Member Testimonies

Good Morning. I’m Ilene Cummings and I’m currently a Lay Chaplain for this congregation. Today we say thank you to Harriet Xanthakos and Ken MacKerracher who have completed their four-year terms as Lay Chaplains and officially welcome aboard our two new Lay Chaplains, Beverley Grace and Tracey Szarka who began their terms in October. As the one in the middle, having completed two years and with a further two years to go, I have been asked to give this morning’s testimony.

I’ve been a member of this congregation a long time and have had the privilege of participating in many roles here. Over the years I’ve been a member of the Board, the chair of the Arts Committee, the Religious Education director, the chair of the Caring Committee, Sunday Worship leader, a member of the Pastoral Care committee plus a more than twenty-five year member of the choir. But I must say, I’m enjoying this experience as Chaplain as much or more than any of those other opportunities. (At least so it seems right now.) However, at the end of October, having had only one free weekend since June first, I was very relieved NOT to have any weddings scheduled in November!

I performed my first wedding on April 28, 2001 and have now officiated at nearly fifty weddings. To be precise, next Saturday will be my forty-ninth wedding—my apologies in advance, I won’t be able to attend the Christmas potluck this year. Each wedding is a mini-adventure for the Lay Chaplain. There are of course, similarities between the ceremonies, but no wedding is identical to another. And there is a whole new cast of characters at each wedding. It’s a great privilege to enter into the lives of couples who are getting married and I feel I’ve gained as much as I’ve given in this role as Lay Chaplain. I am also proud of the Unitarian materials we offer for the ceremonies and the way we allow our couples to take an active part in the planning of their ceremony.

People ask me what’s the most memorable wedding I’ve done and I can mention the one on-board a sailing yacht last summer or the Unitarian-Hindu ceremony done right here at First Unitarian the previous summer—but of course, the most memorable wedding for me personally was the opportunity to perform our son Chris’s wedding to Pat Joyes on August 3rd this year . I certainly never expected that would be one of the blessings of the job when I applied for the position in spring 2000. But what a privilege!

In addition to weddings, Lay Chaplains are also called upon to do memorial services and child dedications from time to time. I have done seven memorial services and four child dedications. When I mention memorial services, people always say, that must be so hard and yes it is hard but not only in the ways you might immediately imagine. It is unsettling to be called upon to do a memorial service as they often come up quickly and you have to be willing to cancel planned events and fit them into your schedule somehow. But it can be very satisfying too when you find the right readings for the service and put together a eulogy for the deceased—this feeling of helping people through a difficult time. At home I practice and practice saying the words until I can say them without getting all choked up—memorial services are emotional even when you didn’t personally know the person who died. By the time of the service you’ve had long talks with family and friends of the deceased and you almost feel you did know the person.

There are of course some disadvantages to being a Lay Chaplain. The major one is that you can’t take long summer vacations because every weekend you have weddings. The wedding season lasts from June through September and May and October can also be busy. Fortunately the rest of the year is not nearly as busy so the three of us can spell each other off. In February John and I are heading to Cuba for two weeks and I’m really looking forward to that.

I’d just like to add a word of thanks to Harriet and Ken for all their help when I was first starting out. It’s been a pleasure to be chaplain colleagues. And welcome, Beverley and Tracey. I hope you find Lay Chaplaincy as much fun as I do. And I’m sure Harriet, Ken, Beverley and Tracey all join me in thanking all of you for allowing us the privilege of acting as Lay Chaplains on your behalf.

Thank you.

What drew me to Leadership and the Board.

A year ago I said that the timing was right in my personal and spiritual growth path to engage in a leadership role with the Board of our Congregation. I wanted to contribute to a community-oriented, nonprofessional organization that respected the concept of a vision; that was caring; and had unlimited potential for growth. In exchange for the opportunity to serve in this role I offered my community and professional experience and my willingness to embrace the work at hand.

My vision was that I could strengthen the Congregation’s governance; orient the Congregation’s capabilities to help build the unfolding national community; and yes, just help keep the place running.

Being sensorial I prefer to grow through experience, not through study. Of the many Small Groups that I could have joined I thought the Board would best enable me to embody the principles of this organization. The Board may not be a quiet, contemplative, meditation group. But it is a Small Group with its own rituals, exploration of meaning, and interface to the rest of the congregation.

So, where am I in my growth?

After the first item of the first Board meeting I chaired – I barely survived a non-confidence vote. By my third meeting I couldn’t construct an agenda with relevant content. Then I heard that voice that told me I was missing an opportunity and needed to redirect my energy. Of course, the voice was Donna’s and the message was to engage the Board in the shared responsibility of owning the future and mobilizing around a vision. So at that meeting we established a small vision. Interesting for me, the team’s vision did not match mine of a year ago. Instead of governance, national identity and survival we had intimacy, local identity and celebration.

Through my Board experience I have experienced how leadership goes beyond management, beyond the governance process that enables management, and beyond the establishment of a vision. It is not found in dealing with administrative details, not in lobbying for volunteers to do initiatives, and certainly not in waiting for guidance. And the test for success? Does this organization support your individual ministry and service for a common good?

