Member Testimonies

Pete Seeger: A life passionately lived

Pete Seeger was born May 3, 1919 in Patterson, New Jersey. He died Monday night, January 27, 2014 in NYC at age 94. Friend, teacher, preacher, roll model, mentor and hero to many generations.

Tuesday morning, Margaret and I were sitting at our breakfast table, enjoying our morning coffee, reading the Globe and Mail and talking about “things” when CBC radio broke in with the news that Pete Seeger had died Monday night. When we finished our regular ritual, I went upstairs to send Shawn and Dallas an e-mail, asking if we could pay tribute to Pete Seeger during today’s service through words and song. Then I cried. Why?

Because I’ve lost a best friend, albeit at a distance – one, who has always been there – one, whom I’ve known my entire life – one, whose career spans all my time on this earth. The folk ballads he sang filled our house when I was young. His songs: against the War in Viet Nam; and supporting civil and human rights and racial equality during my teens and early twenties, echoed and reinforced my parents’ values and ideas, which eventually became my own. He taught me that it’s not sufficient to have good values but that these values have to be given public voice and action.

He loved his country, my first country, in spite of its shortcomings, and worked to make it a better place.

He sang with unabashed joy and passion, and sometimes vehemence. He would just throw his head back and let ‘er go. I can see him standing on stage, banjo in hand, tapping his left foot.

I love his music. It has always been meaningful and singable – even by me – in the car, around the campfire, in the shower, where I do some of my best vocalizing, and at the inevitable sing-a-longs at his concerts. He was a master of getting the audience to let go of their inhibitions and sing with gusto.

For those of you who are not familiar with his considerable body of work, Pete Seeger was a folk singer and song writer extraordinaire – America’s balladeer – from the time he dropped out of Harvard with his banjo in 1938 right up to 2013 when he led a rousing sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” at the Farm Aid Concert in Sarasota, NY. An incredible 75 years.

In 1941, along with Woody Guthrie, he founded the Almanac Singers whose repertoire included sea chanteys and pioneer and pro-union songs, such as “Talking Union”.

In 1949 he formed The Weavers, the US’s preeminent folk singers, with Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. They were prolific, singing traditional folk songs as well as social action ballads. Some of their great hits were: “Goodnight, Irene” which topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”, Woody Guthrie’s “So Long It's Been Good to Know You”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and “Wimoweh”.

In 1953, all four were named as Communists and blacklisted by the music industry. The group soon disbanded, although The Weavers made several comebacks and new albums in the ‘60’s.

In 1955 Pete Seeger was investigated by the McCarthy Commission – the House Un-American Activities Committee – refusing to plead the 5th amendment (the right against self-incrimination), as it would suggest he had something to hide, and refusing to name names of friends and associates. Instead he invoked the 1st amendment (the right of freedom of expression).

In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress for these actions. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1962.

Of course, all of this just added to his cachet among his many fans.

His repertoire also included songs: promoting international understanding and environmental stewardship, especially his beloved Hudson River; and, against war, militarism, the death penalty; and most lately, the climate of terror that existed after the attacks of 9-11. Always with passion and hope in a better future.

He taught and showed us how to care.

Some of his other signature songs included: Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Guantanamera, We Shall Overcome, Last Night I had the Strangest Dream, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Whose Side Are You On?, Little Boxes, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and If I Had a Hammer.

He was an active Unitarian attending congregations in Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley, where, until this fall, he would often provide the music.

Now he is gone. His music lives on. His spirit and legacy remain within each of us.

He demonstrated that the song is mightier than the sword.

The words he inscribed on his banjo said it all: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

So long Pete…it’s been good to know you…


A Tribute to John Moseley

This is a story about two things: how belonging to this church had added meaning to my life, and how I want you to learn about an unusual Unitarian, John Moseley.

A few years ago, Allan Brand asked me to join the Pastoral Care Committee. Not quite sure what it was, I said “yes” simply because Allan told me, “Come on. You’ll like it.” Then he gave me my assignment- to visit an elderly member of our church John Moseley, who could not attend church any more due to his age. “He likes female company,” confided Allan.” Just talk to him. You can do it.”

Wondering if I would be chased around the bed, I knocked on John’s door and began a relationship that lasted several years. John’s best feature turned out to be not womanizing, but story-telling. – of his terrifying tour of duty on a British Navy boat in World War II, about his theories of world wars, of his love for movies (some of which he had actually appeared in as an extra), about his elusive daughter Jane, and finally about his predictions for the future and his abiding faith in Unitarianism to solve the problems of the world.

John knew so much that I invited several high school students to interview him about World War II. Since he yearned to go out, Allan and I took him in a wheelchair to the ROM, and several times on Yonge Street for a coffee. Because he told me nearly everyone in his residence had dementia , I invited Claude Marchand to visit him as well, knowing she would give him a good argument.

