Member Testimonies

No, no, no, no, Yes!

The title of my testimony comes from a quote by humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was once asked how he was able to take such evocative photos. He responded, “I lift the camera to my eye, I look through the lens and I say: ‘No, no, no, no, yes!’”

In my own journey, I too have taken the opportunity to strive at various undertakings. I might be doing work in my studio, honing my professional skills or, as is germane to this testimony, becoming a Unitarian. What do I strive for in this enterprise?

As I look out towards the congregation, consisting of many people that I have come to know over the years, whose community I enjoy, I am filled with gratitude for the sense of connection this affords me. From my perspective, this is one of the best things about the Unitarian faith, as I have come to appreciate it. Would I not find the same thing outside this place? Possibly. But, in my life, opportunities for connection are less certain. In the weekly comings-together, I find myself feeling a sense that we are all of us drinking from the same life-affirming well – to evocatively build our own sense of humanity, to whatever extent possible. To share, within the bounds of our covenant, our vulnerabilities and our hopes.

I am well aware, as I have come here for many years, that coming together in community on a regular basis is not all there is to Toronto First. I also know that ways that I am able to choose to deepen my faith depend on many factors, some of which I am unable to control. It is this aspect of the Unitarian that I see in me that I want to address – and for which I derived the title.

In my efforts to meet effectively the challenges of my life, I have frequently had to step away from greater engagement. I have had to say ‘no’ to many initiatives that I would clearly have enjoyed, were I living a different reality.

One of the most painful, from my perspective, of these ‘no’s’, happens when our community finds itself in desperate need of funds. The appeals that issue forth are persuasive. Still, I must say ‘no’. I am someone whose income, as a professional artist, is unstable and well below the poverty line – and I have to be realistic.

Or, a wonderful project is brought forward, calling for volunteers. How I wish I had the time! But I am someone who must work many hours to gain my living. I cannot realistically be so diverted. This is indicative of many workers in the arts in Canada.

With each ‘no’ I feel my faith as a Unitarian wobble.

I grew up privileged in a home knowing there was always enough food to eat. Today, as a working artist and a senior, I do not have that same privilege. This is a challenge requiring all of my creative thinking.

I realize that I am up against a huge global vortex. I also know that in the discussions around how to approach this problem, my voice cannot be viewed as a token one. I am resolved to bear witness to the situation that I face with equanimity and even with gratitude but also with truth. I felt I needed to say how it is for me. In our services we invite 'those who are able' to stand. I think that, in consideration of the problem of income disparity, pledging and collection might also declare of giving, only – 'as you are able'.

Where the 'value' of a person may well equate to earned income – what of those less ‘valuable' who wish creatively to contribute to the greater good? Community is founded on a representation of unique perspectives engaged in common purpose. A purpose of this community as I have come to understand it, is to insure that all are invited to the table and to act for all.

This is how I evoke my self as a Unitarian: I represent a part of that which exists in the world. Each day, I have the opportunity to create that self and that world anew, to my best ability.

Within the confines of my limitations, I pledge to draw from the wellspring of my own gifts, tools, experience, opportunities and questions, such as they are, to engage my faith, to support this congregation and grow spiritually. I may say ‘no, no, no…’ but be assured that I am also actively striving for ‘yes!’

Good morning. I’m Ted Wood and I’m a member of Amnesty International.

Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people who campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.

Today is Amnesty Sunday when we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 and participate in Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign.

Today our ministers are in Standing Rock, North Dakota attending the Interfaith Day of Prayer. Amnesty International USA has been monitoring the situation and has sent observers. Amnesty USA has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate police practices.

Amnesty Group 142 focuses on the rights of Indigenous peoples as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which our congregation endorses and supports. The Declaration asserts the rights of Indigenous peoples including the right to Free, Prior and Informed consent to projects that affect their lives and lands.

In Canada, the Site C dam project in the Peace River region of northeast British Columbia is a microcosm of the Canadian resource economy. By actively promoting intensive resource development federal and provincial officials have emphasized economic benefits while largely ignoring serious and sometimes deadly consequences for the health and safety that disproportionately impact the lives of Indigenous people who live there. The hydroelectric dam would flood more that 100 km of the Peace Valley submerging hundreds of cultural and historic sites, destroying vital wildlife habitat and lands where the Dane-Zaa, Cree, and Métis peoples hunt, trap, and gather berries and medicines. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have challenged the dam in court, arguing that their treaty rights have been ignored.

The federal and provincial governments approved construction of the dam even though their own environmental review process concluded that flooding the valley would “severely undermine” the ability of Indigenous peoples to carry out hunting, fishing, and other traditions protected by treaty, the Canadian Constitution and international law. The two governments have claimed that the need for electricity “justifies” these harms, however the province has pushed ahead with the dam without properly considering less harmful alternatives – or even if the electricity is really needed.

In addition to our action to halt the Site C dam we also have two other actions. One will support Máxima Acuña, a peasant farmer in northern Peru who has taken on Yanacocha, one of the biggest gold and copper mines in the world, over the ownership of the land where she lives with her family. The other will call on Honduras to protect the lives and personal integrity of all the campesino human rights defenders and to investigate the murders of José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George and bring the perpetrators to justice.

