Member Testimonies

Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your country.  These words from John f. Kennedy in 1961 were directed at his own people but they still resonate with my wife Gwen and me, and I'm sure with many of you also.

It brought shivers of pride to me when I saw so many familiar faces from First Toronto Unitarian  Congregation assembled at a line of partly built 'habitat "homes., in a sea of frozen mud on a cold November Saturday morning in Malvern, a residential suburb out near the Toronto Zoo.   They were all there "to do something for their country" with no thought of reward for themselves, or so they thought.

Habitat for humanity was again swinging into action.  And this ragtag army of 35 half asleep shivering volunteers from all levels of Canadian life, some of whom didn't know what a spirit level or a crescent wrench or a wooden shim was, would, by the end of the day, have become experts in using these tools and installing double windows and frames into openings built by another gang of Canadian ragtags on the previous weekend.

It appeared an impossible task - beginning at a trailer where we rooted around in another sea of safety boots to find a pair that fitted.  (I heard of a woman who wore two left boots all day, thought they were a bit uncomfortable but were certainly warm and waterproof, and made her 4 centimetres taller)   some of us wore mismatched but functional work gloves all day and there was some hilarity as some women sought just the right colour safety helmet to, maybe, match their outfits.

But while it was mostly exhilarating and great fun, it was also a time for those dedicated folks to reflect, as they struggled to lift the frames into position and line them up with those spirit levels how this was also lifting up their own spirit levels to a new high.

At lunchtime I asked some of them how they felt about why they were there and what was the incentive.  The answers were wide ranging. e.g. 'I'm lucky to live in good housing myself, it's the least I can do to help someone less fortunate"   or  " wow, I’m so glad I came, I've had conversations with a member whom I never knew before that has made me a new friend"   and as Jack McFadden described it " this is a day of meaningful  labour, learning and fellowship - this is not a handout it's a hand up"

Almost all thought they would return again - some if only for the great sandwiches and coffee that Beth Ann McFadden and Gillian Burton and their team made here in the church kitchen and brought to the site.

At the end of the day many wrote their name on the inside of a cupboard wall, or elsewhere that might not be painted over.  I can see someone living there maybe 50 years from now looking at a name and wondering,  "who was David Tiffin or Kathy Thompson or Larry Wulff or Frauke Rubin or Nancy Krygsman or Helen Iacovino or some of the many other folks who have dedicated a few days of their life to keep alive the web of life that connects us all.   Their names may never be on a public monument but they will live on in these houses as a memorial to them, and a reminder to future generations of how they are standing on the shoulders of those who went before them.

So, was it worth it?  Yes, I guarantee that you will feel good about it for as long as you live.  Stan Yack and I and a few others were about 5'5" tall when we arrived but when we left we felt 6' tall.  We ranged in age from 18 years to myself at almost 83, but strangely I think we all felt the same young age as we worked.  So come out for the next build on Feb. 5th, and get rejuvenated.  This may be the best chance you will ever get to  " do something for your country" that will have a lasting effect beyond your own lifetime  - and to have "your country do something for you"  - i.e.  build pride in yourself.

Every Sunday here we affirm the UU principles of our religious faith; such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person - justice, equity and compassion in human relations.   On that Saturday and others to come we put those words into reality with dignified housing for the less fortunate, and, as we sing at collection time ," to build the common good - and make our own days glad."

But if you cannot take an active building part in this effort please be assured that your financial and moral support to it is equally important as is the working force. All of First Toronto Unitarian Congregation has pledged to be in it together and we can all look forward together to the grand opening of this home sometime in the fall.

The signup table is open upstairs, in Workman Hall., after this service.

Good Morning. My name is Ted Wood. I’m a member of Amnesty International Group 142.

This past Friday December 10th was International Human Rights Day. Today we celebrate the work of Amnesty International and mark International Human Rights Day by participating in the annual Amnesty Write for Rights.

When I think about why I joined Amnesty International, my thoughts go back to the 1950's and 60's. While there were a number of influences, two come quickly to mind. In public school in the Fifties I had an opportunity to learn French. I was fascinated by a language and way of thinking that was different from my own. It was my first understanding of the diversity in our world. When French Canadians in Quebec fought for the right to use French in their daily lives I was naturally drawn to their cause. When I recall the Sixties, I remember the struggle for civil rights in the United States. I couldn’t understand the discrimination against African Americans and I sympathized greatly with their struggle for equality. When the inner cities exploded in riots I went to see for myself what had happened there. While visiting relatives in Rochester, New York I walked through the riot torn area of the city. It was a quiet, peaceful day but the boarded-up buildings gave silent testimony to a world that was full of anger and hatred rooted in inequality.

The anger that was unleashed in those days of the civil rights movement is an anger that we see today in many parts of the world. Part of what led me to Amnesty and keeps me active is the belief that protection of human rights is a key to the preservation and promotion of freedom and justice and to the prevention of war. Would the Holocaust have happened if protection of human rights had been an important consideration in the 1930's? What would the Middle East be like today if the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis were a significant motivating factor for all parties to the dispute?

