Testimony of Margaret Bryant, May 14, 2016
I am Margaret Bryant and I'm a member of this congregation. My husband Dominic and I were married at First, and our daughter Alix attends the Grade Five/Six RE program. I'm participating in the leadership development program, a member of the social events team and past co-leader of the Family Retreat.
You might be surprised to know that I've been attending First since I was a child.
There are few of us who have made the transition from child to youth to adult.
This morning I'm going to tell you a few of the things that I remember from when I was a kid here.
Most obvious are the physical changes to our building.
Our RE classes were held in dark, cold, cramped rooms in the basement. They were classrooms that you ached to get out of. The curriculum was uninspiring and traditional, though delivered by kind and caring teachers. Those classes began to change as I became a youth with first what was the precursor to OWL called About Your Sexuality, and a program that endures today, Neighbouring Faiths about learning about other religions. On one memorable Sunday, we visited The People's Church up on Sheppard East and were amazed to watch kids our age responding to the call from the pulpit of volunteering to go on missions right then and there, while we Unitarian youth slunk low in our seats.
Now, our RE program is incredibly varied and dynamic. Today my daughter isn't sitting in a cold, damp room, or even one of our bright, carpeted rooms, but heading to Winston Churchill park for a nature walk. On any given Sunday, you see kids tearing up and down the backstairs, and chasing each other through Coffee Hour. Our popular Family Retreat stretched the limits of Cedar Glen this past January with over 80 participants.
Another physical change is the layout of the sanctuary which has rotated 90 degrees. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, my mind wanders, with apologies to the service leaders, and I challenge myself to remember what the building was like before. Moving the front of the sanctuary over there, with the floor to ceiling opaque glass windows on either side through which you could hear the sounds of the streetcars.
When I was a kid, there was a room on the side of the chancel which was called the minister's study, although I think it was used as the library. It was a mysterious room in which we were never allowed, and amongst the kids it was rumoured to have a door to a secret garden.
Although the chancel moved, some things have remained the same. The piano for instance, and the playing of our pianists. I have always sat where I can watch the pianists' hands. Many of you will be familiar with the dramatic and wonderful changes in our music program. When I was a kid, the music for each service was announced in the monthly bulletin. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that if we saw that the choir was singing, my mum and I would skip that Sunday's service. Now, the opposite would be true.
It's also hard to believe that the kitchen moved so significantly. Where the kitchen now is, was once the smoky welcoming lair of church secretary Bunny Turner. I spent many boring hours in that office while my mother volunteered as the collections and pledge bookkeeper.
And in the old kitchen, my mum introduced me to the pleasures of giving service. We regularly helped out at social events including the men's lunches making what seemed like hundreds of sandwiches. It might have been tedious work to a kid, but it wasn't really. I got to listen to the women chatting, and felt a real sense of belonging and the joy of feeling useful. This is something we're trying to pass on to our daughter. You'll see her helping out at the AGM lunch, with the social events team that has made her welcome and a team member. It's through active participation that we feel most comfortable here, and that hasn't changed at all.
One last physical change, I'll share with you. You may occasionally use the back stairs. Well, I use them all the time, even at risk of being locked in them. Hanging on the wall is a beautiful wooden wall hanging that once hung in the front of the sanctuary, where now we have the copper sculpture that complements our chalice. When I was a kid, we had only a small wooden chalice lit at the beginning of the service and extinguished at the end. The new large chalice with communal candle lighting didn't exist, and actually the chalice was not a focal point, more a bookend to the service.
I walk by the wooden wall hanging and am nostalgic for my childhood, and for a time of my grandparents humanism, cooperative games and Lotta Hitschmanova-led service to others. Of my parents popular and robust youth groups, of robe-less ministers and minimal rituals. And of my childhood, here, where I belonged.
I'm not really that nostalgic. I know ours is a perennially changing faith. I like looking at the colours and workmanship of Shawn's stoles. And I'm so proud of our recent service towards the Syrian refugees. And of our amazing music program, wonderful and challenging Sunday services and of our enhanced RE program for kids and adults.
Despite the constantly changing nature of Unitarianism, to me, one thing stands out as not having changed at all.
There are few of us here, and at other congregations, who have grown up Unitarian. We remain a faith of predominately first generation Unitarians, whose experience of our faith and of this congregation is largely limited to the recent past.
We still are challenged to bridge the transition from youth to adulthood.
Testimony of Kimberley Watson, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
Good morning. My name is Kim Watson, and I’ve been attending First for about a year.
Women stood in a sacred space, a place of reverence and respect, and told women’s stories.
