Member Testimonies

Have you noticed the print hanging in the vestibule inside the front door at First? It is a reproduction of the “founding’ of the Unitarian religion in 1568 in the town of Torda, Transylvania, in what is now Romania. Francis David is shown proclaiming the principle of religious tolerance. Ministers of the four established religions were to be allowed to preach their beliefs without fear of reprisals - a form of religious toleration. That print is a symbol of my religious journey.

My formative years were spent in Galt now Cambridge Ontario. There, at that time, I learned that people were divided into two groups – “us” the Catholics and “them” the rest. However, my father declined an invitation to join the Catholic men’s group, the Knights of Columbus and chose instead to support the non-sectarian Humane Society. And my mother determined that playing bridge with Protestants was no problem. So my own discomfort with dividing the world into “us and them” was somewhat quieted.

When I came to First in 1991, I got to know and appreciate the Unitarian principles through teaching the Red Group in Religious Education. And through courses such as the Haunting Church, I gained perspective on my early religious background. I trolled the shelves of the library, for a range of theologies. I attended courses on the Muslim faith, joined in a Passover Seder dinner and participated in the in the Humanist Group. I had found a place of religious tolerance, just what I had been looking for.

At First, I encountered the Partner Church Group, a group of seven self-selected members and Hungarian-speaking friends. We set ourselves the goal of furthering communication with our Partner Church Bartok Bela, Budapest. There are major religious differences between the Unitarian churches in North America and in Hungary/Romania, what they share is a fair amount of tolerance of other religions. We had much to learn about each other, which was made possible by sponsored visits to First by the Bartok Bela ministers. In the near future we hope to have Co-Minster Sandor Leta and his wife Erika visit Toronto First.

That is the cutting edge for me. How to both espouse tolerance and to be tolerant. How to see white in black and black in white and not fall in and out of relativism, cynicism and despair. First Unitarian Congregation, and the Partner Church is a platform for me to be “open to the other”. As the saying goes, the most radical thing you can do is talk to one other person.

Last August after staying for a few days at Batok Bela and attending a service there, I traveled to Torda. I stood in the very same church pictured in the print in the vestibule. It is a Catholic Church. The Unitarian Church is a couple of blocks away, one of many that serves the 75,000 Unitarians in Transylvania.

As a post script, after the Sunday service at our Partner Church, Bartok Bela in Budapest the members passed chocolates to honour their special guests from First. Today after the service, in Workman Hall a Partner Church Group member will pass a tray of chocolates and strawberries, our gift to you.

My name is Kalvin Drake, and I'm a Unitarian*Universalist… I've been a Unitarian*Universalist since Tuesday, September 12, 1972… since around 6:30 in the evening…

Of course, I didn't know that I was Unitarian and a Universalist. I didn't even know the terms, let alone a definition of the terms. In fact, I quickly discovered that I definitely wasn't a Unitarian or a Universalist when I read what scant definitions I could find in the encyclopedias and the other books in my teenage bedroom in the North of England.

You see, according to the books I couldn't be a Unitarian or a Universalist because I wasn't a Christian, and I didn't much care whether God came in one, three or 57 varieties. The "ultimate salvation of my soul" wasn't a major concern to me either, since I was confident that whatever "happened to me when I died" would be (or at least should be) determined by how I lived in this life. And if I was wrong, then I knew I'd have some pretty "good" company down there in Hell.

It wasn't until I came to Canada that I associated myself with the labels "Unitarian" and "Universalist". Even then it took some time! Too much time. In the days before that great Unitarian invention, the World Wide Web, it wasn't easy to find you! The definitions I found in the North American reference books were much the same as in the British.

It was only years later that I discovered that, while North American Unitarians and Universalists continue to use Christian terminology, they might mean something quite different! I guess that I, like many others I've talked to, hadn't stuck around long enough to listen to the "small print" that says "Well, when Unitarians say 'Church', 'Sermons' and 'Hymns', they don't mean 'Church', 'Sermons' and 'Hymns' like…" Well, you know what I mean!

In fact, it was only through Humanist and Buddhist groups in Canada that I learned "No, really, take a look at the Unitarians. Fortunately, they are not what the say they are!"