The selfless dedication of Amnesty members also motivates me and I will mention two who were members of this congregation. Jim Potts was a tireless supporter of Amnesty. Over the years he inspired me with his passion and dedication to human rights. When I visited him just before he passed away, we talked about Amnesty for much of the time. Jim’s enthusiasm for Amnesty was there to the end of his life. Any of you who knew Jim will not be surprised to hear that Jim did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. Ethel Batho was also a long time supporter of Amnesty. In her last years she was no longer able to write letters but she wanted so much to contribute. She found a way by sending us stamps so we could send letters on her behalf.

One thing I have come to realize over the years is that it is very difficult to change the world but we can make a start by changing ourselves. Part of Amnesty’s work involves writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders. The process involves sending one letter at a time, helping one prisoner at a time, defending one human rights defender at a time. With each letter we bring hope and the possibility of justice and freedom. The cutting edge for me is that I believe that each letter we write also changes ourselves and is thus one small step in changing the world. We will not always be successful in freeing a prisoner but as long as we are doing the work we are sowing the seeds for a better world.

Today is Amnesty Sunday. We will be writing letters on behalf of Father Pedro Ruquoy, a human rights defender in the Dominican Republic. We will be promoting human rights and changing ourselves and the world, one letter at a time.

What brought you here? What keeps you here? What is still unresolved, your growing edge? These questions guide a testimony. Good morning. My name is Diane Bosman, and for the past six years and change I have been your Director of Lifespan Religious Education. I came to this congregation a Unitarian of many years, a questioner for my whole life, and an educator in some of the more untraditional senses. In an incredible act of faith you have bestowed on me your trust and your support as I worked with you to shape a vision and system of lifespan religious education in this community- a system that could inspire each of us at each age and stage of our life to explore, to grow, to deepen our lives.

It has been an incredible experience to do this work. Being your Director of Lifespan Religious Education has brought together for me much of what is most precious in my heart: my values, my faith, my love and yearning for community, my relationship with Paul, my own gifts and strengths and opportunity to make a difference in the world. That has been the great joy of doing this work.

What’s my growing edge? What is still unresolved for me? Ironically, this is the same as what has been my joy here. The struggle as well as the joy of this work is in that it has brought together what is most precious in my heart. My process of coming to the decision to move on has been one of disentanglement. I have had to ask myself where does this one position end and the overarching profession of Religious Education begin? Where does my responsibility to you end, and our genuine friendship begin? Where does my work end and my faith begin? And the most critical question that I have needed to ask myself is where does the role of DLRE - that I have become so accustomed to - end and Diane Bosman begin?

That is my growing edge. These are the questions that I will be exploring next in my life; giving – for a time – separate attention to these strands of my life. I will explore my own faith by attending worship services again, although for a time, I will need to do that in another community, so well all have space for new beginnings. I will explore my career and profession, by committing to new work and new organizations. And I am curious to discover whether I may yet find myself returning to the call of Religious Education. And I will explore my relationships with you by, in time, discovering what holds us together beyond these roles that we have grown accustomed to, discovering if, for us too, there may be a new beginning. Through it all, I will be learning more about myself and where my path leads, because the road always leads onward.

I leave here, with excitement, fear, trepidation, but also with trust. Trust that in my time as your director, you have taught me well. I am equipped with your wisdom, your stories, and your affection. I am proud of all that we have accomplished together. I also have trust that you will continue well in your journey. I hope that I have helped equip you with some wisdom and stories and my very genuine affection as well. Soon, a new companion will join you on this journey: the interim director of lifespan religious education. Her name is Renate. I have gotten to know her over this past week; I have gotten to know you over these past years, and with great confidence I can place you in each other’s care, knowing that great things will come of this new relationship.

For all that come within this community are touched and changed by it. You have done that for me; and for that I thank you with the deepest gratitude.

I arrived at Toronto First over 14 years ago, following my partner Mo, who'd heard about us from one of her colleagues. It was just before the big renovation of '92, and my first volunteer activity was lugging boxes to our temporary quarters at Deer Park United.  Our stay at that old Christian church was a bit unsettling for me, born to a Jewish family, and for a long time calling myself an orthodox agnostic.

But it turned out that our temporary host's Christian symbols didn't change the spirit of our Unitarian services, so I hung in and a year later I marched back behind John Kiley's bagpipes. In our transformed home, I cherished architect Murray Ross's elegant, functional design, and artist Sarah Hall's breathtaking stained glass tower.

I have only a vague memory of the first sermons I heard here. But over the years I've learned about a religion without irrational creeds, where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, and where no privileged oligarchy rules by right of some mythical divinity. I very much value what I've learned from Mark & Donna, and from our guest speakers and teachers.

I've volunteered here in many supporting roles: painting, cleaning, typing, bartending, organizing ... and last year I was drafted to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Even before becoming a designated leader of this congregation I have occasionally incited people to action, but usually my contributions have been technical ones, facilitating and amplifying the effectiveness of others whose actions I've joined.

