Member Testimonies

Good Morning, my name is Paul Bognar, and I am humbled and honoured to be a member of your Ministerial Search Committee. Many people have asked me lately ‘how is the search going?” and I will answer that question for you in just a minute. But first let me tell you a little about my own search.
Raised a Roman Catholic, I was for many years “unchurched.” I began attending the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton some 11 years ago, as that congregation was in the final stages of a ministerial search. Compared to my Catholic background, the Unitarian approach to calling a minister was nothing less than revolutionary: I was captivated by the idea of a faith that would, first, grant the authority to the people of a congregation, and then expend such an effort to find just the right minister for each congregation. Hamilton called a bright, talented minister who many of you know as a former member of this Congregation: Allison Barrett. I remember the anticipation in Hamilton, as we began a new ministry together, the excitement was almost palpable, and the first couple of years were dynamic, culminating in a new building. I was, you could say, from that point, hooked on UUism.
In 1998 I came to this congregation as you began the relationship with your first Director of Lifespan Religious Education, Diane Bosman. As her partner, I found things to do here, apart from being the “DLRE’s wife”: I led Coming of Age classes several times, I led and coached Living in Spirit groups, attended and then organized annual Men’s Retreats, and a number of other things. Living with a paid staff member gave me insight into some of the more intimate and intricate workings of this congregation.
And now, now that our past ministers fade from the “current events” to the “history” of this congregation, and Diane no longer brings home talk of happenings and issues of First, what role would I play here, what would I do? Initially I thought I’d like to take a year or so, and just be ‘a guy who comes to church.’ No committees, no teaching, just Sunday services.
But when the Nominating Committee put out a call for applicants for the Search Committee, I began to think about it. I have some experience: I worked in human resources, including interviewing and recruitment. Because of my unique position in this Congregation, (that is, as the partner of a staff member) I very often have had a close, personal, (and frequently behind the scenes) look at the lives, joys, hopes and struggles of church ministers and staff. But mostly, I thought that the search for a new settled minister would be the most important work that one could do for this congregation. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that if my insights and experience could be of use, then I would be willing to dedicate myself to this work.
At First Unitarian, there are three things that a testimony should address:
1) What brought you here?
2) What keeps you coming back?
3) What is your growing edge?
Now you know what brought me here (Diane), and you know what’s keeping me here (ministerial search), so what’s my growing edge?
It’s three things, all of which I can attribute to my participation in this search:

1) a growing sense of who we are, and what this religious community is. With all our warts and flaws, our loving hearts and dedication to this place, the diversity, and our all too human relationships, some good, some difficult, but a richness that’s impossible to ignore.
2) It’s an increasing awareness of our place in the UU movement. One of the Search Committee members, Helen Iacovino, talks about the “thousand other UU congregations out there” where people volunteer to pour coffee on Sunday, sit on boards and committees, attend small group meetings, and struggle with church finances. From references we have phoned, newsletters we have seen, we know we are not alone, in our day to day struggles, whether theological or in matters of social justice, and we are not alone in our successes in the larger world. And this leads me to my third growing edge:
3) My sense of anticipation, excitement, and yes, even hope for this congregation is growing, daily. This place is going to look very different in a couple of years, and I for one, am very excited. I think it’s safe to say that the other six members of the committee are also keyed up.
So, how is the search going? I think it’s going very well. We have been hard at work, putting in many hours creating and tabulating surveys, attending meetings, creating packets, reading and listening to sermons and rites of passage, more meetings, phone interviews, reference checks, …still more meetings, and much planning.
And now, we are about to embark on a series of in-person interviews with our short list of candidates. Any of these ministers would be wonderful ministers for this congregation. As our chair, Catherine Schuler puts it: our task now is to discern the truly excellent from the merely excellent. We anticipate presenting a candidate to you sometime in mid to late April.
This task is far from complete, there is much work for this committee yet to do. And I want you to know, this is a labour of love, to which all members of the committee are deeply dedicated.
It is, for me, a significant part of my own spiritual growth, and I am grateful for it.
Finding Unitarianism was not difficult for me. I am third generation Unitarian. Finding my own way to worship has been a challenge.

I was raised by two Humanists. We didn’t talk about God in our household, or prayer. Instead, we concentrated on doing what we knew was right, based on logic, reason and the scientific method.

The best thing about Unitarianism, however, is that it allows members to grow and change. As I became an adult and began to live my own life, I realized that many things in this world just don’t make a lot of sense. I realized that sometimes what is "right" isn’t what is logical. I started to listen to my "gut" more when I was making big choices and to consider the messages I got from my dreams, from my art and from forms of divination like Runes and the I Ching.

