Member Testimonies

Good morning.  My name is Margaret Joyce and I am here this morning to share with you what for me is a very important anniversary.  One year ago this month on New Member Sunday I became a member of this congregation.  An event for which I have never ceased to be grateful and which in many ways changed my life.

On Sunday mornings the Worship Leader says: "From our many and varied paths we come to this place...."  My path, like some of yours, was an Anglican one although it has been many years since I followed that path.  A number of incidents in the lives of my friends as well as disquieting world events had caused me to doubt my Church's teachings.  For a number of years I drifted. I no longer attended church and while I sometimes had vague feelings of guilt I went on living in what I now realize was a spiritual wilderness.

In 1972 I went back to University, not with a specific goal in mind but just to prove to myself that I could still function in the academic world.  In my first semester I chose a Humanities course, medieval history, literature and philosophy.  As my first required paper we were asked to write on any topic we chose as long as it dealt with some aspect of the course.  I decided that I would write about my own personal philosophy.  Writing it would present a challenge and I could incorporate it into my paper.  After some research I found a number of well known people whose beliefs and non beliefs were similar to mine.  From their writings and my own convictions I gathered my beliefs together and wrote them down.  Writing them gave me a sense of comfort and peace of mind.  I now knew what I believed and could live by these principles without guilt that I had abandoned my former faith.

In 1998 a friend of mine passed away.  He had been a member of this congregation for many years.  Some of you may remember George Barker.  I came here for his memorial service and was impressed by the simplicity of the service and the moving tributes.  I left with the feeling that I wanted to find out more about this place, its history, philosophy and purpose.

More than a year passed before I did anything about my good intentions, then one day I phoned the Unitarian Information Centre and asked for some literature on Unitarianism.  I received a large brown envelope containing a number of pamphlets full of all kinds of relevant information.  As I read I thought: "This is my philosophy, this is my doctrine, this is what I tried to express in my university paper almost thirty years ago,  I don't have to become a Unitarian, I am one.  I have been a Unitarian all those years and did not know it."

On November 7th 1999 I came to my first service.  It happened to be New Member Sunday with both choirs in attendance.  It was of course quite different from any church service I had attended before.  Where else would dancing be part of a Sunday service?  It was also Hindu observance Sunday which added to its uniqueness for me.  I learned later that observance of other faiths was all part of Unitarian doctrine, their respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I continued to come to the Sunday morning services, enjoying the simplicity of the Order of Service, the message of the sermons, the children's story, the candle lighting for celebration and concerns, the music and quiet meditation and afterwards the fellowship of Coffee Hour.  I found that I brought home with me a wonderful sense of comfort and belonging which stayed with me all week.

As the months passed I felt that I should make an effort to give something back in return for what was being given to me.  With this in mind I volunteered to serve on the Welcoming Committee and in September I accepted the position of chairperson of Daytimers, that delightful group of friendly interesting people who had made me feel one of them

In the welcome letter I received from Mark and Donna after that memorable first visit they wrote:  "First Unitarian is a safe haven in a hectic world, a caring community that will soothe your heart and nurture your soul."  It has done all that and more for me.  It has given me a spiritual home.  I do not regret my Anglican roots or the discipline of my early religious training.  They gave me a foundation from which to build and to make my own decisions about my faith.

I  would like to end with a few lines from that University paper I wrote so long ago and still have.  I has the professor's comments and a B+ at the bottom.

More than 2000 years ago Aristotle wrote to one of his students.  "The master key of knowledge is indeed a persistent and frequent questioning.  It is by no means fruitless to be doubtful on particular points.  By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth."

Part I

Good morning.   My name is Agnes Vandergang, and I have been a UU, and a member of this congregation, for more than 12 years.   During that time I have insinuated myself into just about every corner of this place.   I have sung in the choir, deliberated church policy around the board room table, led adult programs on topics dear to my heart, crawled on my knees through the Haunted House set up in Shaw Hall for Halloween, and danced up a storm right here in this sanctuary.   I have served more cups of coffee than I can count, exhibited my photographs on these walls, and planted perennials in the secret garden.   This year I finally agreed to be a teacher in the religious education program.   I have laughed out loud, stamped my feet in rage, and wept with despair in this building…   In fact, in case the ministers have failed to inform you… I own this place.   Oh, don’t worry or sigh with relief, I’m not talking about the mortgage.   I’m talking about belonging – I am an integral part of this community and it (and that means you) are a part of me.   This is my home. You are my family.

