’m serious now, if our congregation has all its ducks in a row, and a move would provide the brightest future for First Unitarian, then the move will get my vote.

Of course, I’d never be here at all if it weren’t for Kate’s long-time involvement with UU’s, first in Oshawa, then Don Heights, and for the past 20 years, at First. And Kate was introduced to Unitarianism by Janet Vickers, a name some of you may know, who’s now with the Nanaimo Fellowship.

So our close connection with UU’s and First goes back a long time, with many changes along the way. We’re ready to accept new changes, too.

Good morning! My name is Bruce Schwartzentruber and today I’m going to speak briefly about 25 years ago, last May, the Philippines, Kenya, Angela Klassen’s job and diversity. I’m going to introduce you to some good people and unveil what’s under that cloth.

Last May, during the Annual Conference and Meeting we hosted, I attended the International Dinner event and, on the strength of the presentation by the International Council of Unitarian Universalists, decided to attend this past February’s conference in the Philippines. I regarded it as my personal Unitarian sabbatical.

Like many adventures I have had during my travels, I was paid handsomely in experience and in learning about how people live in other lands. In the Philippines I met Unitarian Universalists who were very much like us and many who were very different, both in appearance and in other demographic variables such as income, education and living conditions. In the Philippines, many UUs are rural, walk many kilometres to attend services, and are only able to muster up the equivalent of a few dollars among them when the offering plate is passed around. They live in a country where 81% of the population is Roman Catholic. Believing in spiritual freedom in the Philippines requires uncommon courage and commitment. For example, Marianne told me that she complained of headaches one day and her neighbour chided her for leaving Catholicism. God, the neighbour insisted, was punishing her for becoming a Unitarian.

Sam from Uganda lives in a country where the death penalty awaits gays and lesbians. Mark from Nigeria described himself as a freedom fighter. Social action there can deprive you of more than your spiritual freedom.

I met Josphat Mainye, of Kenya where he leads the Kitengela UU Congregation outside Nairobi - a congregation of 70 adults and 60 children. Sixty children, 60 children, I kept repeating it in my mind, thinking, What would Angela Klassen, our wonderful Director of Lifespan Religious Education, do? Quit?

When I asked Angela this question tongue-in-cheek a few weeks ago, she said, “Oh we have 60 children registered here.”

I didn’t know that, I confessed. How many of you knew that? Still, think of the odds; 70 adults and 60 children. Using the Kenyan adult to child ratio, we would have over 150 children here. I’m planning to find out how Josphat’s congregation manages and how it worships when I travel to Kenya later this summer. Josphat and Ben Macharria from Nairobi and Fulgence Ndagijimana from Burundi have invited me to visit and I am looking forward to living, eating, communing and rejoicing in the spirit that is Unitarian Universalism in Africa. If the people I met in the Philippines are any indication I will be met with love, acceptance and an incredible sense of belonging.

Just exactly how I feel here at First.

I’m hoping that I will be able to bring back a special connection between us and my African friends and that I will bathe in the unique experience of being among UUs who do not look or sound at all like me. I’m hoping that the experience of likely being the only white person, the only Anglophone, the only North American, will help me in the leadership position I took on at our January congregational conversation about diversity.

During the open discussion that day, I, without thinking of the ramifications, suggested that we needed a group to work on the issue of our diversity, or lack of, here at First. Our board President Margaret Kohr struck like a cobra, challenging me to lead that effort. Too late, I realized that I had been ensnared by the volunteer coordinator’s code: That is, anyone who comes up with a good idea better be prepared to take it on.