In short, I became a mystic.

Now, mysticism doesn’t really require Sunday church attendance. I can commune with my higher power almost anywhere, without sermons, rituals or a beautiful building. But living my beliefs is another story. Sometimes, I can barely hear my inner voice and don’t know what to do next. Sometimes, I have a concept of how I want to live, but no idea how to go about it. In the most difficult times, I know exactly what I need to do, but don’t know if I have the courage to do it. What if people reject me?

It’s then that community really helps. Here, we have a large enough group of people that I can see so many ways of living ones beliefs. If I want to learn more about reducing poverty in Toronto, I have only to look those of you who have helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity. or who volunteer for Out of the Cold.

If I want to become more environmentally friendly, I can speak to those of you who bicycle to work, who use TTC or who belong to ride share. I can meet with the members who grow and eat organic foods. I can talk to those who advocate for recycling.

As a lesbian mother, I love this place. Here, my children can see other families with same sex parents and know that they are not the only ones. There are people of all sexual orientations in leadership roles, not merely tolerated, but respected by the community.

I love our range of ages, from the inspiring services run by the Youth group to the women older than me in the women’s group, who have shown me the kind of woman I might become.

The challenge in a place like First is that it isn’t static. Since I’ve joined, friends have moved away, groups and committees have folded, our staff has changed… and will change again. It’s a real exercise to trust to believe although First will not look the same next year as it does today, it will still be full of people with strong values and inspiring lives. As we struggle to chose new staff and to find new ways to connect and to run programmes, I hope that we won’t loose sight of our strengths both as individuals and as a group. This place deserves to thrive.

Honouring Their Memory

On a wall, just outside that door, in our Secret Garden, is a heavy bronze plaque, with the names of five young men, probably in their early twenties when they died inhumanely between 1914 and 1918. All were members of this congregation.

The plaque reads:

“This tablet is erected by the members of  The Unitarian Church in loving memory of


They died the noblest death a man may die Fighting for God and Liberty
Their name liveth for evermore “

Do any of you know any of their names? Have you ever seen the plaque? It will undoubtedly outlive all of us here and possibly many generations beyond. Perhaps some of you are related or descended from some of these young men.

It is estimated that more than fifty million people - that’s 50 million, were killed, and countless millions more injured, mutilated and degraded during the Second World War, which lasted a very long six years, and has left its scars everywhere, even to this day, and certainly long beyond.

A few of you may have been active, or were innocent victims in other ways, on all sides, during that war which raged around the whole world. Most of you would not even have been born before those times. Those who fought and lived through it would be over eighty now and perhaps glad that their memories of those times may be fading.

I served in England during the Second World War , in the R.C.A.F., in Bomber Command; helping to guide young men and their planes to their targets in Europe, from a distance, via radar, and hopefully back to base. But not always. And I can tell you that I would personally prefer, and I think my brothers, at least one, would agree that we never again have a Remembrance Day. Because it brings back ineffable remorse for the undoubted huge numbers of widows and orphans that we helped create And sadness for the memories of half of the male graduates of my High School graduating class, who were dead within almost two years of graduation. Good friends all, and just beyond their teenage years. But my story is not unique. Sadly there are millions like it throughout the world.   So: Can war be condoned or justified. Well, I suppose Yes and No. Certainly almost everyone in Canada condoned it in 1939, and all those liberated from their oppressive yokes in 1945 knew it was justified. What cannot be condoned is the tragic stupidity of man- kind for never have figured out how to prevent the horrors of wars and killings, and our failure to support the United Nations Organization enough to effectively do this.

So again we bring to honourable memory , if only for a day, the bravery, the sacrifices, and the memory of everyone, known or unknown to us, dead and alive, who struggled through wars to bring us to this place in our lives, yes, to this very congregation here today.

These five young men of this congregation might have become great fathers, or great farmers, or hockey players, or leaders of this congregation or of this country. So we are keeping the light of Unitarianism alive for you, Harold Swann, Theodore Glasgow, Montague Sanderson, Orley Malcolm and Stanley Martin.

You are a part of us forever,  And we are a part of you.


A Humanist UU

Of all the registered UU religious brands, the one to which I feel the most loyalty is Humanism.

More specifically, I identify with Scientific Humanism, which has been defined as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism, and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion."

I don't consider myself to be a Philosophical Humanist, which I understand would have me concentrating more exclusively on human need and human interest.

I also call myself an Agnostic, because I understand that there are some questions that we cannot answer, and I believe that all knowledge is provisional, or as the time-honoured UU aphorism puts it: "Revelation is not closed."

