Member Testimonies

My kids and I have been coming to First for almost nine years now, since Hazel was six and Henry was four. Over the years, they’ve attended uniquely Unitarian religious education classes. They’ve celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali, built a shrine for the Mexican Day of the Dead and participated in some unusual renditions of the nativity story. They have held bake sales for UNICEF, bowl-a-thons for breast cancer research and have cooked and served a formal brunch to teenagers at a youth shelter

They have both participated in OWL, a program that has taught them about healthy relationships and their changing bodies. They have had the benefit of some of the best sexual health educators in the city and have been exposed to diagrams and sketches that are so very tasteful, yet so undeniably explicit that both kids have described the experience as similar to looking at a car wreck - you feel you shouldn’t stare because it’s so horrific but you just can’t seem to turn away.

My kids helped eat the world’s longest banana split at this year’s picnic, they’ve participated in countless central American Sundays where they’ve joyfully whacked the living hell out some poor piñata and they’ve attended the family retreat for eight years running, where they have awoken on silent winter mornings to fresh snow and the promise of tobogganing and ball hockey with their Sunday school friends.

Now, Hazel is closing in on 15 and Henry will turn 13 a few days later. I’m not going to sugar coat it: getting them to church is not always easy. Henry always begs from under his covers for more sleep. Hazel is more vocal in her opposition to doing something as un-cool as attending Sunday school.

One Sunday morning several months ago, Hazel was challenging me about why I force her to go to church. After a few of my explanations were rejected, I finally said, “But what about all of the great people we know there?” Hazel said, “Well, okay, some of them are nice, but have you, like, looked at those people Mom? They’re nothing but a bunch of misfits!”

Hazel made this observation with a certain amount of disdain but I will repeat it with a great deal of affection: Seriously, take a look around. We’ve got old men with long hair, middle-aged women who seem on the verge of breaking into interpretive dance, folks with odd bumper stickers. I bet several people are wearing Birkenstocks even though it’s November. A few of you may be braless (I don’t like to speculate). We’ve got Raging Grannies and a curious overabundance of bald guys with guitars. I know “unsightly” is too strong a word but, at the very least, this is all somewhat disconcerting.

So you are misfits, but misfits in the best sense of the word. Individuals who have chosen to make your own decisions about what you believe, how you live and who you love. Folks with a unique perspective on life, who don’t simply accept the party line, whether it’s politics, religion or any other topic calling for an opinion. I am thrilled to have my kids grow up in a community like this that reminds them to follow their own path, make their own decisions and know that they will be loved no matter what.

Despite all of the great activities and experiences I listed off the top, it is the people of this congregation that keep me coming back, keep me dragging my kids out of bed on a Sunday morning to see what is waiting for us here at First. I feel immense gratitude to the misfits of this congregation and that is why, every year, I give generously to the pledge campaign.

 

My name is JP Pawliw-Fry and I’m an enthusiastic member of the First Unitarian of Toronto. I’m inspired, or honoured, to be here to be asked to give a testimonial. Elizabeth and I are the proud parents of three amazing, thoughtful, whimsical, energetic young children: Brigitte, 15; Gracie, 13; and Wes, 10.

If there is one big idea that I think of around First it’s to remember. When I come here, I think that on the wall behind us there is a big sign that just says “Remember.”

Look at that. What is that? The art behind me I think of as a reminder to remember. What do I mean by remember? What is this art all about? I think that there is two things that its does for me in terms of remember. Two things. Two driving human needs that we have. One is for purpose and one is for connection. And I want to speak to both of those, shortly, or for not too long this morning.

Purpose. What do I mean by purpose? Viktor Frankl is known for many famous quotes. This is not one of them. He said … and excuse the male dominated language… he said, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him (or her). What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of the potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him (or by her).”

