Member Testimonies

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.

Honouring Their Memory

On a wall, just outside that door, in our Secret Garden, is a heavy bronze plaque, with the names of five young men, probably in their early twenties when they died inhumanely between 1914 and 1918. All were members of this congregation.

The plaque reads:

“This tablet is erected by the members of  The Unitarian Church in loving memory of

HAROLD SWANN
THEODORE GLASGOW
MONTAGUE SANDERSON
ORLEY MALCOLM
STANLEY MARTIN

They died the noblest death a man may die Fighting for God and Liberty
Their name liveth for evermore “

Do any of you know any of their names? Have you ever seen the plaque? It will undoubtedly outlive all of us here and possibly many generations beyond. Perhaps some of you are related or descended from some of these young men.

It is estimated that more than fifty million people - that’s 50 million, were killed, and countless millions more injured, mutilated and degraded during the Second World War, which lasted a very long six years, and has left its scars everywhere, even to this day, and certainly long beyond.

A few of you may have been active, or were innocent victims in other ways, on all sides, during that war which raged around the whole world. Most of you would not even have been born before those times. Those who fought and lived through it would be over eighty now and perhaps glad that their memories of those times may be fading.

I served in England during the Second World War , in the R.C.A.F., in Bomber Command; helping to guide young men and their planes to their targets in Europe, from a distance, via radar, and hopefully back to base. But not always. And I can tell you that I would personally prefer, and I think my brothers, at least one, would agree that we never again have a Remembrance Day. Because it brings back ineffable remorse for the undoubted huge numbers of widows and orphans that we helped create And sadness for the memories of half of the male graduates of my High School graduating class, who were dead within almost two years of graduation. Good friends all, and just beyond their teenage years. But my story is not unique. Sadly there are millions like it throughout the world.   So: Can war be condoned or justified. Well, I suppose Yes and No. Certainly almost everyone in Canada condoned it in 1939, and all those liberated from their oppressive yokes in 1945 knew it was justified. What cannot be condoned is the tragic stupidity of man- kind for never have figured out how to prevent the horrors of wars and killings, and our failure to support the United Nations Organization enough to effectively do this.

So again we bring to honourable memory , if only for a day, the bravery, the sacrifices, and the memory of everyone, known or unknown to us, dead and alive, who struggled through wars to bring us to this place in our lives, yes, to this very congregation here today.

These five young men of this congregation might have become great fathers, or great farmers, or hockey players, or leaders of this congregation or of this country. So we are keeping the light of Unitarianism alive for you, Harold Swann, Theodore Glasgow, Montague Sanderson, Orley Malcolm and Stanley Martin.

You are a part of us forever,  And we are a part of you.

THANK YOU.

A Humanist UU

Of all the registered UU religious brands, the one to which I feel the most loyalty is Humanism.

More specifically, I identify with Scientific Humanism, which has been defined as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism, and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion."

I don't consider myself to be a Philosophical Humanist, which I understand would have me concentrating more exclusively on human need and human interest.

I also call myself an Agnostic, because I understand that there are some questions that we cannot answer, and I believe that all knowledge is provisional, or as the time-honoured UU aphorism puts it: "Revelation is not closed."

A important way that I express my religious self here at First, is by celebrating our 4th Principle: "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

Some of you may have witnessed my searching in my impromptu coffee hour science lectures, or my Socratic probing of your political views.

This congregation is important to me because many of you actually listen to me, and I am inspired to listen  to you, and to learn.

My roots are in the Jewish tradition, where the most learned have always been the most respected. But even during my youthful years of week-nights at Hebrew school, studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I considered myself to be an agnostic, and I focused on my day job as a science nerd.

As I've matured, I've more and more held learning in high esteem. Mathematics, physics, technology; philosophy, language, cognition – learning has become my hobby, and my vocation.

At First I've learned about a religion without irrational creeds, where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, where there is no privileged oligarchy revealing truths about mythical divinities.

