Member Testimonies

[can of diet coke/bottle of Happy Planet’s Extreme Green juice on the pulpit]

May seem that this "show and tell" is an odd way to start a testimony, but for me, this Diet Coke and this Extreme Green represent my foray into "wild space".

It all started when I gave up my job in corporate communications to work at Evergreen, a non-profit dedicated to bringing nature back to our cities. It was quite a switch from communications in the financial services industry. When I made the move, my agency friends thought it was a great fit because I was so "earthy". The Evergreen circle thought I was really corporate.

It was a harmless exchange – a colleague and I were taking a moment’s break, and I asked with disdain what he was drinking and so he read me the ingredients that were going to fuel his body. … fresh-pressed apple juice, banana, passion fruit and plum puree, lemon juice, spirulina, lecithin, alfalfa, kelp, barley and stinging nettle - all organic of course). And then the inevitable, I’ve shown you mine… now you show me yours… What’s in that he asked? … carbonated water, caramel colour, phosphoric and citric acid, aspartame, flavours, sodium benzoate, caffeine, acesulfame-potassium.

All I can say is "garbage in, garbage out". It was an addiction, but a mild one, and over the course of the next couple of months, I kicked the habit.

It didn’t seem like much at the time, but looking back, I see it as a moment of truth. Since that time, I have moved further and further into this "wild space" and away from conventional society.

Three years ago, my food and most of the rest of my life revolved around convenience. My job was all- consuming, and my diet consisted of take-out or frozen food. Diet Coke was the caffeine hit that I needed to keep up with the frenetic pace. I didn’t give much thought to what lay behind my food choices or the impact they had on my health and the environment.

Like most people, much of my food consumption was influenced by advertising. Think about this: In the U.S., Kellogg’s spends 40 million dollars annually to promote Frosted Flakes. And that’s U.S. dollars! McDonalds spends 800 million dollars annually to promote its products. And in contrast, the U.S. National Cancer Institute spends a mere million dollars promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables. And I’ll bet these advertising spends don’t include Olympic-year coverage!

Those statistics, and lots of other ones, come from a book that has had a huge impact on me. It’s called "The Food Revolution" by John Robbins, of the Baskin and Robbins clan, who gave up the family fortune to become a vegetarian activist. He writes about the health benefits and the positive environmental effects of a plant-based diet.

The book is meticulous in its detail and shocking in its revelations. It’s greatest strength comes from the contrasting claims by lobby groups, such as the U.S. Cattleman’s association, who gain from maintaining the status quo, and respected environmental and health organizations, working outside the mainstream, to save our fragile world.

If my encounter with "extreme green" caught my attention, it was this book that stopped me in my tracks. I developed a more critical eye of conventional society and what we are marketed to believe. It made towing the party line no longer possible. It was wild space all right.

So, being a vegetarian for the last several months has made me more conscious about what I eat and the products I buy. I enrolled in an amazing vegetarian cooking class, and earlier this year I joined a natural food co-op. Just like First, it is a community of people supporting each other in their own, deliberate choices. Some are vegans, some vegetarians, while others eat meat from grain- fed animals - but each member is making conscious choices. Members work two hours a month in return for a great selection of organic produce, cheap prices, environmentally friendly packaging and a sense of cooperation.

I have found in both places that the mix of people and their ideas stimulate and help me to keep on track. They support me in my journey and give me confidence that I am not alone in the search for a better, more intentional way to live.

And things change. As individuals and societies learn and grow, it is clusters of wild spaces and their momentum that move conventional society. A few years ago, organic produce was perceived as a tiny niche, a luxury items for hard-core tree huggers. It would have been inconceivable that organic fruits and vegetables would one day line the aisles of Loblaws. Acceptable norms are pushed as people develop a heightened awareness of the interconnected web of existence.

In community, my boundaries are continually kept in check. To close, I’d like to quote a short excerpt from the co-op’s newsletter that describes a line of personal care products they carry. When I read it, I knew I had taken my next step into the wild….