I suspect my story is not unique - and that many of you have stumbled across Unitarianism by accident…

Not only have we ourselves forgone the benefits of being "connected" for much of our short lives, I am convinced that there are countless thousands across this country - and millions across the world - who would be comforted and energized by simply knowing we exist.

And beyond the individual, I have come to believe that Unitarian*Universalism offers not only a religious, but a unique philosophical and political common ground where diverse people can come together from across this fractious planet to solve complex problems with mutual respect and trust.

It is for these reasons that I see the work of the Canadian Unitarian Council as so important, and why I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with such competent staff and volunteers at both the regional level as a Congregational Networker and at the National level as a member of several committees and task forces.

Together, as individual Unitarian*Universalists and as members of the CUC, our work is vital - for the peace and solace of individual hearts and minds, and for the very future of our planet.

Thank you.

Good morning. My name is Bob McKenzie. 50 years ago this month I joined this Congregation. It's hard to believe -- but it's true. I thought after 50 years I should say something wise.

I wasn't born Unitarian. My parents were staunch supporters and lay leaders in the United Church of Canada. It was off to church every Sunday whether I wanted to or not. Sunday school, church services, communion -- the whole lot.

On the whole, it was a positive experience. I enjoyed singing the hymns, hearing the biblical stories and learning what Christianity was about. But I questioned some of it. I remember that phrase "God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" and asking my parents "Who is this Holy Ghost?" I was questioning the concept of the Trinity way back then. During high school and university my attendance fell off -- other interests, studies, etc.

On graduating from U of T in the spring of '52 I was at loose ends. There was a film festival being held at a place on St. Clair called the Unitarian Church. While attending, I became curious about the strange looking church I'd never heard of. I picked up pamphlets in the foyer. It seemed interesting -- this Unitarianism. I started to attend services in the fall of '52. And the rest is history!

I liked everything -- the sermons, lack of dogma, music, it was different from any church I'd attended. In Nov '53 after one of Bill Jenkins rousing sermons I went to him and said I wanted to join the church. He pulled out this ancient looking tome, opened it, and said "Sign here". That's all there was to it! That decision would turn out to be quite significant in my life.

I joined then for a number of reasons: serendipity, curiosity, my religious background, the Unitarian philosophy, the Steinway Grand (I was never crazy about organ music) and the stimulating sermons. The whole package suited me, so I took the plunge.

I've continued to be a member for several reasons. Perhaps the most important is I've stayed involved. By being involved I've always felt a part of this community. I've been on the Board, taught RE, sat on committees galore, fundraising, choir, ushering, property committee and many special events. There's so much going on around here. You soon learn you can't do it all, even when you're retired. Making a contribution results in a good feeling. It makes for a full and interesting life. Without getting involved you aren't capitalizing on all this church has to offer. It's what's kept me coming back all these years.

And of course, my Unitarian beliefs, they still make sense to me, and as a late member Ralph Albrant used to say "You don't need to check your brains in with your coat when you come to the Unitarian Church."

Another reason I've stuck around is "YOU"......yes YOU. All of you. You're an interesting group of people. What a heterogeneous mixture! Different cultural backgrounds, religious origins, personalities ... and you're all so gifted and intelligent. It's amazing.

We've made some wonderful friends and have found a great community here. It makes me feel good to belong. The Sunday services, of course, have remained most satisfying and well executed.

There have been a number of changes over the years -- there was no chalice 15 years ago and no lighting of candles. The architecture and appearance of the building changed dramatically with the renovation. The art work - it all makes coming here an uplifting experience.

I'm fortunate to be healthy. My wife, Olga, feeds me the right things and provides TLC and understanding. Otherwise, I might be 6 feed under by this time and in Unitarian heaven ... If there is one.

I've belonged to this institution longer than I've belonged to anything else in my life, including my marriage. It's been a rewarding and enriching experience. Mark, don't be too hasty in preparing a memorial service for me. There's still some life in the old guy yet. I'm looking forward to the next 50 years!

Pax vobiscum. Merci beaucoup!

A conversation between Cameron and the "Congregation"

My friend, you are not well – and it hurts me to see you like this. You know, friends help each other if one is down – and we have been close friends for over 14 years.