A important way that I express my religious self here at First, is by celebrating our 4th Principle: "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

Some of you may have witnessed my searching in my impromptu coffee hour science lectures, or my Socratic probing of your political views.

This congregation is important to me because many of you actually listen to me, and I am inspired to listen  to you, and to learn.

My roots are in the Jewish tradition, where the most learned have always been the most respected. But even during my youthful years of week-nights at Hebrew school, studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I considered myself to be an agnostic, and I focused on my day job as a science nerd.

As I've matured, I've more and more held learning in high esteem. Mathematics, physics, technology; philosophy, language, cognition – learning has become my hobby, and my vocation.

At First I've learned about a religion without irrational creeds, where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, where there is no privileged oligarchy revealing truths about mythical divinities.

I very much value what I've learned from all the free-thinkers that I've met here … and I plan to continue to learn from you and, I hope, you from me.

Hello. My name is Stan Yack.

I’ve been attending services here for about twenty years, and this will be my third testimony. Today, I have a confession to make, and I will be coming out of a closet. No not that closet, another closet, one with a green door.

First the confession: For over 60 years I have been an unrepentant omnivore. When I started calling myself that, it was just a thoughtless joke; I was unconcerned by any criticism of my culinary behavior. But recently I’ve become aware of good reasons for changing that behavior. These days for many of us, not just Unitarian-Universalists, discussion of  culinary behavior has become more common.

In none of the related domains of discourse – health, ethics, environment – are the issues regarding dietary choices simple. The discussions are very personal, and with so many of our social connections occurring at meals, conversations can be uncomfortable. I recommend waiting until dessert.

Of the arguments against eating meat, I've found it easiest to reject  health-based proscriptions. My pop-science understanding of human biology tells me that our digestive system has barely changed from our savannah ancestors, so surely a diet including meat should still be good for us. (Though I am concerned about the antibiotic content of factory farmed meat).

For me the ethical objections to meat-eating are more relevant. As a student of cognition and philosophy, one ethical question I must consider is which creatures’ lives I have the moral right to terminate. 

But today, on Earth Sunday, I want to talk about environmental ethics.

The environmental problem with eating meat is straightforward: There are over 6 billion humans on the planet, and there is a fixed amount of land, a fixed amount of potable water, and limited energy for cultivation, fertilizer, and transportation. There’s just not enough of those things to feed meat to 6 billion human beings. So what right do I have to eat meat? I can put the issue concisely by reworking an old saying:

“One man’s meat is another eight men’s bread.”

That’s because the production of a given amount of meat protein typically requires some animal to consume eight times that amount of plant protein, corn on today’s factory farms. Eight-to-one is the factor on North American industrial beef farms; some sources estimates the factor as low as six, others as high as at ten. It is lower on farms where cattle graze on grasses, but there’s not very much of that going on any more. Our modern industrialized food system, whether producing meat or vegetables, is a product of the so-called “Green Revolution”. That system depends on tremendous amounts of fossil fuel for fertilizers, for pesticides, and for transportation. Cheap fossil fuel is a resource that is unlikely to be available for much longer. And protein production from beef consumes 100 times the water as production from grain!

Of course, a one pound steak and six pounds of bread are not nutritionally identical – they contain different proportions of proteins, carbs, fat, sugar, fiber, … An excellent guide to the health and ethical issues of food is Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The New Yorker says that Pollan “undertakes a pilgrim’s progress along modern food chains, setting standards for ethical eating”.

But now it’s time for me to open my green closet door, and come out:

I have become a “pescetarian”, a vegetarian who also eats seafood.

Note that I haven’t committed to a anti-meat orthodoxy, religiously avoiding meat to claim my place on a higher moral plane. Throwing out the leftover meat in my freezer didn’t seem to make much environmental sense (The meat’s all gone now.), and at my recent family Passover seder I did eat my mother’s chopped liver.

But for almost three months I haven’t purchased any meat, not in restaurants, not in supermarkets, not on the street: no beef, no pork, no chicken. That means my meat consumption is almost negligible. I decided that like Michael Pollan: “I had to stop eating meat before I could in good conscience decide if I can keep eating meat.” Now nearing the end of my third month, my conscience is still directing me toward a meat-free lifestyle.

In the future I might backslide from pescaterianism, and rationalize myself back into more carnivorous behavior. (After all, studies show that one man’s chicken is only another two men’s wheat, so maybe I’ll become a “pollo-tarian”.)  Or I may become more committed to reducing or rejecting consumption of animal products, and swear off fish and seafood.

I’ll keep you posted.