As someone who currently falls in the agnostic-atheist range, I sometimes feel perplexed at attending a congregation that comes out of the Judeo-Christian tradition – a tradition I left at the age of 13. Looking back, in the version to which I was exposed, I experienced it as didactic, prescriptive, emphasizing shame and sin instead of life and celebration. There seemed to be no space for my questions or for direct experience! Later I tried neo-paganism, where there was an embrace of the feminine principle along with the masculine, and where as a woman I had a place in the sacred circle. But, ultimately, at the time I didn’t know how to compromise that approach with my science training.
And now, here I am, back to a place that comes out of the tradition I left, albeit with some welcome variations – talking about what it was like to tell women’s stories in a sacred space.
In retrospect, I didn’t carefully consider being in The Vagina Monologues. Sistering is a good cause, it was a way to get to know people here, it’s a classic play. Never mind I hadn’t auditioned for anything in 30 years! This seemed like a safe place to take chances. Our director Mona el Baroudi asked how brave did I feel – would I consider a monologue reclaiming a fallen word now considered the most profane, AND do it with orgiastic ecstasy to boot? Why not? – This seemed like a safe place to take risks.
The realization of the absolute profundity of this project only slowly unfolded for me. Women stood in a sacred space and told women’s stories! The play speaks to the feminine across a range of issues including: sexual desire, body shame, genital mutilation, rape, love, birth, lesbian and transgender experiences, embodiment. My monologue was about the celebratory, healing power of sensuality and sexuality, and the joy and freedom in claiming the right to define oneself.
We named all these things, in the pulpit, which historically has been a seat of power from which women were excluded, women were persecuted, and women’s bodies were controlled.
Remnants of neopagan ritual come back to me. I hope that together as a cast we lifted up a sort of incantation that aids a transformation of those difficult truths we declared, and a transformation of the relationship between women and institutions of worship. May there be transmutation in naming these things from a powerful and loving centre.
Our Minister Shawn Newton affirmed this project was his long-time dream. I don’t recall him saying – but surely it was intentional? – that The Vagina Monologues was performed the very month we focused on the theme of Reconciliation.
WE women spoke of women’s realities, in THIS sacred space. We held this place of reverence and respect, and we TOLD the stories.
Our minister, and many of you, attended the show. You listened and bore witness, sometimes despite discomfort. You did not turn away from, interrupt, dismiss or silence us.
You. Bore. Witness.
And that, also, is Truth and Reconciliation.
I stood in this place of reverence and respect and I spoke women’s stories, together with other women.
This process healed an old wound that I didn’t even know was still there. For that I am ever grateful to all of you.
And yes, I feel renewal. Did you know related words are restoration and restitution?
And yes, this is a safe place.
Testimony of Yvonne Raaflaub, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
How does this wordsmith, who expands small topics, reduce an extraordinarily layered experience to 451 words, the length of Eve Ensler’s monologue finale I was 4 privileged to perform – “My Revolution begins in the body” – and that I continue to recite once each day? I can but try or I may just cry, speechless.
Inseparable, “My Revolution” and I. The most powerful piece I’ve taken inside me.
How could I not love this poem that honours females, reveres earth, and respects all human beings, especially those who “feel too much”?
To “feel too much” is to “feel just right”. Mona, you feel just right.
Mona offered me something Unitarian ears might cringe at. Two words. Any guesses?
Validation and visibility and voice. Validation as an artist – first-time actor that I was. Visibility – me alone at this podium in my little black tube dress (which I’ve nicknamed my fallopian tube dress), sharing the spotlight with nobody. Voice – “You have a big vocal range.” That’s something I hadn’t known.
What I do know is the power of monologue combined with Mona’s contagious mindfulness. Here’s looking at you, Mona!
And here’s looking at my VagSisters and our respectful rehearsal week together where I was awed by their hard work and buoyed by all the laughter…
But I had come to resent my monologue and struggled with it. Imagine hating a poem about love!
I’d ignored my soul, my reading, my writing and done what I most abhor in others: I’d abandoned the tried-and-true when something new and exciting came along.
I cried, wrote, asked my books for forgiveness (I hope I used all 5 apology languages), made a nest out of my favourite books and slept inside.
“We missed you,” they said, “but you looked busy. Please come back and write in our margins. We’ve missed your touch.”
“I’ve missed yours, too.”
Books are my personal refuge, my sanctuary. I love them. And this sanctuary at First Unitarian, I also love.