Purpose. What do we need? We need to have a sense of why are we here. And First does that for me. When I hear, you know, the journey is long. When I think of the contribution that Dallas makes with the music here. Wow. That reminds me. When I think of the messaging we get from ministry, or community, it reminds me of why I am here. I think we are definitely material beings, of course, we have to live in this world. We have to contribute to pay mortgages and to put food on the table. But, it is so easy to forget that we are also spiritual beings. And when I come every Sunday, or when I am part of an activity, it just reminds me. Ahh. That’s right. And I don’t want that part to whither for me, nor for our kids. And so that purpose piece for me is so powerful because I think, our kids are inundated with messages, as we all know, that nudges them into material and I am so grateful. I love James’ point about giving. I am so grateful for what this place, this community, does for us, and for me, in terms of purpose.

For me personally, it’s also to wake up and be aware. To take a risk. To step in, to live large, as Shawn would say. And I know this is probably the wrong example to use. But in some of the work I do, we work with the US Navy, and there is this great saying in the Navy, which is that ships are safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for. And our lives are not meant to be lived in the harbour where it is safe, it’s meant to be outside of the harbour, yes there is risk but there is also reward. Whether you are a pacifist like me or not, or you like that or not, I think that it speaks to the power of taking that risk and I feel like I get here and I am so grateful for that. So there is purpose and there is connection.

Some of you know, we moved from Geneva, Switzerland here. We didn’t live there long but we were part of an incredible community there. A church. I was talking to Wes this morning and he said, “Dad, I didn’t understand a word they said at that church.” But what was interesting to me is that when I was first here, three years ago, it was like I was kicking the tires a little bit and I was in the comparing mind and I thought, “Well, this isn’t a 17th Century building and when we walk out we don’t need to have café, coffee, in the square of this ancient Geneva, the city.” And then it was really interesting to me how over time, things have changed and I realized that what I really value about that church in Geneva was not the walls. I mean we are coming upon a really big discussion about our walls and our space. But that wasn’t nearly as important, or what you walk out to, but it was the community. If the social science research says anything about what drives our happiness, our wellbeing (however you measure it), and our ability to deal with heartache and suffering, it is social support, there is no question about that. You can take that to the bank.

And for me this, community, so fulfills that. When I am suffering, when I, and our family, are challenged and we come here, Wow, I just, oh yeah. The people here have just added so much to my life, to our lives, and I am so grateful for that.

It is probably cliché in this place, but I was brought up Catholic and my parents were very involved. My mom was the president of the Catholic Women’s League, which I am very proud to say. I think Shawn has heard me say that five or six times since I have been here. And I love how much they contributed. I didn’t necessarily like the message, but that’s beside the point. What was the point, I remember every week getting dressed, you know, nicely, going to church, the ritual, it was about being together as family. And again, that reminds me. It brings me back to what matters.

And so community is, it’s something that I think we want to keep thinking about. And Shawn challenges us with this. But when you are suffering it is so easy to isolate, and to step away and what I get reminded of, what I remember, is to actually approach, to step in. Take a bit of a risk. Be honest about how things are going and, boy, does the community here just hold us.

If you are new here, the people you will find in this community are eccentric, they are odd, they are lovely, they are interesting. And you will only get out of this community that which you put in. You know that I don’t need to tell you that. But there are things that you just want to mark in your calendar like the family retreat, or some of the other activities that are outside of the Sundays because that is where, for us, community has really come together. It’s been fantastic.

I want to finish with one thought, which is that if this art, where the sign says remember, you know, our purpose, what is meaningful, and our connection to this community. I want to say that I think, more than anything, the world needs us. Seriously. The world needs this place and this message and this reminder purpose, this reminder of connection and community. We live in this world that nudges us towards the material. And I think that it is more important than ever and so I am so honoured to be up here and speak about my passion for this place and so I want to thank everyone in this community for all that they have given to me and to our family. I am very grateful for it. Thank you very much.

Good morning.

Six years ago, Kate Chung and I moved to a condo building at 235 St. Clair Avenue West. This is exactly a two-minute and fifty-second walk from our home to First Unitarian.

This is very convenient. We can leave home at 10:27 a.m. on a Sunday morning and glide in just before the service begins. And, either of us can leave home at 6:57 p.m. on a weeknight and be on time for a 7:00 meeting.