"Ah, but they’re expensive, right? Well, yes, they are. But only because we’ve become accustomed to the idea that personal care products (and food) cost what the multi-national companies say they cost. They don’t - they cost more. Buying products from companies such as Aubrey – which pays its suppliers fair-market value for plant-sourced goods, hand-crafts each batch, and uses quality ingredients – means paying more than you’d pay a multi-national conglomerate that uses the cheapest possible ingredients and mixes them up in factories with enough chemicals for them to sit on the shelf for a decade or two. Which would you rather smooth all over you skin?"

Good morning. My name is Margaret Vandenbroucke. I’ve been a member of this congregation for 18 years and I’m currently serving on the Board of Trustees.

I first encountered Leonard at the greeters’ table several years ago. I have to admit that he was a fearsome looking character with his long tangled hair, lurching gait and features that reminded me of an aboriginal mask. Leonard was a regular in Out of the Cold and though usually inebriated, he never became violent with others, at least in my experience. In the interests of a peaceful environment, I would tentatively approach him, say a few words to show my concern and listen. I seemed to have, or liked to think I had, a small calming effect on him. A couple of times when he was sober he told me about his home on Manitoulin Island, and about his brother, the carpenter who lived there. I discovered an intelligent and very sensitive person and realized I felt drawn to him. One time seeing him weaving along Bloor Street, I stopped to talk and heard that a friend, also living on the streets, had just died. He was obviously in more than usual pain and I expressed my genuinely felt sympathy. At the end of that season I overheard Leonard say that he didn’t expect he would make it through another summer. Sure enough the next November he didn’t reappear. For a long time I was afraid to ask his pal, Carl, about Leonard, fearing the worst. Finally this fall I summoned the courage and learned that he had returned to Manitoulin, had some work and was mostly not drinking. I can’t tell you the huge relief and even joy I felt in that moment. I realized that I truly cared what happened to Leonard and that a real, if mysterious, bond of empathy had developed between us despite the striking differences in our lives.

Looking back on my early life I can see that the desire to help those in need was there from the beginning. I remember wanting to reach out to John Henhawke, child of the only native family in town who came to school in shabby clothes and was consistently ignored by both students and teachers. But my natural reserve held me back. In my late teens summer jobs with the Children’s Aid Society gave expression to this urge to be of service. It was also a revelation to me, a child of relative affluence, of the hidden poverty that existed right under my nose.

Nurture also played a major role. My father, a small town lawyer, was a leader in community service organizations and in his church. He also practised legal aid long before it existed as public policy in Ontario. His sense of responsibility for community, respect for the law, and the fairness and concern shown in his dealings with everyone, were strong influences on me. These values also fuelled my growing anger at social inequities and injustices and at the conditions that perpetuated them. The ethical position I arrived at in early adulthood and which has only strengthened over time is, simply put, that it is a scandal that some live in poverty without the basic necessities of life while others live in luxury. It is a position rooted both in feelings of empathy and compassion and in reflection on my experiences and observations.

Out of the Cold has always meant for me not only an opportunity to be of service and to connect personally with people in need but also an expression of social conscience. While Out of the Cold provides some temporary relief for the homeless and near homeless, it in no way replaces the need for a permanent, decent place to call home. I needed to work on solutions, my analytical tendencies coming to the fore. And so I have learned about the many pieces of the homelessness crisis, I attend meetings of advocacy groups and City councillors, and contact politicians in the attempt to be an advocate for measures that would begin to solve this deplorable situation.

In the end I think we all do what we do because we derive satisfaction, self-fulfilment and a sense of purpose from these actions, though we may never fully understand what produces them. What keeps me going and gives me hope? I am under no illusions that my limited efforts and abilities will on their own make much of an impact on the big picture. But I do believe that working collectively with others motivated by the same goals can and does have a positive impact on individual lives and even on public policy. Though it has been a long time in coming, a national affordable housing program, without which little progress on homelessness can be made, is on the horizon. On the individual level there are sometimes victories which help to make it all worthwhile as when Out of the Cold guests find work or housing. As when Leonard somehow managed to get control over his demons and to find his way back home.