To support the work of Amnesty International, there will be a special collection today and the white envelopes in your order of service are for that purpose. Cheques should be made payable to Amnesty International Group 142 and charity tax receipts will be issued by Amnesty Canada.

For holiday shopping we have Amnesty merchandise available in Workman Hall during coffee hour. There is also the opening art reception here in Sunderland Hall at 12:00 noon for our December exhibit by Indigenous artists.

Amnesty International believes the campaign to stop Site C is so important for international human rights and justice that we are spotlighting it in our worldwide Write for Rights event. Amnesty supporters in over 200 countries will be sending hundreds of thousands of letters to Prime Minister Trudeau. We will also be sending letters to Premier Clark. We will be signing letters today to support and protect Peace River communities from an injustice that, if allowed to happen, cannot be undone.

For the things we save; for the things that make us who we are. And for my uncle, my dad, and millions
of others who lived through extraordinary times and went on to live very ordinary, honourable lives.
NM

Johnnie’s Box

These are the things in Uncle Johnnie’s box. The things saved, the things
left behind when he died at 91. Or maybe he was 92. (We weren’t close)
Dad’s older brother, the one who’d quit school at 14 and went to work
to support the family. The one who became, for a time, tyrannical
boss of the house. Still in the end he was alone, and his Arizona
nursing home mailed this small, battered wooden box of things,
mailed it to my dad. And then it came to me. After Dad died.

These things, now mine:
A telephone book with faded names and numbers of insurance companies,
drugstores, long-dead friends from Miami, Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens.
A number for the time of day and temperature in Phoenix. And one for
C & T Fashions on West 36th Street, the factory where he worked
for 40 years, sewing ladies coats. A partly torn snapshot of his wife
and a tarnished bracelet engraved with her name: Mollie.

And also these:
His 1945 Honorable Discharge, listing his height as 5’3”, weight 120 lbs,
so small he could squeeze into the nose cone of a B-24 bomber, out there
gunning in mid-air, a perfect little target, trapped in a tight space
with the insane roar of the plane’s engines making clear thought
impossible, which was probably good. (I never asked)
Souvenirs from the battles of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes,
Rhineland. He flew 30 missions, Dad said. Or maybe it was 20.
(I wasn’t listening)
His European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, a British Army pin,
his Army of India medal. His dog tags on a crude silver chain. A photo of him
in full bomber gear, and one where he’s dressed as a Scottish Highlander.
(I don’t know why)
Last, a silk escape map of France, Spain and Portugal. In case
he was shot down, wandering alone in an unfamiliar land. (I guess)
Folded over twice, creased, muted, still intact.

When I was a child Uncle Johnnie visited only on holidays. He was loud,
argumentative, mostly deaf. From the war, Dad said. (It meant nothing to us)
He had no time for kids and mocked our excitement with Christmas trees
and presents and Santa. He seemed mean, clipped, harsh to us who knew
nothing about him, nothing really.


Nacia Miller
2010

Good morning.

I am Margaret Bryant and I'm a member of this congregation. My husband Dominic and I were married at First, and our daughter Alix attends the Grade Five/Six RE program. I'm participating in the leadership development program, a member of the social events team and past co-leader of the Family Retreat.

You might be surprised to know that I've been attending First since I was a child.

There are few of us who have made the transition from child to youth to adult.

This morning I'm going to tell you a few of the things that I remember from when I was a kid here.

Most obvious are the physical changes to our building.  

Our RE classes were held in dark, cold, cramped rooms in the basement. They were classrooms that you ached to get out of. The curriculum was uninspiring and traditional, though delivered by kind and caring teachers. Those classes began to change as I became a youth with first what was the precursor to OWL called About Your Sexuality, and a program that endures today, Neighbouring Faiths about learning about other religions. On one memorable Sunday, we visited The People's Church up on Sheppard East and were amazed to watch kids our age responding to the call from the pulpit of volunteering to go on missions right then and there, while we Unitarian youth slunk low in our seats.

Now, our RE program is incredibly varied and dynamic. Today my daughter isn't sitting in a cold, damp room, or even one of our bright, carpeted rooms, but heading to Winston Churchill park for a nature walk. On any given Sunday, you see kids tearing up and down the backstairs, and chasing each other through Coffee Hour. Our popular Family Retreat stretched the limits of Cedar Glen this past January with over 80 participants.

Another physical change is the layout of the sanctuary which has rotated 90 degrees. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, my mind wanders, with apologies to the service leaders, and I challenge myself to remember what the building was like before. Moving the front of the sanctuary over there, with the floor to ceiling opaque glass windows on either side through which you could hear the sounds of the streetcars.

When I was a kid, there was a room on the side of the chancel which was called the minister's study, although I think it was used as the library. It was a mysterious room in which we were never allowed, and amongst the kids it was rumoured to have a door to a secret garden.