Wherever I go, I end up talking about this place and how much it means to me. Truth be told, I brag about this congregation the way some people brag about their grandchildren.   And when I see new faces among us, I get excited.   I love to share my experiences here with newcomers, and invite them to discover for themselves who we are and what we have to offer.   Even though, like the majority of Unitarians, I am an introvert, I don’t feel the need for a reminder about the “3 minute rule” (that’s the suggestion that’s been made in recent months that we all spend the first 3 minutes of coffee hour talking to people we don’t know)…   But, it wasn’t always so.

There was a time when the exhortation to welcome newcomers made me as petulant as a 2 year old with a new toy.    I had spent two years seeking an alternative religious community, didn’t even hear about Unitarian Universalism until I went away to Boston one summer.   Having found this gem of a religion, and made it my own by jumping in with both feet, I did not want to share.    As members we were regularly invited from this pulpit to take the time to talk to newcomers, who were given green mugs at coffee hour.   I confess to you today:   I hated hearing about the “green muggers”.   I’m ashamed to recall the things that went through my head:

I found my way here without any help – they can too”.

This is the only time of the week I get to connect with my friends;

no one’s going to take that away from me ”.

“I do so much work around here; let someone else talk to new people”.

You see, as a young woman with a questioning mind and strong feelings, growing up in a conservative Dutch Calvinist community, I had felt like an outcast for as long as I could remember.   I was starved for a sense of belonging.   I was not unlike the broken cup Donna described a few weeks ago – feeling I could never get enough.   Trying to make up for lost time, I thought I needed to safeguard my resources.    I could not yet trust that what I had found would last.   Perhaps the sense of community I experienced was only superficial, and would come apart when individual differences surfaced, as they inevitably must.    Or worse yet, I would discover that once people got to know me, my ideas and feelings would not be any more welcome here than they were in the tradition I grew up in.   Not yet sure of my new-found home, I held on to it for dear life.   I would not, could not open my heart to others seeking the very thing I hoped I had found.

What are you holding on to for dear life?   What keeps you from living deeply, engaging fully, and giving freely?   Allow yourself to imagine letting go.   Consider allowing this community to support you in the process.   Are you prepared to open yourself to the glorious possibility of transformation?

Part II

Not wanting to share; holding on tight for fear of losing what we have.   These are such human feelings.   Children articulate them fiercely:   “Don’t touch that! It’s mine!   You can’t have it!”   And are adults really any different, except that we have learned that “selfishness” is not socially acceptable?   We pretend to be nice, even when we feel mean and think nasty thoughts.   We quietly resist, complain and undermine.   What does it take to let go of the wish to have sole possession of something?   How do we become, not wholly selfless, but truly generous?   How do we let go of the things that hold us back?

You may wonder why I am talking about this on New Year’s Eve – the service during which we are invited to let go of the past, and welcome transformation.   Well you see, with all the talk about growth over the past year, I kept thinking back to my resistance to talking to those “green muggers”, and wondering whether other members might be less than happy about being asked to share.   I thought I might not be alone in having had mixed feelings welcoming others into our circle.   And I knew for sure that each person here would be familiar with the feeling of not wanting to let go, even when the time is ripe.   And I wanted to testify to the fact that this common, human experience can be transformed, here, in this community of faith.

Let me tell you what happened to me in during the time between wanting this congregation all to myself, and becoming eager to share it.   In the choir, I developed a camaraderie with others who enjoyed singing.   As a board member, I struggled with issues of responsibility and authority.   At one meeting I ranted about some voices carrying more weight than others.   Everyone heard me out, despite the less than fully mature presentation of my concerns.   I met women whose concerns and circumstances were similar to mine, and developed rich and enduring friendships.   I witnessed difficult issues and tensions within the congregation aired openly, and dealt with in love and compassion. Flirting on this dance floor, more than a few times, in this “safe” setting, I finally understood that I am valuable for much more than my sexuality.   As it became clear in the past few years that I wouldn’t be having children, I befriended a young family, and hope to be present at the birth of their second child next spring.   And, teaching a class of eight-year-old boys, I am moving through trepidation towards (occasional) gratification.

Having been embraced so often, in so many different ways, my cup is over-flowing.   I have, almost without noticing, given up safeguarding what I have.   I now experience the most joyful imperative to share my abundance.   I have been transformed within and by this community.

What about you?   What do you need in order to let go and embrace the new?   Whatever your struggle, there is a place for you here.   There is enough understanding, support and love to go around – open yourself to it.   The wonder of our diverse, multi-faceted community is that you can customize it meet your own needs – we offer do-it-yourself transformation!   We boldly proclaim to be “a community serving each person’s spiritual journey”, and let me tell you, it’s no mere slogan.   It’s an open invitation, and a challenge.   Ask yourself what you need to let go of on the cusp of a new year.   Take a step on the journey.   Believe me, it’s worth the trip.

