The LighthouseAt the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, where the St. Lawrence River meets the Gulf of St. Lawrence Peninsula, there is a lighthouse. It is not a tall one, but it stands atop a 200-foot cliff. I visited this lighthouse once, in 1976. But I have known it, through story and legend, all my life.
The lighthouse keeper in the last half of the 19th century was my great-grandfather. My grandmother was born at the lighthouse in 1876.
As a child, I loved to listen to her stories about what it was like to live in a lighthouse. She was the oldest of three daughters. When she was 10 years old, her mother died in childbirth, along with a fourth daughter. In the absence of a mother, she raised her younger sisters. In the absence of a son, she helped her father with the light. In foggy weather, she shot off a cannon every 10 minutes to warn sailors away from the cliff. When she had time, she went to school in the town of Gaspé, a five-mile walk through the forest. There were bears in the forest…
As a child, I thought she had a fairytale childhood. As an adult, I appreciate the hardships of her life. It is her strong sense of duty and responsibility that resonates with me now, which has come down to me through my father, her son.
I have been told I have an over-developed sense of duty. I take this as a compliment. I know I came by it honestly! It was a sense of duty that brought me to this congregation – a duty to myself.
When I turned 50, I did some soul-searching and made some decisions about myself. I decided that I needed to pay some attention to my spiritual life after a lifetime focused on education and career. I needed to find a new community because I was thinking of early retirement and the only community I had at that time was my colleagues at work. And I wanted to start to give back, to contribute, although I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
I knew instinctively that what I needed was to be a practicing Unitarian. I had discovered the Unitarian church as a university student in Ottawa. After moving to Toronto, I attended this congregation sporadically in the late 1960’s. I have considered myself a Unitarian all my adult life. But it was only when I turned 50 and began to think about my future that I felt the need for this place. I became a member of this congregation a month after my 50th birthday.
At First Unitarian, I have satisfied my need for spiritual growth, community and volunteering in ways that have surpassed my expectations.
Here, I have the time, the challenge, and the encouragement to grow spiritually. I derive strength, self-knowledge, and inspiration from Sunday services and weekday programs. I have also found role models here, people who set a wonderful example and motivate me to be my best self.
Here, I have found people I care about and who care about me. I have widened my circle through social gatherings, programs, and especially through volunteering. Here, we have a caring community who come together in times of crisis to demonstrate their concern for each other and for the wider world. I’m thinking of the vesper service following the recent terrorist attack in the United States, and our Hurricane Mitch relief effort.
And here, I have found ways to serve that are meaningful for me: preparing meals for the Out of the Cold program, building a school for Mayan women in Guatemala. I am proud of all the ways people in this congregation live out their convictions through social action. I have also found that I can use my talents very effectively by volunteering right here -- as a convenor, an office volunteer, or working on the Book Bash to raise funds for the work of this church.
It comes as a surprise to me now, eight years later, to realize how much First Unitarian matters to me. It is a mainstay in my life. I feel a responsibility to help provide the resources it needs, not just to carry on, but to thrive. I play my part by giving of my time and talents, and through my financial contribution. I do this as a duty to myself and a responsibility to you, the members and friends of this congregation. It is like a family obligation, the way my grandmother looked after her family.
I also want First Unitarian to be a beacon for others out there who haven’t found us yet -- who may come to us next week, next year, or in generations to come. I want us to be a strong, vibrant force in the community. It meant so much to me to have this place to come to when I needed it. I feel a duty to keep our light shining for future members who I may never meet, as my grandmother felt a duty to strangers sailing in ships at sea off the coast of Gaspe.
My grandmother died 40 years ago at the age of 85. The lighthouse is still there -- now automatic, unstaffed, a tourist attraction in Forillon National Park -- but still a beacon to ships at sea and a light in my heart.