Although the chancel moved, some things have remained the same. The piano for instance, and the playing of our pianists. I have always sat where I can watch the pianists' hands. Many of you will be familiar with the dramatic and wonderful changes in our music program. When I was a kid, the music for each service was announced in the monthly bulletin. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that if we saw that the choir was singing, my mum and I would skip that Sunday's service. Now, the opposite would be true.

It's also hard to believe that the kitchen moved so significantly. Where the kitchen now is, was once the smoky welcoming lair of church secretary Bunny Turner. I spent many boring hours in that office while my mother volunteered as the collections and pledge bookkeeper.

And in the old kitchen, my mum introduced me to the pleasures of giving service. We regularly helped out at social events including the men's lunches making what seemed like hundreds of sandwiches. It might have been tedious work to a kid, but it wasn't really. I got to listen to the women chatting, and felt a real sense of belonging and the joy of feeling useful. This is something we're trying to pass on to our daughter. You'll see her helping out at the AGM lunch, with the social events team that has made her welcome and a team member. It's through active participation that we feel most comfortable here, and that hasn't changed at all.

One last physical change, I'll share with you. You may occasionally use the back stairs. Well, I use them all the time, even at risk of being locked in them. Hanging on the wall is a beautiful wooden wall hanging that once hung in the front of the sanctuary, where now we have the copper sculpture that complements our chalice. When I was a kid, we had only a small wooden chalice lit at the beginning of the service and extinguished at the end. The new large chalice with communal candle lighting didn't exist, and actually the chalice was not a focal point, more a bookend to the service.

I walk by the wooden wall hanging and am nostalgic for my childhood, and for a time of my grandparents humanism, cooperative games and Lotta Hitschmanova-led service to others. Of my parents popular and robust youth groups, of robe-less ministers and minimal rituals. And of my childhood, here, where I belonged.

I'm not really that nostalgic. I know ours is a perennially changing faith. I like looking at the colours and workmanship of Shawn's stoles. And I'm so proud of our recent service towards the Syrian refugees. And of our amazing music program, wonderful and challenging Sunday services and of our enhanced RE program for kids and adults.

Despite the constantly changing nature of Unitarianism, to me, one thing stands out as not having changed at all.

There are few of us here, and at other congregations, who have grown up Unitarian. We remain a faith of predominately first generation Unitarians, whose experience of our faith and of this congregation is largely limited to the recent past.

We still are challenged to bridge the transition from youth to adulthood.

Thank you.

Good morning. My name is Kim Watson, and I’ve been attending First for about a year.

Women stood in a sacred space, a place of reverence and respect, and told women’s stories.

As someone who currently falls in the agnostic-atheist range, I sometimes feel perplexed at attending a congregation that comes out of the Judeo-Christian tradition – a tradition I left at the age of 13. Looking back, in the version to which I was exposed, I experienced it as didactic, prescriptive, emphasizing shame and sin instead of life and celebration. There seemed to be no space for my questions or for direct experience! Later I tried neo-paganism, where there was an embrace of the feminine principle along with the masculine, and where as a woman I had a place in the sacred circle. But, ultimately, at the time I didn’t know how to compromise that approach with my science training.

And now, here I am, back to a place that comes out of the tradition I left, albeit with some welcome variations – talking about what it was like to tell women’s stories in a sacred space.

In retrospect, I didn’t carefully consider being in The Vagina Monologues. Sistering is a good cause, it was a way to get to know people here, it’s a classic play. Never mind I hadn’t auditioned for anything in 30 years! This seemed like a safe place to take chances. Our director Mona el Baroudi asked how brave did I feel – would I consider a monologue reclaiming a fallen word now considered the most profane, AND do it with orgiastic ecstasy to boot? Why not? – This seemed like a safe place to take risks.

The realization of the absolute profundity of this project only slowly unfolded for me. Women stood in a sacred space and told women’s stories! The play speaks to the feminine across a range of issues including: sexual desire, body shame, genital mutilation, rape, love, birth, lesbian and transgender experiences, embodiment. My monologue was about the celebratory, healing power of sensuality and sexuality, and the joy and freedom in claiming the right to define oneself.

We named all these things, in the pulpit, which historically has been a seat of power from which women were excluded, women were persecuted, and women’s bodies were controlled.

Remnants of neopagan ritual come back to me. I hope that together as a cast we lifted up a sort of incantation that aids a transformation of those difficult truths we declared, and a transformation of the relationship between women and institutions of worship. May there be transmutation in naming these things from a powerful and loving centre.

Our Minister Shawn Newton affirmed this project was his long-time dream. I don’t recall him saying – but surely it was intentional? – that The Vagina Monologues was performed the very month we focused on the theme of Reconciliation.

WE women spoke of women’s realities, in THIS sacred space. We held this place of reverence and respect, and we TOLD the stories.

Our minister, and many of you, attended the show. You listened and bore witness, sometimes despite discomfort. You did not turn away from, interrupt, dismiss or silence us.

You. Bore. Witness.

And that, also, is Truth and Reconciliation.

I stood in this place of reverence and respect and I spoke women’s stories, together with other women.

This process healed an old wound that I didn’t even know was still there. For that I am ever grateful to all of you.

And yes, I feel renewal. Did you know related words are restoration and restitution?

And yes, this is a safe place.