Over the years, John declined. He had more aches and pains, but he would always ask, ”How’s that new young minister of ours doing?”

This fall, in September I found him lying on his bed, sad and rumpled- whereas before he had always been sitting bolt upright in his chair primed for our visit. Now he looked disheveled and worn. Alarmed, I asked the nurse afterwards, ‘What’s happening?” She answered, “He’s aging.”

In November, John rambled for the first time. Usually, he would give me a perceptive analysis of the world’s events and his growing fascination with astronomy. Now he only said he was “achy.” He offered me a book, but then took it back.

Sadly, I left, feeling like a great light was going out. Then the phone rang. It was John. “I’m sorry that I took the book back. You can have it. I just got tired and confused.” I promised to come back for it, and to bring his favorite blue flowers.

But I did not come soon enough. This last time , when I tried to call John’s room, there was no answer. Sensing something amiss, I called the desk. They referred me to the nurse. There was a shuffling on the other end of the line, and then a long silence.” Didn’t you know?” the nurse said finally. ”He died 10 days ago of pneumonia. It was very fast.”

Then I realized how I had come to love this man- as a friend, a teacher, a Unitarian, and a model for dignified aging. How very sad I was not to be able to say good bye.

So I am saying now to you, as members of this community. It is an experience that belonging to this community has made possible . I am so grateful to both Alan and Claude for sharing it.

On Seeing my own Blind Spots

Good Morning my name is Catherine Lake and I am a member of this community.

My first ten years of life was immersed in white, southern Ontario culture. Raised Anglican, as a little girl, I thrilled to hear the steeple bell ring from our church every Sunday.

I didn’t see that place then as I do now: white, small-town quaint where in the early 1970’s, the main social differentiation was which Christian denomination your family belonged to — oh and Mrs. Clark who had a job outside the home.

When I was 9, a family from India moved in next door to us. Our summer front lawns and similar age brought me and Indira together.

I remember her saris, the strange sweets that were served at her birthday party, and giving her my beloved 8 x 10 framed picture painting of Jesus.

Indira’s home did not have a picture of Jesus, so I gave her mine. I loved that picture. It was a deeply heart-felt offering. And I can still cringe at what her parent’s must have thought... In the time we spent together, I missed the opportunity to really learn about her culture. And then my family moved away a year later when I was ten.

While I will always have plenty of white spots, life experience and intentional education on race and culture has brought me other filters. As a younger feminist and lesbian, I actively rejected organized religion and many other elements of my upbringing. After finding this faith community, it took me years to say publicly: “I am a Unitarian Universalist” and I still don’t like to hear the “c” word—church.

Last week, Shawn reminded us that, “The world needs people willing and able to see clearly...to engage other perspectives, and refine their views within a diversity of opinions.”

Recently, I was talking with my wife Karen about the mistakes of—well—of just being me, and of how difficult it is to truly see our own behavior and to understand our actions as they unfold. She interrupted my lament to say:

“Catherine, that’s humans.
We all have our blind spots — it's an epidemic!
And that’s why we need each other to see.”

I forget that the way I see the world is uniquely mine, coloured by my upbringing, my life choices, and especially by my unique internal maps.

My Living in Spirit group through Toronto First helps me to see myself. Not only through my own sharing but through hearing my faith sisters recount their lives. Each person’s telling also sheds light on my way of seeing—my point of view.

A few weeks ago I was here with you when the choir sang “Baba Yetu.” I was literally moved to tears. And it did not much matter to me when I later learned it was a Swahili version the Lord’s Prayer. Like Ava Maria or the chant Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo, part of my growth here, with my faith community, has been learning to love the essence in all its expressions. And I know I’ve got a long way to go. In my day to day life—I am waaay too impatient with people who don’t think the right way—that is—my way. In the meantime, I keep this quote from the Qur'an near my desk that reads:

"I made you different so you would know each other." *

I love the thought of that because, even though differences can be difficult,different personalities like different cultures like different perspectives inform us about how vast and diverse human life is. And I know when I fully open my eyes, I enrich my own heart and life.


 * The quote comes from an interview with an imam that I heard some time ago. The text is translated in a variety of slightly different ways. One example reads as: "We have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another." [Qur'an 49:13]

What Do You Mean You’re Not Spiritual?

My name is Stan Yack, and I’m a member of this congregation.

A word that comes up around here more often than it used to is spirituality. It’s not something that I like to talk about. That’s in part because I’ve never really felt spiritual, but also because whenever I hear the word spirituality, I think spiritualism. You know: talking with the “departed”, recalling past lives, levitating tables — stuff that a scientific humanist like me rejects almost instinctively. But levitating tables is of course not what spirituality is about.