Twenty-five years ago, I worked in health and social services organizations which were challenged to change the way they delivered services to accommodate the dramatic influx into this city of immigrants from around the world. Mainstream organizations were ill-prepared for the changing demographics and the cultural shifts in their clients and communities. We had to make intentional changes that would welcome and appropriately serve Toronto’s newcomers. Later I was the executive director of a pioneering mental health planning organization that had mandated equal board membership for people on both sides of the mental health system. Instead of focusing on developing more psychiatric beds, improved anti-psychotic drugs and better treatment protocols, the people on our board who had gone through the system as consumers and patients, told us to go in a new direction. While better professional services remained essential, they told us what they felt they really needed. They needed decent housing, jobs and opportunities for social connections in a world that often stigmatized and shunned them. We worked hard to make those things happen. We worked hard to make them happen, I believe, because we were intentional about diversity at the highest decision-making level of the organization.

So I guess I can say that I’ve seen this movie before. When Margaret challenged me to lead our quest for greater diversity, I couldn’t plead ignorance or indifference. Of course, this is hardly a one-person job. Today I’d like to introduce the good people who have been working with me as members of the Diversity Working Group.

Janil Greenaway, Wendy Peebles, Marlene Campbell, Catherine Lake, Fiona Heath and Art Brewer who is unable to be here today.

Our mission statement, arrived at after the usual Unitarian wordsmithing marathon, is as follows:

To advance the congregational goal of intentionally welcoming people from diverse ethnic and racial communities, including Aboriginal peoples. The ideas and actions that emerge from this focus will be a solid basis upon which to broaden our commitment to diversity as we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

You can read the full terms of reference and the action work plan we have established on our website under the Membership tab.

And now, for our first action, our very first outcome, we’d like to unveil the poster on the easel. It contains photos of many of the people who were at that ICUU conference in the Philippines and is entitled “Unitarian Universalists Come From Around the World”. It will be hung after today’s service on the wall above the visitors table just outside these doors to remind us and our visitors, that our faith and our congregation, embraces the same diversity as the world and the city we live in.

Good morning. My name is Helen Iacovino.

It was 1982. I was in my mid twenties, had grown up in the Montreal Unitarian church, and had recently returned to it. Then at the annual meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council, affectionately known as the CUC, held in Montreal that year, I got to meet the family.

That’s exactly how it was – meeting the family. We become involved at the local level in our home congregation, but there is also an extended family of Unitarian Universalists across Canada and the United States, and in fact extending around the world. Since that CUC meeting in 1982, those broader ties to Unitarian Universalists living elsewhere have always been very important to me.

This is the short explanation for why when I attended the CUC meeting in Victoria in 2010, I eagerly signed up to participate in the Northern Lights program.

There is more about Northern Lights in the brochure in your order of service. It is jointly sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers of Canada and the CUC. Basically, the way it works is that individuals sign up to donate a specific amount once or twice a year, perhaps $50 but it can be any amount, smaller or larger, and these monies are directed to a different Canadian UU congregation each time for a specific project. Northern Lights is designed to get broad participation – if 1,000 Unitarians across Canada pledge to give $50 twice a year, that comes to $50,000 each time to fund 2 projects in 2 congregations.

Sometimes we think – what will make our congregations stronger? I have always felt that Unitarian Universalism should be a household word – everyone should know about us. Yet so many Canadians, as well as many Americans who don’t live in the vicinity of Boston, have never heard of us. This will help – it will fund various programs designed to make individual congregations stronger, and thus better able to fulfill their mission in the Canadian context. The grant committee will approve projects which it considers to be grassroots, transformative initiatives – allowing a congregation to follow through on a dream that would otherwise not be possible. The first project started last fall, with the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon seeking some help with hiring a ¾ time or full time minister.

It’s not necessarily about money. I encourage you to join me and pursue connections with our wider denomination, and to look to the extended family of Unitarian Universalists across Canada which we are all part of. If you’re so inclined, I encourage you to consider personally participating in the Northern Lights program. Either way you will thus make your own mark in helping to strengthen this faith which means so much to us all.

