Member Testimonies

We first came to Toronto First after many months of wandering in the wilderness. We had stopped attending church as it had become a chore for both our children and us. For our children because there was nothing to engage them. For us because our efforts to engage them during the ritual completely negated any benefit we could receive by our attendance. This coupled with the furtive glances of disapproval cast our way by other members of that church whose children, seemingly, had never behaved this way....

Of course abstinence is always fraught with conflicting emotions and so it was with us. Forcing them into an hour of drudgery was pointless and unfair. However the absence of any spiritual exposure weighed heavily on our minds.

One afternoon I got to chatting with another parent, Rachel Morris, who told me of the marvelous RE program run by Toronto First. I was intrigued as this seemed to be the way to get them back into a weekly environment where they could explore and develop a sense of their values.

We decided to attend a service the next day. Having arrived late we entered with much trepidation. We experienced our first miracle as Gillian Burton came over with pencils and crayons for our kids and helped us to find a seat. This was all done wordlessly but she exuded a warmth and goodwill that deeply touched us.

The children’s Re program that day consisted of creating The Golden Rule song which was performed by the kids several weeks later. This exceeded my expectations and we begin to see we had made a good decision.

After church we attended coffee hour. Normally, for first timers, this would be an occasion of awkwardness and tentative interaction. The experience for both of us was the opposite. We felt as if we had returned home and were among old friends. To this day the miracle of this experience continues to amaze us as neither of us had ever experienced this before.

We marvelled at this on our way home that day and during that week prepared ourselves for a lesser experience putting our feelings down to being new visitors. Our initial experience, to our amazement, continued each week afterwards.

We were convinced that we had found the right place, however we kept waiting for this first blush to pass. Sunday after Sunday we attended, marveling at the warmth and friendliness we encountered and the fact that this remained consistent. It was due to this that we agreed to join the family retreat 6 weeks later.

Almost four years later attendance at Toronto First continues to be the highlight of our week. For our children as well as for us.

In my mind Toronto First is one of Toronto’s best kept secrets. Each week we have the privilege of experiencing the prodigious talents of Shawn Newton as he uplifts, inspires and stirs our hearts with his homily. Lisa Iwasaki, our pianist, plays music of deep beauty, delivered with virtuoso quality. The music talents of the resident musicians and the choir repeatedly moves us to joy and gratitude for their gifts to us.

The RE program directed by Angela Klassen is the feature for our Kids. It affords them experiences they would probably never otherwise have, in a safe and supportive environment. Our kids hate to miss it.

And then there are the members, yourselves. This is a community rich in goodwill providing fertile ground for one to find and express their authentic self. The variety of personalities within our community is testament to this.

This church is a model of what our world could be. Of course, it can only continue to exist with support from us. Through the continuous investment of ourselves and our resources.

As many things of beauty in this world its existence is fragile. This church depends on our commitment to it. On choosing this over the many other things that compete for our attention.

There is much good work being done here which is worthy of our investment.

In the meantime, I look forward to the years ahead as our family continues to grow in this community and stand committed to welcoming newcomers who find their way here in the same spirit which we ourselves were welcomed.

Reflection

I am usually pretty comfortable speaking publicly, but I won’t lie… I’m feeling pretty nervous about doing this… addressing what is quite possibly the MOST polarizing, MOST incendiary topic of them all; the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Please be gracious with me.

Why me? — I married an Israeli.

2002… exactly one year after 9-11. The events of 9-11 and the war on terror that followed brought me passionately into the world of geopolitics and social justice. I became increasingly interested in the Middle East and in Israel-Palestine. My daily reading routine was commondreams.org, The Guardian; Democracy Now....

I went to Thailand. I had formed my world view, but I was going out into the world to learn more; see more; be more. I was looking for love — for someone different; someone who would shake me up; teach me things; challenge me.

My third day in Thailand, I met Rinat, the petite Israeli beauty; who at 18 became a Gulf War veteran during her compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force.

The first day took the normal path of courtship; a song, a dance, a drink, a walk on the beach, a massage… that was about it. After less than 24 hours we parted for different Thai islands, exchanged emails, and kissed each other goodbye… Soon after our encounter, she returned to her life in Israel and I started my new life in Thailand. We chatted via MSN and emailed daily.

