Member Testimonies

My name is Diane Wagner and I’d like to share with you some thoughts on what belonging to this community means to me.  Like many of you, I arrived here from a mixed religious background. I was raised Baptist by parents whose personal faith was, and still is, very important to them.  I think I always had doubts, and I did not chose to be baptized when others usually do, at around age 13.  I later was baptized as a Catholic, after being married at the Newman Centre on U of T campus.  This was, at the time, a supportive and liberal community, but when I went back a few years ago it had changed a lot, and so, I suppose, had I.  The music was beautiful, but I came to realize that I could no longer believe the things I was expected to believe.  Several years ago I heard someone interviewed on the radio who said that once he admitted to himself that he didn’t believe what he was taught to believe, he couldn’t go back.  That has been my experience as well.

So I found myself looking for a religious community where a wide spectrum of beliefs were accepted.  I was also looking for a community that would accept and respect my lesbian daughter.  I just happened to meet someone on a Bruce Trail hike who told me about First Unitarian.  I arrived at First at just about this time of year, 6 years ago, and in the fall I started attending the Women’s Group.  Small groups at First are a great way to get to know people, and the Women’s Group has become a very important part of my life.  It is a warm, supportive group of women from all kinds of backgrounds who share the ups and downs of their journeys through life.  From these women I learned to listen to my own feelings, and to actually stop and ask myself how I feel.

After about a year and a half I decided to become a member of First, and then I attended a Mapmaking series. For the first time I got to know some men in the community.  By the way, two of the members of my Mapmaking Group went on to become chaplains, and a couple of others have run adult programs here.

So what keeps me at First?  I feel very much at home with the principles we share, and in fact the first time I heard them, I thought someone must have been reading my mind. To me “growing into harmony with the divine” means respecting and being part of the interdependent web of existence.

I appreciate the intellectual and spiritual stimulation at First – in the services and in the workshop series.  My favourite series was one where we had to decide whether our main approach to life was humanist, naturalist, mystic or theist, and then look at questions such as “What is real to you?” and “How do we know what we know?” By the way, I started out in the naturalist group, then decided to join the mysticism group, but I’m still not quite sure which group I belong to.

Something else that is very important to me here is the experience of R.E. for my granddaughter -- a place where she can feel that it’s quite normal to come from a non-conventional family.  In fact, after her first R.E. class a couple of years ago Daya came up to me, excited, and said “Grandma, a little boy in my class has three Moms. He’s so lucky! I only have two”.

But what is most important to me is being part of a supportive community.

Mark said in one of his recent sermons that it’s the job of ministers to always strengthen the fabric of community.  I told him afterwards that he and Donna must have done a good job, because I feel confident going forward into our uncertain future. I’m confident in our community.

My name is Helen Iacovino, and I have always loved flower communion. Never mind that my family background is Czech and I only discovered as an adult that this celebration originated in Prague, never mind that (as Tony and my kids will tell you) two of my current obsessions are my garden and the furthering of Unitarian Universalism. Flower communion is truly Unitarian in that not only did Unitarians originate it, but it reflects who we are, what we stand for, and how we go about being in the world. There has even been some talk among UU leaders in the United States of selecting a date on the calendar for a unique Unitarian Universalist holiday, and one option raised was that it might be, say, the first Sunday in June as Flower Communion Day. Then at the office on Monday we could all tell our co-workers, "Yesterday I celebrated my religious holiday." But this wonderful thought is a digression.

Every year I bring a little flower to Flower Communion (or sometimes a bigger flower, if the spring has been early enough and peonies happen to already be in bloom). But I take home much more. I take home a flower that has called to me, that is perhaps unusual to me, that seems to have sought me out – and I take home the intangible sense that I’m a part of something much, much bigger.

It’s the same with taking on a volunteer role around here. I feel that I get more out of it than I give. In my other life I work in the office of a golf club, and one day I overheard their past president saying, "I’ve discovered that you get a bigger kick out of this place the more you put into it." I’ve found that this holds true for Toronto First.