I’m fine, really – what are you talking about?

You know what I’m talking about. Don’t be resigned – that feeling is common with financial stress. Look – you cannot sustain your current lifestyle, your current standard of living.

Be careful what you say to me.

Yes, I know you are nearly 160 years old and have incredible experiences and accomplishments. But I’m talking about your living on the edge hoping the money challenges will resolve themselves. You have many friends who love you – so we are going to make sure you take care of yourself.

I have a destiny – built on a vision. Don’t change who I am. I beg you.

Look – it can lead to good things if you have an open mind. I want to help you – I NEED to help you get to this new outlook.

Things will turn around – did you see the spirit (and money) at the auction last night?

Oh I know my stomach was in knots at Agnes’ event last night. The community – the momentum – the dynamics of the bidding teams – the camaraderie – the children laughing – the spirit.

Was the canvass a success?

Yes, and Catherine’s energy worked wonders too, as did Art and everyone before.

How do you think I need to live?

Me? I think you need to cut your day-to-day costs.

But that would impact staff…they build the hope.

I know, as I said, I’m anxious and it hurts me to think about it. Take for instance:

  • Mark, he married Janet and me.
  • Donna, she has coached me through my Board and other activities.
  • Diane, she encouraged me through my story telling term and created a great community for my children.
  • Peter validated Unitarianism as a religion to my dad
  • Yes…and…

  • the others who manage the building and office, plus the programs, our CUC membership, this building and location
  • I won’t go.

    You are going to resist this change, aren’t you? It is not going to be easy to disrupt your delicate balance. But sometimes to understand who we are we must push ourselves beyond our limit and then deal with the realignment. Come back to the ‘B’ league if we’re not ready for ‘A’, so to speak.

    What’s next?

    Well, we’ve asked your close friends to meet here on the afternoon of November 30 after second service. We will explain the state you have gotten yourself into; let your friends speak about how you are a friend to them and how they think you should change; and we’ll outline the process to how we will decide what to change in February to spend $80K less in 2004.

    What about you // Can I help?

    As I said, I’m anxious about the pending changes; but I’m comfortable they will also create opportunity. I appreciate who I am, and who others around me are, because of you. Oh, yes, I have lots of plans once this is behind us.

    When will you speak with me again?

    We’ll talk again November 30. Till then, take care my friend.

    (being a conversation between Cameron and the "Congregation")
     

    My friend, you are not well – and it hurts me to see you like this. You know, friends help each other if one is down – and we have been close friends for over 14 years.

    I’m fine, really – what are you talking about?

    You know what I’m talking about. Don’t be resigned – that feeling is common with financial stress. Look – you cannot sustain your current lifestyle, your current standard of living.

    Be careful what you say to me.

    Yes, I know you are nearly 160 years old and have incredible experiences and accomplishments. But I’m talking about your living on the edge hoping the money challenges will resolve themselves. You have many friends who love you – so we are going to make sure you take care of yourself.

    I have a destiny – built on a vision. Don’t change who I am. I beg you.

    Look – it can lead to good things if you have an open mind. I want to help you – I NEED to help you get to this new outlook.

    Things will turn around – did you see the spirit (and money) at the auction last night?

    Oh I know my stomach was in knots at Agnes’ event last night. The community – the momentum – the dynamics of the bidding teams – the camaraderie – the children laughing – the spirit.

    Was the canvass a success?

    Yes, and Catherine’s energy worked wonders too, as did Art and everyone before.

    How do you think I need to live?

    Me? I think you need to cut your day-to-day costs.

    But that would impact staff…they build the hope.

    I know, as I said, I’m anxious and it hurts me to think about it. Take for instance:

  • Mark, he married Janet and me.
  • Donna, she has coached me through my Board and other activities.
  • Diane, she encouraged me through my story telling term and created a great community for my children.
  • Peter validated Unitarianism as a religion to my dad
  • Yes…and…

  • the others who manage the building and office, plus the programs, our CUC membership, this building and location
  • I won’t go.

    You are going to resist this change, aren’t you? It is not going to be easy to disrupt your delicate balance. But sometimes to understand who we are we must push ourselves beyond our limit and then deal with the realignment. Come back to the ‘B’ league if we’re not ready for ‘A’, so to speak.