On September 11th, the world was rocked by monstrous acts of violence against thousands of unsuspecting, innocent people, carried out by a handful of demented, suicidal zealots whose motives are still a mystery.

The United States, backed by Britain and other members of NATO, mobilized for war.

At Pearson International Airport, a security guard, who challenges an armed man dressed as a cop, is arrested, while in the airport in Charlottetown, that hot-bed of international terrorism, a 71-year-old war veteran is jailed for uttering the B word.

Emergency services in Toronto are swamped by calls from panic-stricken citizens who are terrified by the thought that the white powder they may have contacted might be anthrax spores.

The newspapers editorialize about the need to suspend civil liberties in order to protect our freedom.

A medical colleague of mine, an American citizen, is strip-searched at Logan Airport—because he is East Indian.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

William Bulter Yeats

I am Joe Clarke. I have been a Unitarian-Universalist for over 35 years, and a member of many UU congregations in Canada and the U.S. I was drawn to the movement in Edmonton in the early 1960s by the uncompromising stand it took on issues of social justice and the central role many of its members played in the massive social revolution that overtook the western world in that decade. The death of James Reeb, a Unitarian minister murdered in the course of the Selma marches of 1965, had a profound effect on me. I joined the church.

In the tireless and often dangerous defense of freedom and fairness, and service to the human community, ours is a strong tradition. The UU hagiography includes:

Joseph Priestley, scientist, social activist

Florence Nightingale, social activist

Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President

Henry David Thoreau, social activist

Clara Barton, social activist

Dorothea Dix, social activist

Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate scientist, social activist

Joseph Workman, Canadian physician, social activist

Emily Stowe, Canadian physician, social activist

Nellie McClung, Canadian lawyer, social activist

Douglas Fisher, Canadian politician, social activist

Brock Chisholm, Canadian physician, first Director General of the WHO

Michael Servetus, martyr

"But what can I do?" we ask. I am no Jefferson or Pauling. And I am not really up to martyrdom.

The seven UU principles, do not speak of martyrdom. What they do embrace is a set of guidelines for the way we live our lives, which includes the recognition that we are social beings, an integral part of the human community. We are, as Francis Bacon said, "…citizens of the world..no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them." Or as John Donne reminded us, "…any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…". At the most basic level, it seems to me, that to live our principles, aggressively and consistently, is the most important way for us to deal with the anarchy that has been loosed upon our world. It follows that whatever works we do, at whatever level, in whatever context, will serve, by example, to make ours a better world.

The enemy is not the Taliban—it is the panic, sense of helplessness, directionlessness, paranoia, and abandonment of reason, that has gripped the nation. Unitarians have historically played a role far beyond their numbers in the defense of freedom, justice and democracy. Florence Nightingale, Joseph Workman, Brock Chisholm—they were just 'doing their jobs'. And who would have guessed that thousands of ordinary individuals, impelled by nothing more noble or complex than a drive to do right, and armed only with pen and paper, could, working with the guidance of Amnesty International, more entire nations?

As Margaret Mead said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. indeed it's the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Community has many dimensions. At one level, it is a transcendental phenomenon that is more easily experienced than described. It is a feeling of group, laden with paradox—sincere and warm respect for individuality, coupled with a profound sense of the whole being somehow greater than the sum of the parts.

At another, more prosaic level, the gathering of people together here at 175 St. Clair West would probably not occur at all without the institution of First—the building, and the efforts of the ministers, the staff, and countless volunteers.

Now here comes the pitch. Today marks the official launching of the 2002 canvass, to raise enough money, through pledges of financial support, to support the institution that provides the place and the environment for our community to blossom and thrive. Financial support is to the institution of First like food is to the body—essential for life. It does not guarantee community, especially that transcendental sense of community that makes First our home. But without it, the congregation would surely be doomed.