But if we get halfway here and discover we’ve left important papers at home, we’re late — and, we may be teased by fellow committee members who have struggled with traffic and erratic streetcar schedules. Unlike us, they’ve allowed extra time for delays, thus managing to be on time.

So I want to tell you that if our congregation decides to move  — anywhere  — it will be an inconvenience for Kate and me.

But — I’m serious now, if our congregation has all its ducks in a row, and a move would provide the brightest future for First Unitarian, then the move will get my vote.

Of course, I’d never be here at all if it weren’t for Kate’s long-time involvement with UU’s, first in Oshawa, then Don Heights, and for the past 20 years, at First. And Kate was introduced to Unitarianism by Janet Vickers, a name some of you may know, who’s now with the Nanaimo Fellowship.

So our close connection with UU’s and First goes back a long time, with many changes along the way. We’re ready to accept new changes, too.

Good morning! My name is Bruce Schwartzentruber and today I’m going to speak briefly about 25 years ago, last May, the Philippines, Kenya, Angela Klassen’s job and diversity. I’m going to introduce you to some good people and unveil what’s under that cloth.

Last May, during the Annual Conference and Meeting we hosted, I attended the International Dinner event and, on the strength of the presentation by the International Council of Unitarian Universalists, decided to attend this past February’s conference in the Philippines. I regarded it as my personal Unitarian sabbatical.

Like many adventures I have had during my travels, I was paid handsomely in experience and in learning about how people live in other lands. In the Philippines I met Unitarian Universalists who were very much like us and many who were very different, both in appearance and in other demographic variables such as income, education and living conditions. In the Philippines, many UUs are rural, walk many kilometres to attend services, and are only able to muster up the equivalent of a few dollars among them when the offering plate is passed around. They live in a country where 81% of the population is Roman Catholic. Believing in spiritual freedom in the Philippines requires uncommon courage and commitment. For example, Marianne told me that she complained of headaches one day and her neighbour chided her for leaving Catholicism. God, the neighbour insisted, was punishing her for becoming a Unitarian.

Sam from Uganda lives in a country where the death penalty awaits gays and lesbians. Mark from Nigeria described himself as a freedom fighter. Social action there can deprive you of more than your spiritual freedom.

I met Josphat Mainye, of Kenya where he leads the Kitengela UU Congregation outside Nairobi - a congregation of 70 adults and 60 children. Sixty children, 60 children, I kept repeating it in my mind, thinking, What would Angela Klassen, our wonderful Director of Lifespan Religious Education, do? Quit?

When I asked Angela this question tongue-in-cheek a few weeks ago, she said, “Oh we have 60 children registered here.”

I didn’t know that, I confessed. How many of you knew that? Still, think of the odds; 70 adults and 60 children. Using the Kenyan adult to child ratio, we would have over 150 children here. I’m planning to find out how Josphat’s congregation manages and how it worships when I travel to Kenya later this summer. Josphat and Ben Macharria from Nairobi and Fulgence Ndagijimana from Burundi have invited me to visit and I am looking forward to living, eating, communing and rejoicing in the spirit that is Unitarian Universalism in Africa. If the people I met in the Philippines are any indication I will be met with love, acceptance and an incredible sense of belonging.

Just exactly how I feel here at First.

I’m hoping that I will be able to bring back a special connection between us and my African friends and that I will bathe in the unique experience of being among UUs who do not look or sound at all like me. I’m hoping that the experience of likely being the only white person, the only Anglophone, the only North American, will help me in the leadership position I took on at our January congregational conversation about diversity.

During the open discussion that day, I, without thinking of the ramifications, suggested that we needed a group to work on the issue of our diversity, or lack of, here at First. Our board President Margaret Kohr struck like a cobra, challenging me to lead that effort. Too late, I realized that I had been ensnared by the volunteer coordinator’s code: That is, anyone who comes up with a good idea better be prepared to take it on.