My name is Art Brewer and I’m a member of this congregation. I’m also Project Manager for our Growth Project, so I extend a special welcome to our visitors today. At 1st Unitarian, we have set a goal to attain a net increase in our membership of 27 adults this year. 25 have already joined, and another 21 will join next week, so we’ll easily meet our target.

Why do we want to grow? Most of us feel we have found something quite unique in our Unitarian Universalist faith and we believe it’s worth sharing. That’s challenging for us, because we don’t proselytize or evangelize. Let me just say: this religion is not like others. So, if you’re visiting today, and have been suspicious of – or perhaps even "burned by" - organized religion, I congratulate you on your attendance today, and encourage you to come back a few times to see just how different we are.

The sign outside our entrance says "WARNING: Entering here may seriously change your life." In her sermon last week, Laura Friedman, our Intern Minister asked "How many Unitarians does it take to change a life?" In my case, the answer is about 400. I joined this congregation in 1993, and that’s how many members we had then. As I came to know the people here, I realized that –unlike most religious communities- this is a safe place for a gay man.

So, in 1997, I came out to the congregation in a testimony like the one I’m delivering right now. I was 53, and had spent 40 years living a very single, solitary life in the closet. This was a life changing event. Well, not really an event. Coming out is a never-ending process because our heterosexist society leads most of us to assume that people we meet are "straight." I have more friends now -of all sexual and affectional orientations and gender identities - than ever before, and I consider these to be the best years of my life. Here, my sexuality is acknowledged and affirmed when appropriate. The only closets we need at 1st Unitarian are the ones in which people hang their clothes. But my sexuality is also ignored when appropriate. This is exactly as it should be. My sexuality is only a part of who I am, and a faith community like ours reaches the zenith of its potential when it cradles its members in their hurt, welcomes them in their diversity, and facilitates their opportunities to change the world.

In 1998, this congregation voted unanimously to become a Welcoming Congregation (capital W, capital C). A Welcoming Congregation is one which has completed a program and publicly affirms that it welcomes the membership and active participation of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and/or transgender people.

With this as the backdrop, Laura’s question ("How many Unitarians does it take to change a life?") for me, morphed into "How many lives can this Unitarian change?" I have become a Welcoming Congregation activist. While two-thirds of Canada’s Unitarians belong to officially certified Welcoming Congregations, many have still not done the program. During the past year, I have delivered a Sunday service speech (call it a sermon if you wish) on this program to six Unitarian congregations in Ontario. On half of those occasions, members came out to their congregations right after the service. I believe I helped change some lives. Next week, I’ll lead a workshop on the Welcoming Congregation program at one of our Vancouver congregations. Yesterday, I was asked if I would be interested in addressing the Albany, New York Unitarian Universalist society.

One of my other passions is service to this congregation. Because of all it gives to me, I am happy to contribute my time, talent, energy and money. There are many rewarding opportunities. This year, I am serving as leader of our All-Member Canvass, the campaign to receive pledges of financial contributions from members and friends for our 2003 operating budget. It costs about half a million dollars a year to keep this community operating.

This is the first time in fifteen years that we have run our annual pledge campaign as an All-Member Canvass. How does it work? Every member becomes an active participant in the process. In small, informal, face-to-face meetings, we discuss the role of this congregation in our lives, and the valuable work we carry out in the larger community. These discussions help us to develop a renewed understanding of our individual and collective missions - "who" and "why" we are in the world. There is a very real link between our mission and our money, or at least there should be. We hope that this year’s canvass approach will help people determine a pledge that reflects their mission and how they honour it through membership in this community.

As leader of the Canvass this year, I’ve carefully considered my approach to charitable donations. I’ve thought about what 1st Unitarian has done for me. I’ve thought about how wealthy I am compared to so many in the world. I’ve thought about my giving potential. I’ve thought about all the good work carried out by people in this and other Unitarian congregations...from Out-of-the Cold volunteer work in Toronto, to social justice issues in Canada, to helping build schools, women’s shelters and housing in Central America. I’ve even looked at old income tax returns and realized that my approach to giving in the past has been ad hoc and reactive. From now on, it will be proactive. Starting this year, I’ll pledge 3% of my before tax income to Toronto 1st. I’ll give additional amounts to the Canadian Unitarian Council and other charitable organizations on a planned basis. 3% seems like such a tiny portion of my income for an institution that is so important to me, so I’m considering increasing that percentage in future. If everyone gave 3%, we’d easily cover our operating budget. If you’re a member or friend of this congregation, please consider pledging 3% of your before tax income. If you’re a visitor, allow me to put this testimony in perspective. We don’t talk about this stuff every Sunday! Our annual pledge campaign is only held once a year. You just happened to visit when we’re doing it. And if 3% seems like a lot, consider that an average wage earner in Canada would spend as much on a couple of cups of coffee each day.

More than one hundred members are actively working on the canvass now, and we’re planning to finish the project by October 31st. To all who have participated to date, I say "thank you!"