Here’s me… progressive, left leaning, west-coast-hippie-pacifist. I wrote to her:

“First, let’s both agree that we may not see issues the same way… and let’s agree that we have two completely different perspectives on the situation; me, being an outsider with no experience, only knowledge I gather through — and you, having grown up with the conflict and having lived in terror (I almost hate using that word because of its over-use in the past year). Now let me also say that I LOVE talking about these things with you because you teach me so much — and it lets me know you better as you speak of your personal experience. If I say anything that drives you to anger… well, I hope that doesn’t happen…”

Well, it happened… quite a few times… enough to build a formidably strong foundation for our relationship; not based on common beliefs, but based on mutual respect for our differences and the effort and interest we showed in seeking to understand those differences:

So, Rinat… the IDF levelled an apartment in Nablus, home to 10 families and 150 people in it yesterday… tell me about that?
What about the massacre at Sabra & Shatilla?
Apartheid wall. Security fence. Apartheid wall. Security fence. It should be built on the Green Line! It’s land grab!
Did you hear about Rachel Corrie??

and so it went on...

And in response I received replies, often thousands of words long, explaining her view of the conflict, her interpretation of history, her personal story — and with every email, we fell more deeply in love. I listened, and learned what it was like to live in fear during the height of the Second Intifada: To always be avoiding large crowds; deciding which bus, cafe or square might be a less-likely target of a suicide bomber; the horrible anxiety of waiting in line; the trauma caused by the setting-off of benign fireworks… and what it is like to fear for the very survival and existence of your country, and your people.

… and before we were even married, I got a taste of these things first-hand; in 2005, the night of Rinat’s stagette there was a bombing at a nightclub in Tel Aviv just a few blocks of where we were partying. Years later in November 2012 I went to my in-law’s wedding in Ashdod with tensions extremely high as the numbers of rockets fired from Gaza reached unprecedented numbers. The next day Israel commenced their relentless bombardment of Gaza and the assassination of Ahmed Jabari. Our next two weeks were spent taking cover; in the apartment stairwell; during a patio brunch in Shenkin; on the highway as every car frantically pulls over and passengers run to and fro to find shelter. We witnessed rockets being intercepted overhead, and felt the frenzy of cell phones ringing as loved ones checked in on each other.

During the most recent conflict, things became pretty tense in our house. Reading the posts on Facebook can stir the strongest human emotions. I know this was particularly difficult for Rinat, as she viewed the very worst of anti-Israel rhetoric from people she has considered to be “friends”. And she suffered the numbing virtual silence and rejection of Facebook, procuring just a handful of likes — almost always by Israelis — on her posts in support of Israel. And what of me? Considering the safety of my family in Israel and my upset with Israel’s heavy-handed use of violence is hard enough… adding having to determine whether to ‘like’ my wife’s posts on the situation was almost too much. I couldn’t do it — even when much of me agreed with some of her posts. I couldn’t align myself so strongly. I won’t take sides as long as both perpetuate violence. // Rinat decided that she would attend one of the pro-Israel rallies. This seemed out of character — she had never had this desire during the previous Gaza conflict or the war in south Lebanon — but for whatever reason, perhaps partly due to her alienation on Facebook (and at home), and what she perceived to be a pro-Palestinian bias around her, she decided to attend the rally. When she told me, we made eye contact and in a split second, had a silent conversation… my look said, “you know I can’t go with you” and she replied “I know, but I hope you’ll respect me and my decision to go”... and then we continued aloud with her saying, “so, you’ll stay with Noa?” — very challenging indeed. I told her that she should expect to hear terrible things from both camps and urged her not to get sucked into the vortex of anger. I encouraged her to be an instrument of peace. She nodded knowingly.

I have not given up on my pacifist principles nor my commitment to aiding the oppressed. I have plenty of condemnation for the actions and policies of the state of Israel... but what I once thought was a cut-and-dried matter, will now only illicit the simple response of “it’s complicated”... and if anyone really wants to take the next step in the conversation, I will quickly take a centrist (or Devil’s Advocate) position and debate all comers; in my online community of football fans, many with conservative leanings, I more often speak up for the Palestinian cause. In my liberal progressive communities, I’m more often trying to invite staunch opponents of Israel to resist dehumanizing Israelis by diminishing their well-founded fears and security concerns as being an evil desire to oppress and control. Certainly their actions are not justified; but they are explainable. Without understanding, there can be no peace.

What we need is compassion. Compassion for the inherent worth and dignity of every victim of terror, every sufferer of oppression, and even every aggressor, every martyr, every zealot, every bullheaded politician, every terrorist (state sanctioned or rogue).