Please read over the pledge package material carefully and reflect on how many ways your donation helps to nourish and sustain the sense of community at Toronto First.

The Lighthouse

At the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, where the St. Lawrence River meets the Gulf of St. Lawrence Peninsula, there is a lighthouse. It is not a tall one, but it stands atop a 200-foot cliff. I visited this lighthouse once, in 1976. But I have known it, through story and legend, all my life.

The lighthouse keeper in the last half of the 19th century was my great-grandfather. My grandmother was born at the lighthouse in 1876.

As a child, I loved to listen to her stories about what it was like to live in a lighthouse. She was the oldest of three daughters. When she was 10 years old, her mother died in childbirth, along with a fourth daughter. In the absence of a mother, she raised her younger sisters. In the absence of a son, she helped her father with the light. In foggy weather, she shot off a cannon every 10 minutes to warn sailors away from the cliff. When she had time, she went to school in the town of Gaspé, a five-mile walk through the forest. There were bears in the forest…

As a child, I thought she had a fairytale childhood. As an adult, I appreciate the hardships of her life. It is her strong sense of duty and responsibility that resonates with me now, which has come down to me through my father, her son.

I have been told I have an over-developed sense of duty. I take this as a compliment. I know I came by it honestly! It was a sense of duty that brought me to this congregation – a duty to myself.

When I turned 50, I did some soul-searching and made some decisions about myself. I decided that I needed to pay some attention to my spiritual life after a lifetime focused on education and career. I needed to find a new community because I was thinking of early retirement and the only community I had at that time was my colleagues at work. And I wanted to start to give back, to contribute, although I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

I knew instinctively that what I needed was to be a practicing Unitarian. I had discovered the Unitarian church as a university student in Ottawa. After moving to Toronto, I attended this congregation sporadically in the late 1960’s. I have considered myself a Unitarian all my adult life. But it was only when I turned 50 and began to think about my future that I felt the need for this place. I became a member of this congregation a month after my 50th birthday.

At First Unitarian, I have satisfied my need for spiritual growth, community and volunteering in ways that have surpassed my expectations.

Here, I have the time, the challenge, and the encouragement to grow spiritually. I derive strength, self-knowledge, and inspiration from Sunday services and weekday programs. I have also found role models here, people who set a wonderful example and motivate me to be my best self.

Here, I have found people I care about and who care about me. I have widened my circle through social gatherings, programs, and especially through volunteering. Here, we have a caring community who come together in times of crisis to demonstrate their concern for each other and for the wider world. I’m thinking of the vesper service following the recent terrorist attack in the United States, and our Hurricane Mitch relief effort.

And here, I have found ways to serve that are meaningful for me: preparing meals for the Out of the Cold program, building a school for Mayan women in Guatemala. I am proud of all the ways people in this congregation live out their convictions through social action. I have also found that I can use my talents very effectively by volunteering right here -- as a convenor, an office volunteer, or working on the Book Bash to raise funds for the work of this church.

It comes as a surprise to me now, eight years later, to realize how much First Unitarian matters to me. It is a mainstay in my life. I feel a responsibility to help provide the resources it needs, not just to carry on, but to thrive. I play my part by giving of my time and talents, and through my financial contribution. I do this as a duty to myself and a responsibility to you, the members and friends of this congregation. It is like a family obligation, the way my grandmother looked after her family.

I also want First Unitarian to be a beacon for others out there who haven’t found us yet -- who may come to us next week, next year, or in generations to come. I want us to be a strong, vibrant force in the community. It meant so much to me to have this place to come to when I needed it. I feel a duty to keep our light shining for future members who I may never meet, as my grandmother felt a duty to strangers sailing in ships at sea off the coast of Gaspe.