    What’s next?

    Well, we’ve asked your close friends to meet here on the afternoon of November 30 after second service. We will explain the state you have gotten yourself into; let your friends speak about how you are a friend to them and how they think you should change; and we’ll outline the process to how we will decide what to change in February to spend $80K less in 2004.

    What about you // Can I help?

    As I said, I’m anxious about the pending changes; but I’m comfortable they will also create opportunity. I appreciate who I am, and who others around me are, because of you. Oh, yes, I have lots of plans once this is behind us.

    When will you speak with me again?

    We’ll talk again November 30. Till then, take care my friend.

    We Unitarians sometimes like to contrast our liberal faith with that of "traditional religions", emphasizing the modern, broad-minded, inclusive character of our own with the opposite characteristics of some others. Ours must be a creature of enlightened 20th century North America, wouldn’t you say? Well, your sceptical response is right, our liberal faith did not originate either in the 20th century or in North America.

    We are just the latest beneficiaries of centuries of liberal religious thought and engagement with the world. Modern liberal religion arose in Central Europe in the middle of the 16th century and put down its sturdiest roots in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania. In stark contrast with most of Europe at that time, Transylvania enjoyed a high degree of religious tolerance, at least among the four major faith traditions that were well established there, including Unitarianism. The high point of those early years came when Francis David, a priest who had converted to Unitarianism through his own study of the bible, succeeded in convincing King John Sigsmund, and the Diet (or parliament) meeting in the town of Torda, to issue an edict institutionalizing that official toleration. It provided that no citizen could be persecuted because of his or her religious beliefs. The year was 1568, and the Unitarian Michael Servetus had been burned at the stake in Geneva by John Calvin for expressing his beliefs only 15 years earlier.

    Now let’s segue to the late 20th century and the Partner Church Program. This program began as an effort by North American Unitarian Universalists to save Transylvanian villages from demolition by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu. Once that danger had passed, North Americans realized how rewarding their interaction with the Transylvanians had been for participants on both sides of the Atlantic. So instead of folding up, the Partner Church Program expanded to include Hungary and several other countries. Our congregation "signed up" for the program in 1994, and we were paired with Budapest Second Unitarian Church, which is now renamed for Bela Bartok whose family were members.

    In recent years, we have brought two successive ministers of our partner church to Canada to get to know us. The first one, Jozsef Kaszoni, is now the minister of First Unitarian Church of Budapest, the cathedral church in Hungary. The second one, Csaba Razmany, has now become the Unitarian Bishop of Hungary, though he retains his position as senior minister of Bela Bartok Unitarian Church. Our Partner Church Group is now corresponding with the new assistant minister of Bela Bartok, Sandor Leta, who was brought in from Transylvania to take over the day-to-day ministerial work from Csaba. We had hoped to bring Sandor to Toronto this Spring, but his Romanian passport wouldn’t allow it.

    A number of our members including Ellen and myself have also visited our partners in Budapest. Last August following an international meeting in Budapest, the two of us spent a memorable afternoon with Sandor and his very charming young family, which reminded me that our Hungarian counterparts have a great deal to give us North Americans; our partner relationship is certainly not a one-way street. Our relationship challenges us to recognize our faith as the result of a long period of development, not as a New Age Johnny-come-lately on the religious scene. It also challenges us to apply our avowed principles of tolerance and appreciation for diversity to their more conservative theology and traditional institutional forms. And they have things to learn from us such as the way our ministers and congregations interact in a non-hierarchical way.

    We also toured parts of Transylvania after the meeting with a busload of (mostly) other Unitarians, led by the assistant to the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania. Among other places we visited was the ancient Roman Catholic church in Torda from which the Edict was issued. The interior looked like it had hardly changed in 4½ centuries. How do I know? Because there is a famous painting depicting Francis David orating before King John and members of the Diet. The resulting Proclamation of Religious Freedom is so important in liberal religious history that this painting can be found hanging in every Unitarian church in Central Europe. In fact, Jozsef Kaszoni recently wondered aloud how there could be a Unitarian church without this painting on the wall. Well, we’re going to have to rectify that. Your Partner Church Group is proud to donate the Edict of Torda to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.