Member Testimonies

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.

Hi my name is Karen MacDuffee. I have been coming to Toronto First for about 7 years. I have taught in the RE program for the past three years and this year have begun sitting on the RE committee. And I am also part of a Living in Spirit group that meets monthly.

But I wasn't always this active at First.

I remember it was in our first year and I started spouting off some child raising theory to Diane Bosman (I didn't realize that she was the Director of Lifespan Religious Education) when she suggested that I become an RE teacher. I gasped and said that I could definitely not do that. A while later Beth Ann asked if I would like to do a testimonial. I had no idea what that was.. I said a very definite NO.

Community doesn't come naturally to me.. In fact there were times that I wondered what I was doing here.. Why did I attend First and what exactly was I getting out of the experience.

I am sure I had more of a sense of community when I was younger but working full time has shrunk my world. I really felt I only had quality time for Catherine and Nigel. Of course I have a community of friends and I consider these relationships chosen.

My community at Toronto First is not chosen. The only thing that we have all chosen is our faith. But there are people that maybe I don't like, or maybe I've had some negative interactions with...Of course I like everyone here.

Through my committee work, living in spirit group and other gatherings, I have learned that although we share a faith, we do not always share the same perspectives or way of doing things. Yes, sometimes we butt heads. Believe it or not! It's easy to do.

In considering the topic of community, I realize that our community does have room for the occasional discord or irritation. And I decided a while ago that I would have to give to the community in order to have one. Toronto First has, in turn, offered me a new perspective on acceptance of others.

So you can see I have even found my way to doing a testimonial. And what I want to tell you is that through these seven years, I have learned much about community from being immersed with all of you collectively.

Here, I have learned that I want to strive to be inclusive and listen to other's points of view and to give of myself. We will gather Sunday after Sunday continuing to share a common faith as we strive towards acceptance of others while remembering the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I can see that the strength of a community lies in prevailing over the fragility of relationships and forming bonds that nurture us all.

My name is Robbie Brydon and I started coming to Religious Education classes here in 1993, at the ripe old age of 9. While that may seem on the young side to you, I'm definitely a late starter for the group of folks who are currently meeting upstairs. Still, my journey to here has only come this far because of bridges built by others.

When I was 13, the junior youth group was slow getting started and waking up on Sunday morning was getting more difficult, so I stopped coming. It's hard to think now that my journey in religious community could well have ended right there. (Many thanks to the volunteers on our RE committee who ensure we have programming ready to go in September every year now, providing space for our younger members.) Three years later, my mom came home from church with an invitation: “Jacob says you should come back.” Following a leadership conference that spring, I was at a point in my life where I was looking for connection. So I did come back. I went to two youth conferences that fall in Upstate New York and I realized that the youth community was a natural fit for me.

Three years and a dozen youth conferences later (two national, three continental and one that I organized, along with the group here), I packed my bags and headed off to university. Okay, so I only went to Scarborough, but it turns out Sunday morning is less appealing when there's an hour and a half transit trip between you and the congregation and, anyway, I was no longer part of the youth group. I might have made it to one service during my first semester. It's strange to think that I could have easily wandered away and been one of the 12,000 or so Canadians who marks 'Unitarian' on their census forms but doesn't belong to a congregation (and heck, we've only got 5,000 members in this country).

Once again, I was offered a bridge back. Actually, I was offered a bridge even before I left; the previous year, the nominating committee had asked me to sit on the Board of Trustees, but I turned it down. That spring, however, Clare Whitman called me up and asked me to be a worship leader at the congregation, a role that I was happy to take on, given my experience planning worship as a youth. Suddenly, I had to come at least once a month, I worked closely with the ministers and the worship leaders – and pretty much everyone knew who I was, since I was front and centre for two years, as Catherine is today. Eventually I was coming every Sunday because I had a community I felt a part of, I enjoyed what we shared on Sunday morning...and my sleeping patterns had started to change. I'm now finishing up three years on the Board of Trustees, two as Vice-President, I've led the Coming of Age class twice and I'm getting involved in the Member Engagement and Social Justice movements here.

Why do I tell you this story? For three reasons:

One, it was through contributing to the community in various ways that I felt a part of it, be that attending youth conferences, planning events for the youth group or leading worship services. I struggled with Sunday morning services for a long time because I missed the level of participation and interaction we had in youth worship and I am only slowly realizing that I can create those elements through being involved in other ways.

Two: Of my RE and youth cohorts, there is only one other person who attends First regularly. As a religion, we lose more youth every year than we gain total members of any age. Unless we build far stronger connections between adults and youth, we will continue to do so.

Three: I was lucky. I got three vital offers to do something interesting that arrived at just the right time and have brought me into the heart of this congregation. To those of you who need to be connected, if you wait to be asked, as I did, you may not have my luck. Building connection is much easier if you reach out when you need to be reached. And to those in a position to ask, your offer may be the most important thing.