Today’s flower ceremony grows out of European experiences, its prejudices. I will tell you about mine and what motivated me to be in and support the Unitarian congregation. Try to replace my personal pronoun and imagine the millions who every day experience versions much worse. I will give you 9 examples

1. Religious Education: I grew up in a practicing Lutheran family. As seven year old I spent time in an exclusively Catholic area. In the school did not know their religious texts, prayers, rituals. I was crying and excused from religious classes. As it was tradition, on an evening before Christmas St. Nikolas knocked his chain against the door to hear my prayer to decide whether I deserved a present. Peers called me the little Protestant Prussian devil. Although a weak boy I got into a fight with their bully, landed a chance hit which drew a tiny bit of blood. From then on I was accepted as one of them. I now appreciate two human value systems, the instinctive and the indoctrinated.

2. Absolute Commitment. I grew up during what was called ‘absolute war’, requiring absolute obedience to authority. Everything was meant to matter for the national survival. We collected herbs for the national economy, plucked mosses in the woods as bedding and wound dressing for a soldiers’ hospital to which our school had been converted.

3. Mind Control: When my mother tried to listen to Radio London to hear the news, my father angrily warned her that we all might end up in prison. The same was the cause of Capek’s arrest. He ended up in Dachau.

4. Intolerance: After the war, I saw the colour labels for people destined for concentration camps – red for these, yellow for others, orange for others again.

5. Prejudice: Racial and ethnical disrespect ran deep. An otherwise good man told me that all Einstein’s theories couldn’t be right because he was of such and such a race.

6. Social Progress: In our teenage years we were indoctrinated by socialism, an ideology understood as ‘secularization of Christianity’. Remember the roots of the NDP were in Christian Socialism,

7. Europe is known for its Edicts of Expulsions – against Protestants, Jews, or politically unreliable persons. My parents were evacuated as politically unreliable. Rifle butts were used to move them. They belonged to a group officially called ‘vermin’, a term taken over from the Nazis. Then a huge wall was built across the land to separate people. 30 years later it had to be taken down.

8. Refugees: My wife, then 10 years old, in the winter, was part of a refugee column escaping the Soviet Army with her mother in a wagon pulled by an old horse and an ox. The horse died en route. They were sleeping wherever people offered them some sort of accommodation and a poor meal.

9. My brother was drafted as 16-year old boy, to shoot at allied bombers, later to fight the huge US Army, ended up in and barely survived an American prisoner camp where others died of starvation, dysentery. As a student he had a job digging graves for victims who had died along the road on what were called death marches’ from one KZ to another.

I was asked what is my philosophy of life?

a. Diversity and Balance: Initially, a kernel of truth and justification is in almost all philosophies and religions –vigilance prevents them from becoming extreme and abusive

b. Use the building blocks available to you for bridges not walls. Walls will collapse, and the longer they last, the more the inevitable will hurt.

c. Long-Term: Consider the consequence of your actions beyond your own life span

Thank you for listening.

Three questions provide “guidelines” for personal testimonies: What brought me here? What keeps me here? What religious or spiritual issue am I wrestling with now? I realized I’ve been on a journey, starting with little awareness of Unitarianism to a degree of understanding, a journey with no insight regarding its future course. Shawn provided a quotation from Kierkegaard: “We live our lives forward, but we understand them backwards.” That seems to sum it up.

I grew up in a non-practising Jewish home where my father who held and voiced the family opinions insisted that all religions were “bunk.” Yet we were constantly reminded of being Jewish although observing no Jewish holidays or practices. We celebrated Christmas with presents and a huge dinner, avoiding anything that people would see, like a Christmas tree or other seasonal decorations, and we stayed home from school on Jewish holidays because of what people would think. I found the hypocrisy distasteful.

So how did I get here? It started in Madison, Wisconsin, while attending university. I lived in an interracial residence which, I learned, had been largely sponsored by local Unitarians, a daring undertaking with the Civil Rights movement over a decade away and in many communities two YMCAs, one for whites and one for blacks, as was true of some local churches. All this was new to me, coming from London, Ontario which was almost totally homogeneously white.

I attended Madison’s Unitarian congregation at a very exciting time. Ken Patton’s previous dynamic ministry had left a lingering glow. And the congregation was building a new church, designed by famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright whose grandfather was a founder. He believed in using local materials. This meant limestone, available north of Madison. The church organized two work parties: one loaded limestone on trucks at the quarry, the other unloaded at the church site. I chose the quarry and during a glorious autumn season spent Saturdays there. Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography became almost a text book for the congregation, used in RE and other programs. Heady days!