Perhaps more significantly, since I joined Toronto First 21 years ago, I have felt that this place truly is "permission-giving" in that when a member or friend volunteers in some way, they are permitted to carry out that task the way they see fit. They have the freedom to emphasize the aspect of the job that is dearest to them, and to carry it out in a way that is in keeping with their personal preferences. They are encouraged to infuse it with their own vision. Furthermore, they have the support of others, such as the convenors and the Board, or the committee they are working with.

Of course, we are not perfect, and so our permission-giving to our volunteers and congregational leaders is also not perfect; we are continually working on it. I cannot say that I have felt entirely happy or entirely supported all of the time. But most of the time I felt supported beyond measure, supported beyond my expectations, by the convenor team as a whole and by Board members, and sometimes this was at a time of very difficult decisions that I was in the forefront of. When things become difficult in one portfolio, the rest of the Convenor group is there. Like the roof. The final decisions about how we will proceed with replacing half the roof will be shared. The Property Committee, the Convenors and the Board will all have input into it and be there for each other through it, and in addition the congregation will be kept informed. So together we will solve it in a way that works for us all.

If one of the goals of life is to continually learn and grow, what better way is there to further that than to volunteer for something in this wonderful place? I found in my volunteer roles, I got more out of it than I put into it. As I think Donna or Mark once put it in a sermon about how we all minister to each other, it’s the crossroads where the individual’s greatest joy meets the community’s greatest need – doing something I enjoy doing to further the work of this place.

For the past three years I have been the Administration and Property Convenor, and as of the Annual Congregational Meeting last Monday my term is up. I leave it, I admit, with a certain sense of relief – now someone else can worry about photocopiers, elevators and heating bills. However, I also leave it with a sense of immense gratitude for having had this opportunity, and that the congregation entrusted this to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow into the role as I took it on, and to grow through it and see the congregation from a perspective other than that of some of the areas I was involved with previously, such as RE. It all keeps unfolding. It allowed me to make connections with more people, with different people and it allowed me to discover and develop skills I didn’t know I had. It also reacquainted me, on annual Property Cleanup Days, with muscles I didn’t know I had. It made me want to communicate to all of you that this building is YOURS and OURS and that we want you AND your children and youth to feel that this space belongs to you, and you belong to it.

And that’s what Toronto First, and Flower Communion, is all about to me – the entwining of all our lives as we attempt to create in the world a beautiful garden.

Dear friends,

Let me tell you something about me.

My life started in a small village with 500 gate numbers (houses) where our house number has the 444 number. My parents still live there.

This is a small village in Transylvania with most of the people being unitarian. It was something natural, as traditional to go every Sunday in the church and also to attend the religious education.

For example: on new years evet he whole village went to the church on midnight, exactly 12 o' clock to say good by to the past year and to welcome the New Year, when the minister held the service. After that everybody continued the new years eve party.

When I was in highschool, all my classmates were talking about where will continue their studies and decided about the university or collage, except me.

The real decision was made by my father, who one day gave me a Bible, a songbook and all the information I need to study to apply for the ministry. And he asked me: how about to be a minister? Well, I remained speachless.

But I went to the local minister and I asked his addvice. He and his wife started to prepare me. After one year we all felt that I am ready for the Theology.

I was attached to the idea of working with people, specially in terms of relating people with God, with the spirit.

In hungarian the minister is called lelkipásztor, which if I retranslate into english, it means: the shepard of the soul, spirit.

Some people work with the body, others with the mind, and the minister with the spirit.

So I went to the seminary in Cluj-Kolozsvar where I studied 5 years, and graduated in 1989.

An other interesting part of my life if how I met my wife!

We, as student attended every Sunday the main church in Cluj-Kolozsvar. And we had a special place in the church, right in front of the congregation. So everybody could see us and we could see who is in the church. And of course, as students we were interested in young girls and searching with our eyes to discover them. In this way I saw Erika, many times in the church, but I could not get to her because the members left first the church and we last, at the end. And while we finally left the church she disapeared. This happened all the time, remaining in front of the church only the old ladies to talk.