When I performed “My Revolution” here, the two things I most cherish in the world came together for the first time in my life. One – the arts, not part of my childhood, fully embodied here. Theatre, with music, poetry, stories…
And I was a performer. Validated, visible, vocal.
Two – my village, population 300, contained within these walls both evenings. Familiar and friendly faces. Just like back home.
Because of you, I am made whole!
Because you live community.
“A great community,” writes Lois Smidt *, “creates conditions where people can fall in love.”
“It is a place where we can make a fuss about one another.”
“A place where we can ask, ‘How did I ever live without you?’”
* Lois Smidt in John McKnight and Peter Block, The abundant community: awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. San Francisco: 2010, p. 148.
Testimony of Jewels Krauss, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
Hi everyone. My name is Jewels Krauss. Actually, before I go into sharing my reflections on my experience with The Vagina Monologues, I was hoping you could help me cross something off my bucket list. I was raised in a very conservative Christian church where there was no conversation between who was standing behind the pulpit and the congregation members. I love how interactive it is here, however, so I was wondering if, when I say “Good Morning”, you would all respond with “Good morning, Jewels”? That would be great.
This is actually a very nice segue into my reflections. Being raised in a conservative Christian church, I would have never imaged something like The Vagina Monologues being performed there. I mean I don’t know, I haven’t been there for a while. But definitely not when I was still going. Which is weird and one of the reason I veered away from that church. I remember thinking as a 16 year old how curious it is that we body shame in church/society. That our bodies and their needs/wants are condemned as evil. When, if you believe in God (which I don’t), God himself created us and our flesh. So to me, body shaming ultimately means insulting God’s work. Which would be a sin. And therefore not something we should do, right? So, when Shawn told me in January he wanted to put on the VM here at UU, I thought “I don’t think I could have any more respect for this man!” How incredible to perform this piece of theatre in a sacred space.
I am an actor and director, and I am very interested in theatre as a scared space. Story telling, if you go back to the bible (“first there was the word”), is how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world. I saw the VM years ago at a university and it was very powerful. Young women claiming the space. And yet, having it at a university, with young men in the audience, I didn’t feel safe sometimes for the performers. It didn’t feel like a sacred space. Particularly, during the monologue where a woman reclaims all the various different moans women can make during sex. The reactions coming from some of the young men bothered me. So yes, when Shawn said it would be performed here, I could have not asked for a safer place to do so!
To me the experience was sacred because I shared space with women of all ages.How incredible for me, a young woman, to share a stage with women older than me who are standing powerfully in their sensuality and sexuality. I loved how Mona picked women who were so different from each other in age, cultural background, mother tongue, etc. Andwe all came together and listened. Truly a sacred thing.
I wanted to end with one thought. I think it is incredible that women are coming together to talk about their sexuality, sensuality, vulnerability, and hurt. But I also think that we’ve been doing that for a while. Women, I mean. And I wonder with all the recent talk about rape culture and violence against women, I think it is time for the Penis Monologues. I think it is equally important for men to explore their sexuality in a safe space and I wonder if that would move this whole conversation in a different direction. I mentioned this to Shawn before he left on his sabbatical, so we’ll see. Maybe he’ll come back with a fully written script. I would definitely attend and offer my full ears and heart the way the men here did for us!
Testimony of Alezandria Coldevin, March 6, 2016 (actor in the Vagina Monologues)
Vagina. This word has been seen as sacred, as dirty, as fun and everything in between. I personally had never really talked about or considered Vaginas before joining our production of The Vagina Monologues. This is just one of the many gifts I received in being a part of that performance. Each one of us got to work one on one with Mona – our amazing director – for weeks before we ever got together as a cast. My experience with Mona was one of nurturing and exploration of the text and of myself, it was powerful, but the week rehearsing with the cast takes the cake! I felt privileged to be able to hang out with such a diverse group of incredible, smart, talented, gorgeous women! The respect and generosity felt among the cast members was tangible from the start, and grew as the week progressed.
Throughout the week I got to consider the monologues, their meaning, and their varied truths, while marvelling at the compelling and diverse performances, and enjoying the company of so many awesome women. By the end of the week of rehearsals – we were confident that we had a great show – and that is when the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place. You. The audience. Both nights were sold out. Standing room only. And both nights we could feel that you were with us, cheering us and supporting us, and for two magical nights, we collectively went on a journey, and that journey lead to vaginas. When I tell friends outside of this community about my experience with this production, they are always surprised that the monologues were performed in a church. A sacred space. A place for families and contemplation and spiritual growth. Having lived that amazing week, with the cast and ultimately with you, I can’t imagine it being produced anywhere else.