I very much value what I've learned from all the free-thinkers that I've met here … and I plan to continue to learn from you and, I hope, you from me.

Hello. My name is Stan Yack.

I’ve been attending services here for about twenty years, and this will be my third testimony. Today, I have a confession to make, and I will be coming out of a closet. No not that closet, another closet, one with a green door.

First the confession: For over 60 years I have been an unrepentant omnivore. When I started calling myself that, it was just a thoughtless joke; I was unconcerned by any criticism of my culinary behavior. But recently I’ve become aware of good reasons for changing that behavior. These days for many of us, not just Unitarian-Universalists, discussion of  culinary behavior has become more common.

In none of the related domains of discourse – health, ethics, environment – are the issues regarding dietary choices simple. The discussions are very personal, and with so many of our social connections occurring at meals, conversations can be uncomfortable. I recommend waiting until dessert.

Of the arguments against eating meat, I've found it easiest to reject  health-based proscriptions. My pop-science understanding of human biology tells me that our digestive system has barely changed from our savannah ancestors, so surely a diet including meat should still be good for us. (Though I am concerned about the antibiotic content of factory farmed meat).

For me the ethical objections to meat-eating are more relevant. As a student of cognition and philosophy, one ethical question I must consider is which creatures’ lives I have the moral right to terminate. 

But today, on Earth Sunday, I want to talk about environmental ethics.

The environmental problem with eating meat is straightforward: There are over 6 billion humans on the planet, and there is a fixed amount of land, a fixed amount of potable water, and limited energy for cultivation, fertilizer, and transportation. There’s just not enough of those things to feed meat to 6 billion human beings. So what right do I have to eat meat? I can put the issue concisely by reworking an old saying:

“One man’s meat is another eight men’s bread.”

That’s because the production of a given amount of meat protein typically requires some animal to consume eight times that amount of plant protein, corn on today’s factory farms. Eight-to-one is the factor on North American industrial beef farms; some sources estimates the factor as low as six, others as high as at ten. It is lower on farms where cattle graze on grasses, but there’s not very much of that going on any more. Our modern industrialized food system, whether producing meat or vegetables, is a product of the so-called “Green Revolution”. That system depends on tremendous amounts of fossil fuel for fertilizers, for pesticides, and for transportation. Cheap fossil fuel is a resource that is unlikely to be available for much longer. And protein production from beef consumes 100 times the water as production from grain!

Of course, a one pound steak and six pounds of bread are not nutritionally identical – they contain different proportions of proteins, carbs, fat, sugar, fiber, … An excellent guide to the health and ethical issues of food is Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The New Yorker says that Pollan “undertakes a pilgrim’s progress along modern food chains, setting standards for ethical eating”.

But now it’s time for me to open my green closet door, and come out:

I have become a “pescetarian”, a vegetarian who also eats seafood.

Note that I haven’t committed to a anti-meat orthodoxy, religiously avoiding meat to claim my place on a higher moral plane. Throwing out the leftover meat in my freezer didn’t seem to make much environmental sense (The meat’s all gone now.), and at my recent family Passover seder I did eat my mother’s chopped liver.

But for almost three months I haven’t purchased any meat, not in restaurants, not in supermarkets, not on the street: no beef, no pork, no chicken. That means my meat consumption is almost negligible. I decided that like Michael Pollan: “I had to stop eating meat before I could in good conscience decide if I can keep eating meat.” Now nearing the end of my third month, my conscience is still directing me toward a meat-free lifestyle.

In the future I might backslide from pescaterianism, and rationalize myself back into more carnivorous behavior. (After all, studies show that one man’s chicken is only another two men’s wheat, so maybe I’ll become a “pollo-tarian”.)  Or I may become more committed to reducing or rejecting consumption of animal products, and swear off fish and seafood.

I’ll keep you posted.