People directly affected by the conflict will no doubt align themselves with one camp; this is understandable and tolerable. But as outsiders, viewing the situation with our ideals and principles, opining from afar, never having donned a gas mask, seen a rocket intercepted overhead, done military service at a check-point, lost a loved one… we’d be best to do more seeking of perspective, and directing our efforts to being the bridge for peace to occur. Neither side needs any more combatants… once anger fuels our activism we are only throwing that fuel on the fire. Once we so firmly align ourselves with a side, the dehumanization begins. Counting women, children, civilians, soldiers, combatants… all of the data carefully manipulated to show ‘the truth’ — from one side.

When someone says “1000 rockets have been launched at Sderot,” the response lacking compassion jumps to comparing atrocities; to counting dead; it plays the best rebuttal in defense, saying, “those rockets have never even killed anyone!” The compassionate response reflects on what it must be like to be a family in Sderot; a parent at work, with a child in school, as the sirens go off, day after day.

To be a true peacemaker, we must force ourselves to see all sides; to empathize, to sympathize; to understand; and to be able to articulate the positions of both sides to both sides, without inciting anger, suspicion, mistrust or hatred. Aligning oneself in the center does not mean being apathetic or cowardly. It can be strongly activist and truly committed to peace — having the courage to speak up for either side, giving reasoned, well-articulated responses to those at the extremes. Where was this group during the rallies? Who was standing in the centre of the road, inviting people from either camp to join them in dialogue, peacemaking and understanding. This is where ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’, and ‘the interconnected web’ meet. The bridge to peace starts in the space-between, and it is where the building must begin.

A couple days after the Israel rally we were at Nathan Phillips Square, enjoying a free concert… Noa befriended a boy with her dancing (just like her parents!), and Rinat and the mom ended up in deep conversation. She was a Palestinian. They shared their common dreams for their children, and their disdain for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. They hugged each other warmly, teared up a little, and wished each other peace and safety for their families. In that moment, their connection did a little to increase the sum total of love and justice in the world...

— and so may we all.

Aboriginal Awareness Group and the Pow Wow on June 21

When I became an advocate for Aboriginal issues, few people around me knew anything about these issues. I’m not an Aboriginal person, and I do not claim to know a lot or even anything... but I have had the privilege to learn from and work with many Aboriginal peoples during my journey discovering myself as an ally. Part of this journey has included becoming a member, and now the chair, of First’s Aboriginal Awareness Group. The goals of this group are to raise awareness and provide education of the current circumstances of First Nations peoples to members of First. Another goal is to learn more about Aboriginal cultures and spirituality through inviting Aboriginal speakers and attending Aboriginal events in the community.

One of the community events we promoted last year was the annual Pow Wow held by the Native Men’s Residence. My family and I decided to attend. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I arrived I immediately felt welcomed. The park at St. Clair and Bathurst had been transformed into a fair ground– there was a huge area for performances and tents everywhere- for food and goods, for drummers and a beautiful tee pee. There was even an MC who walked us first timers through everything: there are some activities that anyone can participate in, there would be a series of songs and dances, and photographs were permitted at all times, except during certain ceremonies, and he would let us know when these occurred.

One of the advisors of the Aboriginal Awareness Group (AAG), said to our group, that although we are raising awareness about Aboriginal issues, many of which are very serious, it is important not to forget about the beautiful parts of Aboriginal cultures. This pow wow was a chance to witness this beauty. Despite ongoing oppression faced by Aboriginal peoples, ANYONE is welcome to come and enjoy this display of spirituality and culture. It was beautiful.... the costumes, the dancing, the drumming, the singing, the art and jewellery displayed... the energy exhumed to produce the whole event. I was so happy to be a part of it.

There’s a large emphasis on building relationships in Aboriginal cultures; that’s why I find it so interesting that my own relationships felt nurtured while attending this event. One of the reasons I enjoyed the pow wow so much, was because I felt like it offered me a chance to spend time with my family, and grow closer with them. Since then I have also come to realize that my own interest in Aboriginal issues, has inspired my family to take an interest in these issues.

I now consider the pow wow a family event. Please join my family and I, and the AAG in attending this year’s pow wow on Saturday, June 21st! Bring your family and come see what it’s all about.