Meanwhile increased interest in religion led to exploring Protestant student centres. I even looked at the Quakers, but abandoned them because they seemed very pure-hearted; I felt I wasn’t “good enough.”

In Toronto in the early ‘50’s, I at first felt isolated and decided to “try” being Jewish. While scouting Jewish circles, I was told by a prominent rabbi that “we have nothing here for single women at all.” That closed that door. By chance I encountered a former Madison Unitarian who suggested I come here. I did, I immediately felt at home, I stayed.

My reasons: feeling accepted, and free to explore and think for myself. It was difficult explaining Unitarianism to others. Part of that was the times. Unitarians here tended to define themselves negatively, unlike traditional religionists. Avoiding the “trappings of traditional religion” seemed almost a mantra. Back then, I didn’t understand Unitarianism. I tended to describe myself as Unitarian by temperament rather than conviction.

The big gift I received here involved personal change, from being extremely shy, finding it difficult to express any opinion (many here now would never believe that!) to becoming more outgoing. Developing organizational skills led to founding Carrousel Club, actually joining the church in 1962 in order to be president, hardly a noble motive. But temperament trumped conviction then. Over time I’ve filled various roles here and my sense of this as my community and my “social lab” grew and strengthened.

But a strange thing happened on the way from then until now.

It took time to understand Unitarianism as a liberal religion. Recently, I have reflected on major influences that culminated in a set of liberal values. They included my early introduction to racism and civil rights issues, and employment in human rights; ongoing participation in the adult education world where “liberal” attitudes and projects abounded; graduate study in sociology; opportunities to learn about aboriginal peoples. Dominant throughout has been continuing influence of the Unitarian environment which nurtured me, especially with its emphasis on respect for others and their views. I am deeply grateful. And somewhere on this journey I accepted humanism as my “brand” of Unitarianism. Finally, I felt Unitarian by conviction.

The three questions? I came seeking an accepting home. I stayed because I found it here. Any doubts absolutely vanished when I was hospitalized last summer. I was totally overwhelmed by the constant flow of visitors, cards, gifts, phone calls and tangible help that poured forth from members of this congregation both then and afterwards. The church as my community became incredibly vivid.

The third question, “What religious or spiritual issue am I wrestling with now” is still evasive, overtaken by increasing comfort with my humanist outlook and less need to wrestle.

There is a lovely poem which a former minister used to quote, translated from Greek, and called Ithaca or Journey to Ithaca, as the destination of a long journey through life, enjoying delights and ignoring threats, recognizing that in the end, Ithaca might disappoint. The message: the journey trumps the destination; travelling outweighs arriving. Another quotation, from lyrics by Sondheim: “If you know where you’re going, you’ve (already) gone.”

Good Morning. My name is Paul Bognar. At this time of year I'm also known as a Grinch, a grouch, a humbug, party pooper, and worst of all for December, Ebenezer Scrooge. Unlike the Grinch, my shoes aren't too tight, my head's screwed on right (mostly), and my heart isn't three sizes too small. You see, I don't like Christmas.

Oh, there are many things I don't like: Barbara Streisand movies, parsnips, gangsta rap,... It's OK for me to dislike things like that. But because I don't like Christmas, people feel the need to try to change my mind.  Almost every Christmas movie or special on television portrays someone like me: someone who dreads Christmas. Those stories always are about redemption. The character has lost the "spirit of Christmas," because they've lost something from their childhood, or lost a love, or a family member. The poor soul needs to rediscover the magic of the season to be saved. These are tales of intolerance. It is just not acceptable in our culture to dislike Christmas, thus the need for redemption.

At this time of year, when people are supposed to be filled with "joy," when we are meant to have heard angels sing, when we are to give generously and perfectly the equivalent of leaping lords and golden rings, all the while listening to bells jingling on a silent night, my halls are decked with ever darkening grey. A cloud of dread, the grey of seasonal affective disorder, often the blackness of depression. Fa la la la la.

Many people think that a blue Christmas is for those who can't enjoy the holiday because they're grieving, or lonely, or poor. I've been all of those, and I want to say that while those conditions didn't help, neither are they the cause of my blue Christmases.

Thirty years ago, still a teenager, I was walking home very late on a Christmas Eve. A heavy snow was falling, all was quiet. Three blocks from home, warm light poured from the window of the old house at the corner of Dunkirk and Rosedale avenues in Hamilton. Inside, I could see the Christmas tree, lights and candles, and a young man and woman dancing the polka. The young man and woman were looking into each other's eyes, and laughing, laughing with joy and love. Somehow I knew, even then, that I would always be outside the window at Christmas, that this was a time for others, but not for me.