Dare to Dream

“Dare to Dream” Testimony

First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto

October 16, 2005

By: Barb Wentworth

 

Hello,

By way of introduction, many of you will recognize me because I come to church with Mark, an adult who lives with cerebral palsy and a developmental disability.

Dare to Dream:

I have dreamt all my life. It’s what keeps me from being depressed. I dream about what’s next, what opportunities can I create for myself, what places do I want to go, what things do I want to do. That’s the fun side of dreaming. The trouble with dreaming is that I don’t always get what I want. But I always get something new and different.

My Dare to Dream testimony has a theme – not surprising because I’ve been dreaming about this in one way or another all my life. It’s around disability.

1. What makes you proud/time you felt most alive at the church?

I have been proudest of this community when you include my son Mark. When people approach Mark and tell him they like his singing, I see him duck his head in a shy, pleased reaction. I was proud of this community when Mark Morrison Reed welcomed my son from the pulpit – that was critical to Mark’s engagement here and his sense of belonging and helped open the door for you to approach him as well. Thank you.

2. What do you personally bring to the church?

I am changing my role here at Toronto First – taking on more of a leadership role. I offered a session at the Leadership Workshop and will offer a Disability and Me workshop on Nov. 12th. When I lead here, it changes my relationship to this place and to you. Leadership here makes me grow into this community.

3. If you had a magic wand, what three things would you wish for and how would the church look in five years after you got your wishes?

My Magic Wand idea is best described by reading a quote from Margaret Lawrence’s memoir -  “Dancing on the Earth”.

Talking about her birth, she says:

“My mother and I were lucky. I often think, however, of the children born with birth defects. Their parents are by necessity heroes, caring for and loving their children, refusing to give up, coping somehow under stresses that I have never known and feeling, despite all the terrible difficulties, that their lives have been immeasurably enriched by the life of their child. Also feeling…so often that sense of being overwhelmed and defeated by the sheer awful presence of need: so much care, so much strength, when human strength even at its utmost is limited. I stand in awe of those victories of the human spirit, while at the same time I wonder at a society where the caring parents of disabled children, and the children themselves, are so inadequately helped.”

Where are these children? Where are these parents? Where are we as a community??

I believe this statement applies to more than parents. It’s also true for people caring for those who are terminally ill, those with Alzheimers Disease, those who are struggling with addictions and mental health issues. We will all be touched by our own disability or the disability of a loved one at some point in our lives.

I believe this “presence of need” is all around us here in this congregation. We keep it hidden. Put up your hand if you have a disability that no one/or only a few people here know about….Put up your hand if you know of someone with a disability that could use some extra support….I believe we have the capacity to be more honest about our own needs and I believe we have the capacity to bring into our congregation others who are in need.

This congregation set out to become a welcoming congregation on sexual orientation with great success. My dream is that this community will also become a welcoming congregation to those who are differently-abled. You have already started with your generosity towards Mark.

Just being welcomed and accepted here means the world. Thank you.


Hello,

By way of introduction, many of you will recognize me because I come to church with Mark, an adult who lives with cerebral palsy and a developmental disability.

Dare to Dream:

I have dreamt all my life. It’s what keeps me from being depressed. I dream about what’s next, what opportunities can I create for myself, what places do I want to go, what things do I want to do. That’s the fun side of dreaming. The trouble with dreaming is that I don’t always get what I want. But I always get something new and different.

My Dare to Dream testimony has a theme – not surprising because I’ve been dreaming about this in one way or another all my life. It’s around disability.

1. What makes you proud/time you felt most alive at the church?

I have been proudest of this community when you include my son Mark. When people approach Mark and tell him they like his singing, I see him duck his head in a shy, pleased reaction. I was proud of this community when Mark Morrison Reed welcomed my son from the pulpit – that was critical to Mark’s engagement here and his sense of belonging and helped open the door for you to approach him as well. Thank you.

2. What do you personally bring to the church?

I am changing my role here at Toronto First – taking on more of a leadership role. I offered a session at the Leadership Workshop and will offer a Disability and Me workshop on Nov. 12th. When I lead here, it changes my relationship to this place and to you. Leadership here makes me grow into this community.