Spirituality is defined as “the concept of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality” or  “an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being” or just “the deepest values and meanings by which people live.” The quest to discover the essence of our being, and our deepest values and meanings — that’s hardly inconsistent with our Unitarian principles.

One 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.” So why do I avoid or dismiss a word like spirituality that echoes that principle? Some of you may have encountered my occasional, illiberal reaction to the word. Sorry about that.

In my later life academic excursions, I’ve learned that meaning doesn’t originate in some Platonic idea; what a word means is determined over time by how people use it. And there’s not much evidence that spirituality is becoming a synonym for spiritualism.

Have you ever tested yourself on a “What is your religion?” website? (One of them is listed on the Toronto First website’s “Cool Links” page.) My own beliefs show a 100% commonality with Secular Humanism, and 88% with Unitarian Universalism; not too surprising — but also 55% with Theravada Buddhism. I apparently have 55% in common with what most of us would consider a very spiritual believe system!

I have meditated off on for over thirty years, until recently mostly to calm myself. But I now sometimes meditate here Sunday mornings during a quiet time or musical interlude, apparently seeking some inner peace.

Most spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life, but it isn’t essential that spirituality encompasses a belief in immaterial realities.

I’m most comfortable calling myself an Agnostic. I understand that there are questions that we can’t answer, and I believe that all knowledge is provisional, or as a longstanding UU aphorism puts it: “Revelation is not sealed.” But if I don’t believe in immaterial realities, why every Sunday do I “affirm life, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine”? What’s the divine thing that I want us to grow into harmony with? Is it some theistic entity, God help me! In fact, because I’ve seen no evidence of the universe’s “life-force”, or “cosmic consciousness”, I treat our Sunday affirmation as a metaphor.

My roots are in the Jewish tradition, a religion and culture where teachers, and the most learned, have always been the most respected. As long as I can remember I’ve held learning in high esteem. In later life, it’s become my hobby, and my vocation. One of the things I've learned about is Unitarian-Universalism, a religion where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, where there’s no privileged priesthood 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.

Good Morning, my name is Peter Brydon, and along with Margaret Kohr and Chris Wulff, I am one of your Lay Chaplains.

Just over six years ago I performed my first service, and this fall I will lay down my stole. I have found these six years to be amongst the most rewarding in my life. For me it has been a great privilege to stand as witness to people as they share the most joyous and saddest times in their lives. It is both amazing and humbling to be taken into the heart of a family who has lost a loved one. Although they are clearly sad their joy and pride come through as they share their memories with me. I remember once, after talking about their Dad, the family wouldn’t let me go until they’d taken me all around the house to show me his artwork and his handicrafts. They even took me out into the back yard to show me a sculpture he had made there.

Weddings frequently bubble with joy. On the less formal side I remember a bride and groom skipping and hopping down the aisle to Feist’s flighty and funky song, Mushaboom. The groom dressed up for the occasion in a brand new pair of running shoes. And there was the couple who tried valiantly to hold their wedding on the same day as the G20 summit in 2010, but they just couldn’t manage it. When they finally did, on the Labour Day weekend, there was so much love and joy in the wedding hall you could almost taste it.

Certainly the most touching and proudest moment for me was last June when I stood at the front of the UU Church in North Hatley, Quebec at the wedding of my son Dale to the love of his life, Sarah Baxter. Sarah’s father, Keith, is a Lay Chaplain there and the two of us co-officiated the wedding. I can’t put into words my feelings that day.

Lay Chaplains serve for a term of six years, and mine has been extended to a seventh, but I will definitely lay down my stole for good this fall. The purpose of this term limit is to allow others in the congregation to offer their gifts in this ministry and to have the opportunity for the kind of spiritual growth I have had. I know there are many of you who would make excellent Lay Chaplains, and so I’m saying, start thinking about it now. Every two years or so, the congregation will be looking for a new Lay Chaplain, so think ahead a bit. Talk to Margaret or Chris or me, or to one of the retired Lay Chaplains such as Margaret Rao or Gillian Burton. We can tell you all about it.

I’ll leave you with a final memory. A couple of years ago I did a memorial service which was just a very small intimate family gathering. When it was time to speak, the deceased woman’s husband of over fifty years stood up and, remembering all those wonderful years with a wonderful wife, said, “I’m the luckiest man alive”. I want to say to him, “ Thank-you for letting me get to know you, your family and the spirit of your wife.” And I say to all of you, “Thank-you for letting me have this opportunity to be your Lay Chaplain. To hold small babies in my arms, to share joy with marrying couples, and to learn about the life of wonderful people, now gone, whom I wish I’d had the chance to know when they were alive. I too am a lucky man.