Finally, in the winter the church organized a congregational meeting, not in the sanctuary but at the parish house, and I was there with a student friend. And she was there with her girlfriend. So we went immediate near them, and in this way started our life jurney.

We married in 1990 and lived in Petrosani until 2001, when the Bela Bartok Church invited me. In 1994/95 I was a schoolar at SKSM, and Erika joined me for the last three months. Our girls were born in 1997 the oldest, and the twins in 1999.

It is hard to compare the work and ministry between the two churches I served, because they are compeletly different ones.

The former was in a small town, around 300 members, most of the call miners and old members. I knew all of them. We visited every year in their homes. I could reach them just by walking to their houses. It was not necessary to call them before visit. It was so naturally for them too: the minister can visit us all the time. If I had something to ask, or tell, I just walked to their door.

In Budapest it is not that easy. There are large distances. People are very busy. To keep the connection is mainly by phone, or letter or just meeting on Sundays.

In both places we organized besides the Sunday Services, church evenings. In Petrosani on Sunday afternoons, where the members were together having fun, maybe some children or the youth performing something: poetry or singing.

In Budapest on Saturday evenings, we are able to invite famous people, like actors, singers, artists who deliver programs for the members, which is follow by a common dinner.

Now I am also busy on updating the church home page. I consider important to be on the web, to spread the information about us.

I am one of the church magazin editor. This year I am attending a one year jurnalist course.

My wife, Erika is studying too, she is in a 4 year college on business and finances.

The girls are in the kindergarten. The oldest starts the school this fall at a private church school, which offers a very good education.

We are all very attached to each other. We spend a lot of time together. We don't have television, so we have time to talk, and play together and read for the children.

This is the first time when the girls are on their own, without us, at their grandparents, and we are curious about how they support or spend this time, and also it is a test for the grandparents too. Not to mention that we are fine for now without them, but I don't know for how long. 

Rev. Sandor Leta (Bela Bartok Unitarian Church, Budapest)

Good morning!

My name is Bea Ziegert and Trudi Vural introduced me to Child Haven in the early ‘90s. Trudi, a long-time member of this congregation, is one of the first and longest Child Haven interns.

My trip started in November 02 and ended in April 03. I spent the first two months as an intern in Bangladesh. Being an intern with Child Haven means to help: helping with the children and helping with language. Other situations include exchanging cultural and social aspects; discussing belief systems, such as God; watching and reporting, and being a marriage advisor.

These experiences truly changed my life. I feel privileged to have gone and am humbled by the many personal, social and cultural experiences. I believe I contributed in a small way. Children, no matter where they live, have a zest for life that is refreshing and rewarding.

The Bangladesh home in Chittagong, a city of over 5 million people, had 11 children between 3 and 6 years old. I was the second intern. Today this home has over 50 children. In my time the home had a manager, a young man who did the shopping and needed English lessons, a cook, a caregiver for the children and the guard who was soon elevated to look after the Soya cow project that provided a daily glass of protein-rich Soya milk.

Bangladesh is a relatively liberal Muslim country and, for women, that means many things. One of them is dress. Cover the top - not just with a t-shirt - cover the legs and often cover your head. Many Bangladeshi women wear saris. I do not. Not to offend I arrived wearing a pair of pants and a dress over it. It was fine but could not last two months. After much thought I decided to wear the high quality Bangladeshi men’s wear. No scarf; no dangling things! For this male dominated society my dress was quite a shock. Later when I visited again male board members wondered where my men’s wear was. They had got quite used to it.

Being a new home many ideas had to be realize. Shortly after my arrival Bonnie came and a sewing machine was to be purchased for the home. The men thought I would buy it at their merchant. Alas, I did not. I shopped at various places and finally bought it at Singers. Then the machine had to be secured so that little fingers would not be tempted and yet it had to be accessible. I made a cover to the floor and a box for the iron and notions. During my time the children never touched it. In January I used the machine for a color, textile, weaving and sewing project with each child.