There are still several openings for Canvassers. It’s a short term volunteer opportunity that requires only a few hours in the coming weeks, and provides an occasion to spend some time with another member whose company you enjoy, or to get to know one of our newer members. We’re not asking you to ask others for money. I know many feel uncomfortable doing that. We’re asking you to share your stories about your relationships with Toronto 1st. If this seems like something you’d be willing to contribute to this community, please see me after the service.

My name is Pat Skippon; I have been a Unitarian Universalist for many years, since the day I walked into the UU Community Church in Santa Monica, California. There I found my spiritual home, and I have never looked back. After I returned to Toronto, First Unitarian Congregation became that home for me, and for most of the intervening years. I have always been an active member here, serving on committees, leading workshops and, my great love, singing in the choir.

All this changed four years ago when, after a period of unusual fatigue, I underwent medical tests, and was diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer called Myelodysplasia. It is thought to be caused by environmental factors.

This was devastating news to me, and to my partner, Jeannelle. Our information from the Internet was frightening. Some patients die within months. We eventually found out that my category of the disease was given 2 to 5 years, and we set about learning to live with that diagnosis. It has changed our lives dramatically. Because of fatigue I have had to give up evening activities, including, to my sorrow, the choir. Traveling has become increasingly difficult requiring finally, wheelchairs and other supports .

For three years little changed except that my hemoglobin was very slowly dropping, until last February when I needed a blood transfusion. I have had four so far, and I am now dependent on transfusions about every 8 weeks.

Although my quality of life has diminished somewhat, my zest for life has not. I exercise, read, paint and continue some morning activities here at the church. All this is possible because of the help of my partner, Jeannelle, and my extended family.

I have been blessed by the support of this religious community. Mark and Donna are available whenever I need to talk. Shortly after my diagnosis, two women from Interweave visited, bringing a long list of tasks the group was prepared to help with. We haven’t needed the help as yet, but were deeply touched by the offer. And I always find someone here willing to listen when I feel down, and to cheer me on when things look better.

I was going to talk about facing my death, but right now I can think only of my sister, who is slowly and peacefully dying in palliative care. My fear and grief for her are mixed with feelings about my own death. Since I have no belief in an afterlife, I am thankful to be here and sustained in this place as I continue on my journey.

Good morning. . My name is Margaret Joyce and I am here this morning to share with you my second anniversary as a Unitarian and a member of First. One year ago I stood here and shared my first anniversary with you. I promise not to make a habit of this, but this past year has been for me a year of choices and having to make decisions. I felt the need to share my experience of decision making with someone else. Perhaps there may be others among you who have faced a problem similar to mine.

The year 2001 was a year of change in the whole Church community. As you are aware, at the annual meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council in May delegates voted to transfer the delivery of most services from the U.S. based Association to the CUC., an historic decision. Here in our own congregation at the annual meeting in June, the majority approved the publishing of banns for same-sex marriages. Another decision.. As the year progressed we were asked to explore the roots of our faith and to decide whether we were theists, humanists, mystics or naturalists. Decisions again.

While I had no problem with most of these choices, one in particular gave me cause for concern. I simply could not approve the conclusion regarding the publishing of banns. What was I to do? Was I to accept the majority decision or was I to leave the church because I disapproved of one of its policies? First Unitarian had become my spiritual home. Could I give it up? Could I give up the fellowship and inspiration of the Sunday morning services that sustained me, not just for the day but all week? Could I give up Daytimers and my friends there? Who would take my place on my monthly Sunday of duty at the Welcome Table?

My dilemma refused to go away. I found that not only was I unable to decide what to do, I became aware of feelings of anger and resentment at the source of my unhappiness. Finally, after much soul searching and some loss of sleep I took my problem to Mark.

In his wisdom he did not advise me what to do. He realized that the decision had to be mine. He did however help me by pointing out that Unitarian Universalism is a democracy. Decisions are made by the will of the majority. Unitarians are known for their tendency to discuss and debate issue. Even on the Internet arguments have been know to flourish between the theists, humanists and mystics. Rarely is there 100% agreement on any issue.

Our discussion gave me much food for thought. I remembered back to the dim distant past of my school days and my struggles with math. Somewhere, I think it had to do with geometry and angles, was a theory that stated that the whole is the sum of its parts. Transferring that theory to my situation the whole is the church community; its parts are its members, policies, beliefs and traditions. On the back of the Order of Service we read that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, acceptance of one another and the right of conscience. These covenants too are some of the parts that make up the whole.

I have come to think of the church as a family. In a good family you accept and love all of its members, even those whose views differ from yours. Thinking this way made me realize how insignificant my problem was in the whole picture. I did not have to give up my "safe haven in a hectic world" just because I disagreed with one of its parts.

As you see I am still here. I did not leave. Next week I will celebrate my birthday, a significant one this year because it will bring me closer to 90 than I am to 80. I look forward to spending my remaining years within the circle of this warm caring community of Toronto First, my spiritual home.