The Taking Of 28

In 1980, Ottawa was excited by Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposal to repatriate the Canadian Constitution from Great Britain and create a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Women were determined that the new Charter would contain a separate section affirming the equality of men and women. A Senate-Commons Committee was formed to hear public comment on the proposed Charter. Doris Anderson, then Chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, called a conference to debate the proposal for an Equality clause. But suddenly, Lloyd Axworthy, Minister for the Status of Women in the federal government, cancelled the conference. This so enraged Canadian women that a spontaneous call went out for women to gather in Ottawa the following weekend, even without government support. Women MPs made their offices available to telephone women across the country urging them to come to Ottawa.

The next weekend, a thousand angry women from all over the country, including me, converged on the city. Meeting rooms in the West Block of the Parliament buildings were made available. TVs were set up to accommodate the over-flowing crowd. Led by several knowledgeable women lawyers, by the end of the two-day meeting, an Equality Clause, Section 28, had been hammered out and forwarded to the Senate/Commons Committee. Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

Though it appeared that we had won the battle, there was one last glitch. Since the Charter needed the approval of the Provinces to become law, the last-minute refusal of Alan Blakeney, Premier of Saskatchewan, to support the Equality clause, calling it ‘unnecessary’, caused another storm. Again women MPs opened their offices to allow us to telephone women across the country. “Lobby your MP.” “Tell them we will have our Equality clause.” The women of Canada completely overwhelmed the Bell telephone system for two days.

After an exhausting weekend of telephone calls, I sat with a dozen women in the office of Judy Erola, Minister of Immigration. Finally, around five o’clock, Jean Chretien, Minister of Justice, strode into the room, grinning delightedly. “You’ve won. Blackeney has backed down. The Equality clause will be enshrined in the Charter.” Hurray! Canadian women now have their own equal rights amendment.

Last month I had not one but two epiphanies.

The first happened at my Saturday yoga class.

One pose I struggle with in yoga is bridge pose. Lying on your back, you gradually lift your entire body while pressing down on your feet and shoulders to form an arc or bridge. The instructor guided us gently through the pose. “Remember”, she said,” it is not about how high you can lift – it is about how wide you can open your heart centre.”

That was my epiphany moment – opening the heart centre is what my life is about… And that is surely why I struggle with this pose. Because opening and continuing to open my heart centre will always require more of a stretch.

Although this epiphany happened during yoga, it was thanks to First that I recognized it as the articulation of the spiritual journey I am on, one that I didn’t even know existed until I came here.

Like many of you, I came here because I wanted my children to experience a liberal religious education. My own spiritual needs were not on my agenda that first Sunday. But from the moment I joined in the words of our congregational covenant I knew I had found a like minded community. One Sunday has become 15 years of Sundays – and so much more.

For me, volunteering seemed the best way to meet people and to feel connected. Over the years, as I participated in many different activities, I noticed I was acting differently-- more meaningfully-- in all areas of my life. Indeed -- my heart centre was beginning to open.

What started as a prosaic way to find my place here had evolved into the path of my spiritual journey.

When I became a member of the Board of Trustees last year, I saw this as a great chance to use my administrative experience while learning about the business side of this place. I had not anticipated just how profoundly this role would affect me spiritually.

Serving in the capacity of trustee for this congregation, to the best of my ability, with others who are striving to do the same, has brought me some of the most significant insights in my spiritual journey.

Each month, as we confront the planned -- and the unexpected -- at our meetings, I am struck by how deeply we discuss, reflect and consider the outcomes of the decisions being taken. Each month, I am thinking more carefully, becoming less quick to judge. Each month, I am growing a bit more understanding of myself and others. Each month, I am opening my heart centre.

Which brings me to my second epiphany. During our last Board meeting, after we had reached a decision that required sensitivity and grace, I realized that everything I do here, from stuffing envelopes, to teaching RE, to becoming a lay chaplain, to serving on the Board – is one more step on my spiritual path. Everything I do here stretches my heart centre – and more than ever I am open to the possibilities.