While Estelle and I were at the library last week, she scurried out of the children’s section and started pulling the grown-up books off the shelves; an impulse beyond her control. Estelle got into the self-help aisle and pulled out Self-help Nation: The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to Snake Oil Peddlers Who are Sapping our Nation’s Soul. “Heavy reading for a toddler!” an elderly man said, passing us in the aisle. Then, an Anne Lindbergh’s book fell open in my hands, and her writing reminded me of this place, surrounded by all of you:

How wonderful islands are! Islands in space, like this one I have come to, ringed about by miles of water…The past and the future are cut off; only the present remains. Existence in the present gives island living an extreme vividness and purity. One lives like a child in the immediacy of here and now. People too become like islands in such an atmosphere: self-contained, respecting other people’s solitude, not intruding on their shores, standing back in reverence before the miracle of another individual.

A couple of weeks ago there was the 10K run along Yonge Street. I didn’t know about the run and I got caught up in a mess of traffic downtown that I finally had to turn around and not arrive at First, for the service. In the car, Chloe, my daughter who is seven, had tears streaming down her cheeks; she was angry. “Who made the decision to let these people exercise in the street?” she asked. “Was it the mayor? The mayor who was caught cigaretting, eating drugs and drinking beer?!”

I tried to pull out a silver-lining to turn the morning around. I realized the anxiety and disappointment Chloe was feeling matched my own. The hour of solitude I enjoy here has become something I rely on. This is especially true, on a day we are celebrating this one and only place of ours: The Earth. The changes that will be required of us, to continue to enjoy the varied experiences of nature, species and forest, that we may hope to pass on to other generations, means changes in the way we have traditionally thought about consumption and energy. It is hard to calm that pull within me that wonders to what length we have a responsibility toward nurturing the scars of the Earth. Writer Paul Taylor asks whether environmental ethics could ever override the fulfilment of human ends, as we drive many forms of life to extinction.

Standing up here is something many people take turns doing. Public speaking has been described by Mari Ruti as a moment where our Singularity of Being can be expressed; where our body may derails us; we may start blushing, stammering and losing our thread of thought. Public speaking can become a moment when our otherwise well-controlled, organized self, intrudes on an inner-self that has bottled up feelings ready to burst through. So, although my arms are not flailing about, my singularity of being is impatient to make itself known up here. There are so many life-enriching reasons to jump head first into supporting any Earth day movement that interests you. Communities will dissolve the distance of their closeness by working together on projects that are healing, not stripping the Earth. I hope to work with many of you, towards that goal.

 

The Lives of Girls and Women

Good morning. My name is Janice Tait. I am 84 years old so I’ve seen a lot of changes in my life around the status of girls and women. Today as part of International Women’s Day, I reflect again, as I do every year on where we’re at.

With the theme of knowing for this month, I’ve been thinking of what we know and don’t know about the lives of girls and women in Toronto today. We know that women are not represented proportionally to our numbers in the halls of government, corporations, the media or academe. What we don’t know is how to change this within the next 200 years.

We know that almost half of the girls in Toronto high schools are sexually harassed (CAMH, 2008) in one form or another. What we don’t know is what this does to their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Nor have we been able to stop it so far.

We know that the police report that their studies show that only 6% of girls and women report being raped. (Police Services.com) What we don’t know is how safety and caring for women and girls who have experienced rape can be brought about. University of Ottawa is a recent example!

We know that York University has difficulty recognizing the principle of inequality when it rears its head. Witness the decision to cater to a student who didn’t wish to work with women. What we don’t know is what it would take to make it clear to the citizens of Toronto that religious belief does not trump equality between men and women.

We know that women make only 70% of the pay of men. As Marilyn Waring argues in her book, “If Women Counted”, What we count is what we value”. Forty years ago, when I worked in the federal public service, we talked endlessly about “Equal pay for work of equal value”. What we know is that nothing has changed. Women’s work is still undervalued.

On the bright side, we watched the Sochi Olympics display for all the world to see that the girls were just as good as the boys. Equality in physical performance was obvious in spite of girls having a womb! I wondered what the girls and women in Saudi Arabia thought as they watched those performances.

What we know today is that girls and women are not safe on many of Toronto streets at night. What we don’t know is what it is like to feel unsafe in your community, to be afraid to walk home alone at night.

Knowing what we don’t know may spur us to seek answers to some of these threats to the lives of girls and women. Taking time to become informed is surely the first step. As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power” When we know something in depth, it can be a springboard to action, to pick an issue and work for change.

I know that it is unacceptable that girls and women should live in fear in Toronto in 2014.