3. If you had a magic wand, what three things would you wish for and how would the church look in five years after you got your wishes?

My Magic Wand idea is best described by reading a quote from Margaret Lawrence’s memoir -  “Dancing on the Earth”.

Talking about her birth, she says:

“My mother and I were lucky. I often think, however, of the children born with birth defects. Their parents are by necessity heroes, caring for and loving their children, refusing to give up, coping somehow under stresses that I have never known and feeling, despite all the terrible difficulties, that their lives have been immeasurably enriched by the life of their child. Also feeling…so often that sense of being overwhelmed and defeated by the sheer awful presence of need: so much care, so much strength, when human strength even at its utmost is limited. I stand in awe of those victories of the human spirit, while at the same time I wonder at a society where the caring parents of disabled children, and the children themselves, are so inadequately helped.”

Where are these children? Where are these parents? Where are we as a community??

I believe this statement applies to more than parents. It’s also true for people caring for those who are terminally ill, those with Alzheimers Disease, those who are struggling with addictions and mental health issues. We will all be touched by our own disability or the disability of a loved one at some point in our lives.

I believe this “presence of need” is all around us here in this congregation. We keep it hidden. Put up your hand if you have a disability that no one/or only a few people here know about….Put up your hand if you know of someone with a disability that could use some extra support….I believe we have the capacity to be more honest about our own needs and I believe we have the capacity to bring into our congregation others who are in need.

This congregation set out to become a welcoming congregation on sexual orientation with great success. My dream is that this community will also become a welcoming congregation to those who are differently-abled. You have already started with your generosity towards Mark.

Just being welcomed and accepted here means the world. Thank you.


My name is Diane Wagner and I’d like to share with you some thoughts on what belonging to this community means to me.  Like many of you, I arrived here from a mixed religious background. I was raised Baptist by parents whose personal faith was, and still is, very important to them.  I think I always had doubts, and I did not chose to be baptized when others usually do, at around age 13.  I later was baptized as a Catholic, after being married at the Newman Centre on U of T campus.  This was, at the time, a supportive and liberal community, but when I went back a few years ago it had changed a lot, and so, I suppose, had I.  The music was beautiful, but I came to realize that I could no longer believe the things I was expected to believe.  Several years ago I heard someone interviewed on the radio who said that once he admitted to himself that he didn’t believe what he was taught to believe, he couldn’t go back.  That has been my experience as well.

So I found myself looking for a religious community where a wide spectrum of beliefs were accepted.  I was also looking for a community that would accept and respect my lesbian daughter.  I just happened to meet someone on a Bruce Trail hike who told me about First Unitarian.  I arrived at First at just about this time of year, 6 years ago, and in the fall I started attending the Women’s Group.  Small groups at First are a great way to get to know people, and the Women’s Group has become a very important part of my life.  It is a warm, supportive group of women from all kinds of backgrounds who share the ups and downs of their journeys through life.  From these women I learned to listen to my own feelings, and to actually stop and ask myself how I feel.

After about a year and a half I decided to become a member of First, and then I attended a Mapmaking series. For the first time I got to know some men in the community.  By the way, two of the members of my Mapmaking Group went on to become chaplains, and a couple of others have run adult programs here.

So what keeps me at First?  I feel very much at home with the principles we share, and in fact the first time I heard them, I thought someone must have been reading my mind. To me “growing into harmony with the divine” means respecting and being part of the interdependent web of existence.

I appreciate the intellectual and spiritual stimulation at First – in the services and in the workshop series.  My favourite series was one where we had to decide whether our main approach to life was humanist, naturalist, mystic or theist, and then look at questions such as “What is real to you?” and “How do we know what we know?” By the way, I started out in the naturalist group, then decided to join the mysticism group, but I’m still not quite sure which group I belong to.