I suppose I have many reasons for not liking Christmas. It is absolutely impossible to ignore. It's too commercial, too tiring, too expensive. It takes up too much of the year (did you notice that decorations appeared before thanksgiving this year?). Wassailing when I don't drink alcohol. The stress of not spoiling the holidays of those I love. And the carols. Endlessly reminding me of a saviour that isn't mine, in a religion I've long left behind, pressing Christmas spirit on me, demanding seasonal joy from me, turned on as if a faucet.

And then there are the truly painful holidays. Five Christmases ago, I faced my first Yule alone, ever. My marriage had broken up, and for the first time in almost twenty years, I would not see my daughters on Christmas. I bought my usual tree, and since I had no decorations for it, I improvised with odds and ends . I went to the Christmas Eve service at First Unitarian Hamilton. I sang Christmas carols whose theology meant nothing to me anymore. I spent most of the day alone in my apartment, only one or two people phoned to wish me "Merry Christmas." I drove to my sister's for dinner with her family. Her invitation was a caring, loving thing to do, but because I was not normally part of their holiday celebrations, I was the fifth wheel. I coped and I survived. And each holiday season since only brings back painful memories of the last days of my marriage, of the Christmases I spend without my children, and of my parents, both now deceased.

I don't have to justify not liking Christmas. For me, it is one long Streisand rerun, that I have to endure for nearly three months every year, served with parsnips instead of popcorn, and a soundtrack of gangsta rap carols.

Oh, I like turkey, the smell of pine in my home, lights, candles, quiet, snow, and many other things that one can find at this time of year. But don't ask me to like Christmas. Don't ask me to explain why I don't like it. To me, it's the parsnip of holidays. If you like Christmas, I want you to revel in it, celebrate it and find joy in it as you never have before. But if you don't like Christmas, or your Christmas this year is too painful to celebrate, I want you to know you are not alone, and that there are people who understand and respect you. And a few of us are found here, in this safe place.

Today is the day that I will, for the first time in public, reveal something to you, my fellow Unitarians, that is extremely personal, concerning my sexual orientation. Though many of you have had contact with me through my work on the church’s finances, at an adult education program, or maybe just recognized me as one of the amateurs that happily, albeit nervously plays and sings his heart out every Father’s day.......none of you, until today will know the truth. Oh I’m sure that some of you have a suspicion; there have been hints and clues that some of you may have noticed over the past several years. Well here it goes..........I Jack McFadden am straight. As long as I can remember, I’ve been attracted to members of the opposite sex. I also strongly suspect, that I will remain heterosexual for the rest of my days.

It sounds so strange doesn’t it? Were any of you thinking.........Is he gay? It is after all Gay & Lesbian Pride Sunday and I did say I was about to reveal something about my sexual orientation. Granted, the small army of children that I’m seen with every Sunday did pose a logic problem but maybe , just maybe I had a few of you thinking for a brief moment. And what if I had "come out" as a gay man. Would it have changed your opinion, of me ? (be that good or bad !).

When I was asked to give a testimonial as a part of this service, I kept struggling with the question," What could I possibly offer to the theme of gay pride ? The word normal kept coming into my head. Believe it or not that is why I started with such an abnormal opening. After all, in our society, there is no need to "come out" as a heterosexual. It’s just so normal ! As I started to ponder my normal orientation, I also began to realize how easy it has been for me because of that orientation. Society has never scorned me for my inclinations and in actual fact, I have no doubt been stroked and possibly even rewarded for my attractions to the opposite sex. I was in the "in" crowd growing up. Would it have been the same had I been attracted to members of my own sex? And today, my lovely wife and three beautiful children are not just my family but also an asset to me at work, because I so neatly fit the good corporate image. It’s been pretty easy being normal.

But I’m not here today to try and shoulder the blame for the fact that up ‘till now, I along with other heterosexuals have benefited from the makeup of our DNA. Nor can I do much more than say that I realize that up ‘till this point in time, it has been much harder to live life as a gay person. I wish it had been different! What I am here to say is that to me, Normal is a society that does not judge based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. To that end, I’m proud to be a member of a church that not only states that as a part of our principles and purposes, but regularly encourages us to re-examine our thoughts, words and deeds for traces of prejudice that might still exist due to the indelible mark that "normal" society has placed on each and every one of us. By recognizing and celebrating the fact that there are good people here, doing good things, and that it doesn’t matter at all that some of us are straight and some of us are gay, we are helping to redefine the word normal. On Gay & Lesbian Pride Sunday, that is something in which we can all be proud.