Witnessing the examples of others at First, eight years ago I volunteered at Out of the Cold, the Toronto housing project connected to our Food & Shelter Committee. Out of the Cold provides meals and warm beds for some of Toronto's homeless. At a midtown church, volunteers from six or so faith communities including our own prepare food, register guests, serve dinner, distribute clothing, ... I started there doing kitchen cleanup once every other month. Lately I've been a weekly regular, the "shift supervisor" for dining room setup.

Our complex world presents us with many moral conundrums where the proper course of action is unclear; but I have no doubt that working at Out of the Cold is the right thing to do. And that work is empowering, because no one can stop those of us who feel called to do it.   I've recently discovered a new book, titled "The Impossible Will Take a Little While".  That inspiring and uplifting "citizen's guide to hope in a time of fear" contains stories by and about activists who didn't give up their struggle, even when hard reason would dismiss any hope. Many of them are famous, like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Martin Luther King. But some are unfamiliar, or even anonymous, like the persons unknown who involved Raymond Parks in the NAACP, who in turn activated his wife Rosa, who years later refused to give up her seat and move to the back of bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

The collector of those stories, Paul Rogat Loeb, says that what the activists have in common is that though they realize that their goals might not be met in their lifetimes, they feel that "living with conviction is of value in itself ... simply keeping the flame alive is a victory"

It may seem pretentious of me to compare my setting up tables and washing dishes at Out of the Cold to sleeping for 28 years on the concrete floor of a cell on Robben Island, or risking the wrath of  Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South . but not unlike resistors in prison, and protestors in Alabama, we volunteers at Out of the Cold are keeping a flame alive.

It has been a joy for me to meet other volunteers and staff there. Many have distinctly non-secular views about the place of humanity in the Cosmos, very unlike my own views; but we all share a commitment to try to leave the world a better place.   In a couple of weeks I will be participating in another direct-action project: on Saturday, November 27th I will be helping to finish the interior of a Habitat for Humanity home. Last month many of you responded enthusiastically to an energizing talk by the local CEO of Habitat, which has changed for the better the lives of over a million people. Many of you will be joining me to hammer nails, paint walls, feed volunteers, ... There will be fulfillment in working together with others to do good work.

There are so many worthwhile causes, injustices are so well established, and progress is always so slow, that it is easy to despair of effecting change. But taking action brings relief from such discouraging feelings. By "not refusing to do the something I can do", perhaps my own world line will nudge that of some 21st century Rosa Parks.

As the activist and author Howard Zinn tells us in Loeb's collection of stories: "life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."

Today’s sermon is about love and money. In the past year our congregation has been going through a financial crisis. While we give our energies generously to support many worthwhile causes, we don’t seem to have enough money to support our aspirations as a congregation.

I have been a spiritual seeker of sorts for most of my life. What originally drew me to this congregation 15 years ago was hearing that we teach our children about all the religions of the world. That sounded like the church for me, a place that is open to many sources of inspiration. We teach our children to think for themselves and to find answers about the meaning of life and the mystery of creation from their own experience and inspiration. We love our children and we support them by nurturing them and hopefully providing them with the tools they will need to live fulfilling lives.

In order to nurture our children we put our energy into providing for them. Our physical, emotional and mental energies and our money. And what is money but just another form of energy. Jacob Needleman in his book "Money and the Meaning of Life", talks about money as potential energy. It represents the energies we put into our work to earn it. Money is full of potential as it also represents what we will create when we spend it.

I came to this congregation looking for a spiritual home, a community, a sense of belonging. At the time I was going through a crisis of sorts, having recently lost a friend who had died suddenly. His death shook my foundations. It seemed such a waste and I found myself looking for meaning and reconnection to life. When I discovered this place that was open to the wisdom of all traditions, that sounded like a place I would like to be. It was then and it continues to be today. In the past 15 years I have learned to build my own religion, a religion that has meaning for me. It is an ongoing process as I find that I continually need to renew my place in this mysterious creation in which we live. This is what we teach our children and also what we teach and support in each other.

Many years before I became a member of this congregation I learned that life is a choice. Over the years I have also discovered that what we choose to do needs to be done with love. It is through love that our spirits grow. It is also through service given with love that we make a difference in the lives of others.

For me, money is just another form of energy which we put to service. What we do with our money is our choice but a very important choice. We provide food and shelter for our children, our families and ourselves. We provide for others who are in need. By supporting this congregation, we provide nourishment to our spirits: the spirits of our children and the spirits of each other. These are all possible choices for how we spend our money. The key for me is to look at money the same way I look at my other energies and to give the best I am able with love and generosity of spirit without asking for anything in return.

The money we have is full of great potential. In the same way as I aspire to live my life with meaning and a sense of spiritual purpose, I also aspire to put my money toward that same meaning and purpose. For me, our financial crisis is a spiritual crisis and the solution will be a spiritual solution. A solution which inspires us to live fulfilling, meaningful lives in service and with love.