Something else that is very important to me here is the experience of R.E. for my granddaughter -- a place where she can feel that it’s quite normal to come from a non-conventional family.  In fact, after her first R.E. class a couple of years ago Daya came up to me, excited, and said “Grandma, a little boy in my class has three Moms. He’s so lucky! I only have two”.

But what is most important to me is being part of a supportive community.

Mark said in one of his recent sermons that it’s the job of ministers to always strengthen the fabric of community.  I told him afterwards that he and Donna must have done a good job, because I feel confident going forward into our uncertain future. I’m confident in our community.

My name is Helen Iacovino, and I have always loved flower communion. Never mind that my family background is Czech and I only discovered as an adult that this celebration originated in Prague, never mind that (as Tony and my kids will tell you) two of my current obsessions are my garden and the furthering of Unitarian Universalism. Flower communion is truly Unitarian in that not only did Unitarians originate it, but it reflects who we are, what we stand for, and how we go about being in the world. There has even been some talk among UU leaders in the United States of selecting a date on the calendar for a unique Unitarian Universalist holiday, and one option raised was that it might be, say, the first Sunday in June as Flower Communion Day. Then at the office on Monday we could all tell our co-workers, "Yesterday I celebrated my religious holiday." But this wonderful thought is a digression.

Every year I bring a little flower to Flower Communion (or sometimes a bigger flower, if the spring has been early enough and peonies happen to already be in bloom). But I take home much more. I take home a flower that has called to me, that is perhaps unusual to me, that seems to have sought me out – and I take home the intangible sense that I’m a part of something much, much bigger.

It’s the same with taking on a volunteer role around here. I feel that I get more out of it than I give. In my other life I work in the office of a golf club, and one day I overheard their past president saying, "I’ve discovered that you get a bigger kick out of this place the more you put into it." I’ve found that this holds true for Toronto First.

Perhaps more significantly, since I joined Toronto First 21 years ago, I have felt that this place truly is "permission-giving" in that when a member or friend volunteers in some way, they are permitted to carry out that task the way they see fit. They have the freedom to emphasize the aspect of the job that is dearest to them, and to carry it out in a way that is in keeping with their personal preferences. They are encouraged to infuse it with their own vision. Furthermore, they have the support of others, such as the convenors and the Board, or the committee they are working with.

Of course, we are not perfect, and so our permission-giving to our volunteers and congregational leaders is also not perfect; we are continually working on it. I cannot say that I have felt entirely happy or entirely supported all of the time. But most of the time I felt supported beyond measure, supported beyond my expectations, by the convenor team as a whole and by Board members, and sometimes this was at a time of very difficult decisions that I was in the forefront of. When things become difficult in one portfolio, the rest of the Convenor group is there. Like the roof. The final decisions about how we will proceed with replacing half the roof will be shared. The Property Committee, the Convenors and the Board will all have input into it and be there for each other through it, and in addition the congregation will be kept informed. So together we will solve it in a way that works for us all.

If one of the goals of life is to continually learn and grow, what better way is there to further that than to volunteer for something in this wonderful place? I found in my volunteer roles, I got more out of it than I put into it. As I think Donna or Mark once put it in a sermon about how we all minister to each other, it’s the crossroads where the individual’s greatest joy meets the community’s greatest need – doing something I enjoy doing to further the work of this place.

For the past three years I have been the Administration and Property Convenor, and as of the Annual Congregational Meeting last Monday my term is up. I leave it, I admit, with a certain sense of relief – now someone else can worry about photocopiers, elevators and heating bills. However, I also leave it with a sense of immense gratitude for having had this opportunity, and that the congregation entrusted this to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow into the role as I took it on, and to grow through it and see the congregation from a perspective other than that of some of the areas I was involved with previously, such as RE. It all keeps unfolding. It allowed me to make connections with more people, with different people and it allowed me to discover and develop skills I didn’t know I had. It also reacquainted me, on annual Property Cleanup Days, with muscles I didn’t know I had. It made me want to communicate to all of you that this building is YOURS and OURS and that we want you AND your children and youth to feel that this space belongs to you, and you belong to it.