In early December, Valeria, an intern from Italy, came for three weeks and we developed many projects. We prepared a personal box for each child; we did drawing projects, making paper chains, weaving with paper, gluing paper mosaics, gluing with rice, taking the children to the museum and we developed decorations for the 10 day Eid Festival – the end of Ramadan. Then Christmas decorations were proposed and we did a color and fruit project with many yellow bananas, red apples and green mangoes that decorated the eating room.

One of the funniest experiences was buying a wall mat to mount the children’s work. Valeria and I went to the market, bought the mat and carried it back on our shoulders. Seeing two Western women walking and carrying a mat was a no-no in that city. Men, the only ones on the street, stared, booed and threatened, but we made it home OK.

These are but some of the many stories and, of course, there were also frustrations. For me the biggest hurdle was the language barrier with the children. For example, boys will figure out stuff that adult’s think is naughty. I believe discussions and explanations help but I could not speak with them directly. Punishment came in an amusing way. While hanging onto the earlobes the naughty boy had to make 20 or so knee bends. With two naughty boys they had to hang onto each other’s ears and bob up and down. For three year olds that is hard, particularly when adults laugh.

After Bangladesh and a month-long tour of Rajasthan, I traveled with Bonnie Cappuccino to most of the homes that serve over 750 children in India, Nepal and Tibet. The Tibet experience was very special and being February, I was on the well-known 16 Km walk out of Tibet.

I invite you to look at my three photo books. They are on a special table upstairs. I thank Child Haven for these unforgettable moments in my life.

Good morning, and Happy First Day of Spring in 2005. Spring used to be March 21, but now, somehow, it’s March 20. Well, I’m sure you’ll agree this is a most frigid first day of spring.

My name is Shirley Grant. I’m not a born-again Unitarian. I’m a born Unitarian. My parents met and married, and I was christened in the old Jarvis St. church. Yes, they called it “christening” in those days. My father, Walter Sachs, is in the photo hanging in the Board Room, taken when a plaque was being installed on the Sears Building, where our church used to be. He is on the far right, and it is a rather surreal experience for me to sit at a meeting in that room with my father gazing down at me.

I asked to do a testimony because I wanted to share some of my memories of growing up in the old Jarvis St. Church. The district, even then, was rather a red light district, out of bounds to servicemen during World War 2. Charles Eddis, retired minister of the Montreal Church, was in the navy in Toronto and had to get permission from his Commanding Officer to attend church!

The RE program was called Sunday School and consisted of just 2 classes. The juniors , numbering about 10, were taught by Nancy Knight, a wonderful former member of this church who died in 1995. The high school crowd met in the same room and numbered about 8.

One year we high schoolers decided to serve Easter breakfast to the whole congregation: grapefruit, eggs, sausages, coffee – the works. My job was to cut through the segments of grapefruit halves. Even today I can still remember a seemingly endless row of grapefruit halves stretching down both sides of a long long table into eternity.

One particular Sunday, when we had just gone on daylight saving time, we waited and waited for the organist to appear. Finally our minister started the service without him. About ten to twelve he arrived, all ready to warm up for what he thought was the 11 o’clock service!

Our minister, Mr. James Hodgins held a garden party once a year at his elaborate Brampton estate. My chief memory was that there was always unlimited free ice cream in little Dixie cups with those flat wooden spoons. For me, as a child, this was heaven.

Mr. Hodgins lived in Brampton and was required only to come to Toronto to give the sermon. My father’s acerbic remark was that Mr. Hodgins would arrive at quarter to eleven, needing 5 minutes to take off his outer clothing, and then, of course, he needed 10 minutes to prepare the sermon!

The congregation dwindled during the 40’s, due, so it was thought, to our aging minister, Mr. Hodgins. He became frailer and frailer, and almost tottered up the aisle. One time my mother, who had an aisle seat, thought he was going to topple over into her lap!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my reminisces, because I’ve certainly enjoyed sharing them with you. There are many more anecdotes, but alas! My allotted time is up and depositing another nickel wouldn’t buy me any more time from Donna.