Hi my name is Karen MacDuffee. I have been coming to Toronto First for about 7 years. I have taught in the RE program for the past three years and this year have begun sitting on the RE committee. And I am also part of a Living in Spirit group that meets monthly.

But I wasn't always this active at First.

I remember it was in our first year and I started spouting off some child raising theory to Diane Bosman (I didn't realize that she was the Director of Lifespan Religious Education) when she suggested that I become an RE teacher. I gasped and said that I could definitely not do that. A while later Beth Ann asked if I would like to do a testimonial. I had no idea what that was.. I said a very definite NO.

Community doesn't come naturally to me.. In fact there were times that I wondered what I was doing here.. Why did I attend First and what exactly was I getting out of the experience.

I am sure I had more of a sense of community when I was younger but working full time has shrunk my world. I really felt I only had quality time for Catherine and Nigel. Of course I have a community of friends and I consider these relationships chosen.

My community at Toronto First is not chosen. The only thing that we have all chosen is our faith. But there are people that maybe I don't like, or maybe I've had some negative interactions with...Of course I like everyone here.

Through my committee work, living in spirit group and other gatherings, I have learned that although we share a faith, we do not always share the same perspectives or way of doing things. Yes, sometimes we butt heads. Believe it or not! It's easy to do.

In considering the topic of community, I realize that our community does have room for the occasional discord or irritation. And I decided a while ago that I would have to give to the community in order to have one. Toronto First has, in turn, offered me a new perspective on acceptance of others.

So you can see I have even found my way to doing a testimonial. And what I want to tell you is that through these seven years, I have learned much about community from being immersed with all of you collectively.

Here, I have learned that I want to strive to be inclusive and listen to other's points of view and to give of myself. We will gather Sunday after Sunday continuing to share a common faith as we strive towards acceptance of others while remembering the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I can see that the strength of a community lies in prevailing over the fragility of relationships and forming bonds that nurture us all.

My name is Robbie Brydon and I started coming to Religious Education classes here in 1993, at the ripe old age of 9. While that may seem on the young side to you, I'm definitely a late starter for the group of folks who are currently meeting upstairs. Still, my journey to here has only come this far because of bridges built by others.

When I was 13, the junior youth group was slow getting started and waking up on Sunday morning was getting more difficult, so I stopped coming. It's hard to think now that my journey in religious community could well have ended right there. (Many thanks to the volunteers on our RE committee who ensure we have programming ready to go in September every year now, providing space for our younger members.) Three years later, my mom came home from church with an invitation: “Jacob says you should come back.” Following a leadership conference that spring, I was at a point in my life where I was looking for connection. So I did come back. I went to two youth conferences that fall in Upstate New York and I realized that the youth community was a natural fit for me.

Three years and a dozen youth conferences later (two national, three continental and one that I organized, along with the group here), I packed my bags and headed off to university. Okay, so I only went to Scarborough, but it turns out Sunday morning is less appealing when there's an hour and a half transit trip between you and the congregation and, anyway, I was no longer part of the youth group. I might have made it to one service during my first semester. It's strange to think that I could have easily wandered away and been one of the 12,000 or so Canadians who marks 'Unitarian' on their census forms but doesn't belong to a congregation (and heck, we've only got 5,000 members in this country).

Once again, I was offered a bridge back. Actually, I was offered a bridge even before I left; the previous year, the nominating committee had asked me to sit on the Board of Trustees, but I turned it down. That spring, however, Clare Whitman called me up and asked me to be a worship leader at the congregation, a role that I was happy to take on, given my experience planning worship as a youth. Suddenly, I had to come at least once a month, I worked closely with the ministers and the worship leaders – and pretty much everyone knew who I was, since I was front and centre for two years, as Catherine is today. Eventually I was coming every Sunday because I had a community I felt a part of, I enjoyed what we shared on Sunday morning...and my sleeping patterns had started to change. I'm now finishing up three years on the Board of Trustees, two as Vice-President, I've led the Coming of Age class twice and I'm getting involved in the Member Engagement and Social Justice movements here.