Twenty-five years ago, I worked in health and social services organizations which were challenged to change the way they delivered services to accommodate the dramatic influx into this city of immigrants from around the world. Mainstream organizations were ill-prepared for the changing demographics and the cultural shifts in their clients and communities. We had to make intentional changes that would welcome and appropriately serve Toronto’s newcomers. Later I was the executive director of a pioneering mental health planning organization that had mandated equal board membership for people on both sides of the mental health system. Instead of focusing on developing more psychiatric beds, improved anti-psychotic drugs and better treatment protocols, the people on our board who had gone through the system as consumers and patients, told us to go in a new direction. While better professional services remained essential, they told us what they felt they really needed. They needed decent housing, jobs and opportunities for social connections in a world that often stigmatized and shunned them. We worked hard to make those things happen. We worked hard to make them happen, I believe, because we were intentional about diversity at the highest decision-making level of the organization.

So I guess I can say that I’ve seen this movie before. When Margaret challenged me to lead our quest for greater diversity, I couldn’t plead ignorance or indifference. Of course, this is hardly a one-person job. Today I’d like to introduce the good people who have been working with me as members of the Diversity Working Group.

Janil Greenaway, Wendy Peebles, Marlene Campbell, Catherine Lake, Fiona Heath and Art Brewer who is unable to be here today.

Our mission statement, arrived at after the usual Unitarian wordsmithing marathon, is as follows:

To advance the congregational goal of intentionally welcoming people from diverse ethnic and racial communities, including Aboriginal peoples. The ideas and actions that emerge from this focus will be a solid basis upon which to broaden our commitment to diversity as we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

You can read the full terms of reference and the action work plan we have established on our website under the Membership tab.

And now, for our first action, our very first outcome, we’d like to unveil the poster on the easel. It contains photos of many of the people who were at that ICUU conference in the Philippines and is entitled “Unitarian Universalists Come From Around the World”. It will be hung after today’s service on the wall above the visitors table just outside these doors to remind us and our visitors, that our faith and our congregation, embraces the same diversity as the world and the city we live in.

Good morning. My name is Helen Iacovino.

It was 1982. I was in my mid twenties, had grown up in the Montreal Unitarian church, and had recently returned to it. Then at the annual meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council, affectionately known as the CUC, held in Montreal that year, I got to meet the family.

That’s exactly how it was – meeting the family. We become involved at the local level in our home congregation, but there is also an extended family of Unitarian Universalists across Canada and the United States, and in fact extending around the world. Since that CUC meeting in 1982, those broader ties to Unitarian Universalists living elsewhere have always been very important to me.

This is the short explanation for why when I attended the CUC meeting in Victoria in 2010, I eagerly signed up to participate in the Northern Lights program.

There is more about Northern Lights in the brochure in your order of service. It is jointly sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers of Canada and the CUC. Basically, the way it works is that individuals sign up to donate a specific amount once or twice a year, perhaps $50 but it can be any amount, smaller or larger, and these monies are directed to a different Canadian UU congregation each time for a specific project. Northern Lights is designed to get broad participation – if 1,000 Unitarians across Canada pledge to give $50 twice a year, that comes to $50,000 each time to fund 2 projects in 2 congregations.

Sometimes we think – what will make our congregations stronger? I have always felt that Unitarian Universalism should be a household word – everyone should know about us. Yet so many Canadians, as well as many Americans who don’t live in the vicinity of Boston, have never heard of us. This will help – it will fund various programs designed to make individual congregations stronger, and thus better able to fulfill their mission in the Canadian context. The grant committee will approve projects which it considers to be grassroots, transformative initiatives – allowing a congregation to follow through on a dream that would otherwise not be possible. The first project started last fall, with the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon seeking some help with hiring a ¾ time or full time minister.

It’s not necessarily about money. I encourage you to join me and pursue connections with our wider denomination, and to look to the extended family of Unitarian Universalists across Canada which we are all part of. If you’re so inclined, I encourage you to consider personally participating in the Northern Lights program. Either way you will thus make your own mark in helping to strengthen this faith which means so much to us all.