Member Testimonies

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.

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]