My grandmother died 40 years ago at the age of 85. The lighthouse is still there -- now automatic, unstaffed, a tourist attraction in Forillon National Park -- but still a beacon to ships at sea and a light in my heart.

I thought this would be easy...a simple testimonial. I usually jump on any opportunity to stand up before a crowd and spiel on about what I am thinking or doing. In fact, the problem is usually... how to get me to stop. Yet for some reason, as I sat down to compose my testimonial I found myself on a slippery slope of endlessly connected ideas. I became dizzy and frustrated. I was trying to write it all.... to compose a Grand Unified Testimonial, which would gather all the significant moments and ideas of my life, the grand existential themes, the historical contingencies....all coalescing into a shining crystal ball that would reveal my true essence clearly as a radiant ball of light.

But of course, that was asking a bit much. I decided to work with this frustration and reflect on its roots, with the understanding that breakthroughs and insights often lie in wait within such symptoms.

The main difficulty lay in my observation that every event, every idea and every feeling in my life that seemed to lead to my being here was connected, backwards and forwards, to every other one. I didn't know where to make the boundaries... what to keep and what to cut. But human existence is essentially holographic. The totality of experience is broken down by remembrances, by the telling of our myths, into fractional, discrete and necessarily incomplete units. And any of these units, thoughtfully retold, can reveal to ourselves, and to those who share in our myths, the totality of our experience. So I didn't need to compose a Grand Unified Testimonial... a brief excerpt of my larger story must suffice.

So..... why am I here? Like so many of us, the path that led me here cuts right through the Garden of Eden. I was brought up in a conservative (Missouri synod) Lutheran household, though not a particularly strict nor pious one. When it came time for college, I realized that resolving the questions of philosophy and theology were more important to me than establishing a career or getting a regular job, so I enrolled in the pre-ministerial program at a conservative Lutheran college, majoring in philosophy and Biblical languages. You may think I would have studied religion and theology, but the synod preferred that we wait until seminary for these subjects, to assure that we were taught with appropriate orthodox purity.

For 3 years I wrestled with biblicism, the relationships between belief and faith, theology and philosophy, and science and religion. Upon graduation I went to a conservative seminary for a brief year. On a personal level, I was far too introverted and shy to succeed in such a public office as ministry. On an ideological level, I could no longer abide by conservative religion, no matter how I manipulated and reshaped it. "Wrong" I cried, as I left and moved on to a more "liberal" seminary. By then however, my will had diminished, and I found the liberal brand of Lutheranism patronizing forced, and sentimental. The old beliefs had been watered down to the point that I almost preferred the constraining yet robust old dogmatic religion I had left. My "wrong" changed to an uninspired "whatever". I dropped out, leaving with a whimper, not a bang. I retreated to a world of 3-Stooges and Mel Brooks. My philosophy books became covered in dust, the old hymns that moved me so much were replaced with show tunes.... and I slipped into a slow, quiet discontentment. As the mystics would say, I had descended into the "hazy twilight of the soul".

Last January, my soulmate and partner Deb suggested we check out the Unitarian church. I'd heard of Unitarianism before, but it sounded like just another "ism", one with a Unitarian, rather than Trinitarian language... and like so much else, I shrugged it off. Yet for some reason that day, before I was even aware, I said "sure". We bundled up against the cold and found our way here. Coincidentally... or not...it was new member Sunday. The 15 years that had passed since I last attended church dissolved, and I immediately felt at home. But home was a little different from what I remembered. The hymns sounded familiar, yet had strange new words... the prayers to a god were replaced with a meditation.... and perhaps most importantly... the "answers" from the pulpit were usurped by questions.... a church that liked... that embraced ...questions.

From my first visit, when Donna's sermon focused on the first of our seven principles, right up to last weeks sermon with Peter's allusion to Indra's net... every Sunday service manages to touch upon some idea or concern I am wrestling with. I have always asked questions, believing I could find answers. But questions must be lived. As Rilke wrote, " Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."