Why do I tell you this story? For three reasons:

One, it was through contributing to the community in various ways that I felt a part of it, be that attending youth conferences, planning events for the youth group or leading worship services. I struggled with Sunday morning services for a long time because I missed the level of participation and interaction we had in youth worship and I am only slowly realizing that I can create those elements through being involved in other ways.

Two: Of my RE and youth cohorts, there is only one other person who attends First regularly. As a religion, we lose more youth every year than we gain total members of any age. Unless we build far stronger connections between adults and youth, we will continue to do so.

Three: I was lucky. I got three vital offers to do something interesting that arrived at just the right time and have brought me into the heart of this congregation. To those of you who need to be connected, if you wait to be asked, as I did, you may not have my luck. Building connection is much easier if you reach out when you need to be reached. And to those in a position to ask, your offer may be the most important thing.

20 years ago today, our nation was confronted with the reality of violence and hate targeted at women.

20 years ago today, we all learned of the massacre of 14 engineering students—all women— by a man armed with a simple rifle and an arsenal of misogyny.

Between November 25 and December 10 each year, communities around the world mark 16-days of activism to end gender-based violence. Within those designated days fall a number of tragic anniversaries pertaining to violence against women including December 6: Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action.

The events conclude on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which begins by stating: We are all born free and equal.

This United Nations statement was enshrined into global consciousness on December 10, 1948. History remembers that women were once the legal property of men in this country. Today, we know that women continue to be the property of men in many communities. Clearly the world has a great distance to go before “free and equal” becomes a reality for half the human race.

We all know this. We all know the kind of lives that girls and women must bear simply for being born female. But we often dismiss this reality, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as how to parse the multiple issues and affect real change. How do we act in the face of this reality?

In thinking about today, I have recalled my earlier years of activism and weighed them against change. It is difficult to see that those years have had little effect. Indeed, I often believe that misogyny is becoming even more entrenched. Everyday we are reminded of violence against women: the advertising, the news items, the crime shows, the video games, the movies, and the music in our lives. Too much of our cultural expression bears the smear of sexism and the brand of violence in all its forms.

Yet, how often do we call it sexism, misogyny? Have we become afraid to name it for what it is? Perhaps we are socially ashamed to admit that women and girls continue to be treated as lesser peoples in even our society.

And yet we still give the same tired gender lessons: boys are naturally aggressive and girls passive. Violence and sexism still holds us all hostage—women and men, girls and boys. Like domestic violence, are we afraid to speak up for fear of making it worse? Or do we think it will go away on its own?

In revisiting the trauma of that day, I have been questioning change.

For many, the actions of that gunman at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal were the actions of a madman. But can any of us discern where that line is? When sociallyembedded hate morphs into madness into murder?

Today is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action.

Anne-Marie Edward was killed in the Montreal Massacre. Her mother, along with survivors of the shootings, passionately campaigned for the creation of the gun registry. Recently, Suzanne Laplante-Edward implored all of us to remember the kind of devastation a single rifle can inflict in just 22 minutes: 14 dead, 27 wounded.

Just a few weeks ago, Bill C-391 was passed in parliament and, if passed in the senate, the gun registry will be abolished.

How do we call ourselves to remember and to act? Where do we find awareness, language, and action.

In remembering this terrible anniversary, I look to the action of young women heading up the Miss G Project who are fighting to get women’s studies courses into high school. They understand that we all need more than the occasional text book sidebar to reflect the lives of girls and women.

In remembering this terrible anniversary, I look to the men of the white ribbon campaign who are working to educate boys and men. Who are working to breakdown hate against women.

In remembering this anniversary, I look to the December 6 Fund which provides loans for women escaping violence.

In remembering this anniversary I look to myself to find the hope and the courage to continue to fight for equality of all persons, for the realization of all human potential, for change.

Please join me now in a minute of silence to collectively mark this National Day of Remembrance and Action.

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.