Testimony of Margaret Kohr, February 27, 2011
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.
Testimony of Karen MacDuffee, February 7, 2010
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.
Testimony of Robbie Brydon, February 7, 2010
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.
Testimony of Catherine Lake, December 6, 2009
20 years ago today, our nation was confronted with the reality of violence and hate targeted at women.
20 years ago today, we all learned of the massacre of 14 engineering students—all women— by a man armed with a simple rifle and an arsenal of misogyny.
Between November 25 and December 10 each year, communities around the world mark 16-days of activism to end gender-based violence. Within those designated days fall a number of tragic anniversaries pertaining to violence against women including December 6: Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action.
The events conclude on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which begins by stating: We are all born free and equal.
This United Nations statement was enshrined into global consciousness on December 10, 1948. History remembers that women were once the legal property of men in this country. Today, we know that women continue to be the property of men in many communities. Clearly the world has a great distance to go before “free and equal” becomes a reality for half the human race.
We all know this. We all know the kind of lives that girls and women must bear simply for being born female. But we often dismiss this reality, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain as how to parse the multiple issues and affect real change. How do we act in the face of this reality?
In thinking about today, I have recalled my earlier years of activism and weighed them against change. It is difficult to see that those years have had little effect. Indeed, I often believe that misogyny is becoming even more entrenched. Everyday we are reminded of violence against women: the advertising, the news items, the crime shows, the video games, the movies, and the music in our lives. Too much of our cultural expression bears the smear of sexism and the brand of violence in all its forms.
Yet, how often do we call it sexism, misogyny? Have we become afraid to name it for what it is? Perhaps we are socially ashamed to admit that women and girls continue to be treated as lesser peoples in even our society.
And yet we still give the same tired gender lessons: boys are naturally aggressive and girls passive. Violence and sexism still holds us all hostage—women and men, girls and boys. Like domestic violence, are we afraid to speak up for fear of making it worse? Or do we think it will go away on its own?
In revisiting the trauma of that day, I have been questioning change.
For many, the actions of that gunman at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal were the actions of a madman. But can any of us discern where that line is? When sociallyembedded hate morphs into madness into murder?
Today is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action.
Anne-Marie Edward was killed in the Montreal Massacre. Her mother, along with survivors of the shootings, passionately campaigned for the creation of the gun registry. Recently, Suzanne Laplante-Edward implored all of us to remember the kind of devastation a single rifle can inflict in just 22 minutes: 14 dead, 27 wounded.
Just a few weeks ago, Bill C-391 was passed in parliament and, if passed in the senate, the gun registry will be abolished.
How do we call ourselves to remember and to act? Where do we find awareness, language, and action.
In remembering this terrible anniversary, I look to the action of young women heading up the Miss G Project who are fighting to get women’s studies courses into high school. They understand that we all need more than the occasional text book sidebar to reflect the lives of girls and women.
In remembering this terrible anniversary, I look to the men of the white ribbon campaign who are working to educate boys and men. Who are working to breakdown hate against women.
In remembering this anniversary, I look to the December 6 Fund which provides loans for women escaping violence.
In remembering this anniversary I look to myself to find the hope and the courage to continue to fight for equality of all persons, for the realization of all human potential, for change.
Please join me now in a minute of silence to collectively mark this National Day of Remembrance and Action.
Testimony of Rona Goldensher, November 29, 2009
My name is Rona Goldensher and today is a big day for me. A few moments ago, in Shawn’s office, I officially became a member of the congregation, as I was not able to be here last week for the joining ceremony. And I am quite excited to have the opportunity of speaking with you about my experience volunteering with Amnesty International.
When I thought about why I am drawn to human rights work, I realized an aspect of my motivation that hadn’t been as clear to me before. The fact that people have collectively channelled outrage over past ills and atrocities into developing codes for the rights of individuals is something that I find deeply reassuring. I also realized that having this feeling about human rights ideals is helpful in a fight that can be pretty daunting. Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written as a reaction to World War II atrocities, reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. I think my blood pressure goes down a couple of notches just from reading that statement. It might be a long way from the way reality often looks, but what a relief to have a shared belief about what is right and to do be able to do some small amount of work toward it.
I had a similar reaction when I first read the shared principles of Unitarian Universalists and the list started out with, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”. A big part of what drew me to this congregation is that UU members are constantly working to make these principles a reality in a number of ways. To welcome new members into the congregation without requiring that they are born into a particular group, fit a given lifestyle or believe a given creed. To grant ourselves and each other the freedom to exercise our individual conscience and our reasoning faculty in our own spiritual search. To participate in the democratic system of our institutions. To continue the long tradition of UU involvement in human rights work in the world at large. And the very fact that we have an Amnesty Sunday here pretty much blows my mind.
Those people who do the hardest work, amid the most horrifying conditions, in order to advance human rights are people who risk imprisonment, torture, and even death for the sake of these rights. Prisoners of conscience – the phrase used by Amnesty -a poetic phrase if I ever heard one. These are the people that we Amnesty members write letters to support, to try to free from prison, or to try to protect their life. I am in awe of their courage. They are my heroes. To be able to do the smallest thing to try to support them and their work is a tremendous honour and satisfaction.
I can’t possibly begin to imagine what a prisoner of conscience goes through or to really relate to the conditions in the often faraway places where they live. But I believe that many of us, to some degree or other, have experienced the sting of our rights being violated, and conversely, the peace and vitality that results from being in an atmosphere in which people are treated with respect and dignity. Maybe we’ve experienced a rights violation in the workplace, even in the family setting, or some type of discriminatory violation. And maybe we have experienced firsthand how silence, isolation and denial of harsh truths are the breeding ground for abuses, while openness, commitment to speaking the truth, and solidarity against them are the only way to fight them. Sometimes, the pain of a betrayal experienced by oneself or someone we care about can powerfully bring home for us how vulnerable one can be at times, as well as the sanctity of these rights and the universal need for these rights to be protected.
It is very gratifying to be involved with an organization that is striving day after day to advance these rights around the world in the gravest situations. I continue to benefit from the work I do with Amnesty. I learn so much about human rights issues in very different parts of the world as well as in my own backyard here in Canada. Writing letters to appeal for human rights in urgent action campaigns is a very satisfying process. For one thing, it’s easy and I never complain about things that are easy. The urgent action tells you how to frame your letter so off you go. It’s a satisfying exercise in polite assertiveness, as you are coached to use phrases like “I call on you to’ or, “I urge you to”, etc. It is also refreshingly apolitical; politics does not enter into it, it is simply a matter of supporting the agreed-upon rights of individuals. I am deeply moved and inspired by the work being done by courageous individuals against great odds all around the world to perpetuate human rights. I never know if my voice expressed in my little letter will help. But I know that, along with all the other voices of ordinary people politely and firmly asserting themselves over and over again, my voice has a chance.