And that’s what Toronto First, and Flower Communion, is all about to me – the entwining of all our lives as we attempt to create in the world a beautiful garden.

Dear friends,

Let me tell you something about me.

My life started in a small village with 500 gate numbers (houses) where our house number has the 444 number. My parents still live there.

This is a small village in Transylvania with most of the people being unitarian. It was something natural, as traditional to go every Sunday in the church and also to attend the religious education.

For example: on new years evet he whole village went to the church on midnight, exactly 12 o' clock to say good by to the past year and to welcome the New Year, when the minister held the service. After that everybody continued the new years eve party.

When I was in highschool, all my classmates were talking about where will continue their studies and decided about the university or collage, except me.

The real decision was made by my father, who one day gave me a Bible, a songbook and all the information I need to study to apply for the ministry. And he asked me: how about to be a minister? Well, I remained speachless.

But I went to the local minister and I asked his addvice. He and his wife started to prepare me. After one year we all felt that I am ready for the Theology.

I was attached to the idea of working with people, specially in terms of relating people with God, with the spirit.

In hungarian the minister is called lelkipásztor, which if I retranslate into english, it means: the shepard of the soul, spirit.

Some people work with the body, others with the mind, and the minister with the spirit.

So I went to the seminary in Cluj-Kolozsvar where I studied 5 years, and graduated in 1989.

An other interesting part of my life if how I met my wife!

We, as student attended every Sunday the main church in Cluj-Kolozsvar. And we had a special place in the church, right in front of the congregation. So everybody could see us and we could see who is in the church. And of course, as students we were interested in young girls and searching with our eyes to discover them. In this way I saw Erika, many times in the church, but I could not get to her because the members left first the church and we last, at the end. And while we finally left the church she disapeared. This happened all the time, remaining in front of the church only the old ladies to talk.

Finally, in the winter the church organized a congregational meeting, not in the sanctuary but at the parish house, and I was there with a student friend. And she was there with her girlfriend. So we went immediate near them, and in this way started our life jurney.

We married in 1990 and lived in Petrosani until 2001, when the Bela Bartok Church invited me. In 1994/95 I was a schoolar at SKSM, and Erika joined me for the last three months. Our girls were born in 1997 the oldest, and the twins in 1999.

It is hard to compare the work and ministry between the two churches I served, because they are compeletly different ones.

The former was in a small town, around 300 members, most of the call miners and old members. I knew all of them. We visited every year in their homes. I could reach them just by walking to their houses. It was not necessary to call them before visit. It was so naturally for them too: the minister can visit us all the time. If I had something to ask, or tell, I just walked to their door.

In Budapest it is not that easy. There are large distances. People are very busy. To keep the connection is mainly by phone, or letter or just meeting on Sundays.

In both places we organized besides the Sunday Services, church evenings. In Petrosani on Sunday afternoons, where the members were together having fun, maybe some children or the youth performing something: poetry or singing.

In Budapest on Saturday evenings, we are able to invite famous people, like actors, singers, artists who deliver programs for the members, which is follow by a common dinner.

Now I am also busy on updating the church home page. I consider important to be on the web, to spread the information about us.

I am one of the church magazin editor. This year I am attending a one year jurnalist course.

My wife, Erika is studying too, she is in a 4 year college on business and finances.

The girls are in the kindergarten. The oldest starts the school this fall at a private church school, which offers a very good education.

We are all very attached to each other. We spend a lot of time together. We don't have television, so we have time to talk, and play together and read for the children.

This is the first time when the girls are on their own, without us, at their grandparents, and we are curious about how they support or spend this time, and also it is a test for the grandparents too. Not to mention that we are fine for now without them, but I don't know for how long. 

Rev. Sandor Leta (Bela Bartok Unitarian Church, Budapest)