Member Testimonies

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.

The Taking Of 28

In 1980, Ottawa was excited by Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposal to repatriate the Canadian Constitution from Great Britain and create a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Women were determined that the new Charter would contain a separate section affirming the equality of men and women. A Senate-Commons Committee was formed to hear public comment on the proposed Charter. Doris Anderson, then Chair of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, called a conference to debate the proposal for an Equality clause. But suddenly, Lloyd Axworthy, Minister for the Status of Women in the federal government, cancelled the conference. This so enraged Canadian women that a spontaneous call went out for women to gather in Ottawa the following weekend, even without government support. Women MPs made their offices available to telephone women across the country urging them to come to Ottawa.

The next weekend, a thousand angry women from all over the country, including me, converged on the city. Meeting rooms in the West Block of the Parliament buildings were made available. TVs were set up to accommodate the over-flowing crowd. Led by several knowledgeable women lawyers, by the end of the two-day meeting, an Equality Clause, Section 28, had been hammered out and forwarded to the Senate/Commons Committee. Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.

Though it appeared that we had won the battle, there was one last glitch. Since the Charter needed the approval of the Provinces to become law, the last-minute refusal of Alan Blakeney, Premier of Saskatchewan, to support the Equality clause, calling it ‘unnecessary’, caused another storm. Again women MPs opened their offices to allow us to telephone women across the country. “Lobby your MP.” “Tell them we will have our Equality clause.” The women of Canada completely overwhelmed the Bell telephone system for two days.

After an exhausting weekend of telephone calls, I sat with a dozen women in the office of Judy Erola, Minister of Immigration. Finally, around five o’clock, Jean Chretien, Minister of Justice, strode into the room, grinning delightedly. “You’ve won. Blackeney has backed down. The Equality clause will be enshrined in the Charter.” Hurray! Canadian women now have their own equal rights amendment.

Last month I had not one but two epiphanies.

The first happened at my Saturday yoga class.

One pose I struggle with in yoga is bridge pose. Lying on your back, you gradually lift your entire body while pressing down on your feet and shoulders to form an arc or bridge. The instructor guided us gently through the pose. “Remember”, she said,” it is not about how high you can lift – it is about how wide you can open your heart centre.”

That was my epiphany moment – opening the heart centre is what my life is about… And that is surely why I struggle with this pose. Because opening and continuing to open my heart centre will always require more of a stretch.

Although this epiphany happened during yoga, it was thanks to First that I recognized it as the articulation of the spiritual journey I am on, one that I didn’t even know existed until I came here.

Like many of you, I came here because I wanted my children to experience a liberal religious education. My own spiritual needs were not on my agenda that first Sunday. But from the moment I joined in the words of our congregational covenant I knew I had found a like minded community. One Sunday has become 15 years of Sundays – and so much more.

For me, volunteering seemed the best way to meet people and to feel connected. Over the years, as I participated in many different activities, I noticed I was acting differently-- more meaningfully-- in all areas of my life. Indeed -- my heart centre was beginning to open.

What started as a prosaic way to find my place here had evolved into the path of my spiritual journey.

When I became a member of the Board of Trustees last year, I saw this as a great chance to use my administrative experience while learning about the business side of this place. I had not anticipated just how profoundly this role would affect me spiritually.

Serving in the capacity of trustee for this congregation, to the best of my ability, with others who are striving to do the same, has brought me some of the most significant insights in my spiritual journey.

Each month, as we confront the planned -- and the unexpected -- at our meetings, I am struck by how deeply we discuss, reflect and consider the outcomes of the decisions being taken. Each month, I am thinking more carefully, becoming less quick to judge. Each month, I am growing a bit more understanding of myself and others. Each month, I am opening my heart centre.

Which brings me to my second epiphany. During our last Board meeting, after we had reached a decision that required sensitivity and grace, I realized that everything I do here, from stuffing envelopes, to teaching RE, to becoming a lay chaplain, to serving on the Board – is one more step on my spiritual path. Everything I do here stretches my heart centre – and more than ever I am open to the possibilities.