Member Testimonies

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."

My name is Christine Johnston and I was the historian here for 28 years.  My life has been profoundly affected by being involved in the history and archives of this congregation and by writing the biography of its key founder. It has meant many hours spent on quiet treasure hunts; it has meant heated discussions over what really went on here 150 years ago amongst Toronto's Unitarians; and it meant giving a 5 minute preamble before each Workman lecture, and thus researching the life and work of the fascinating key founder of First, Dr. Joseph Workman.

When I realized that no book had been written about this world-renowned doctor, psychiatrist and social reformer, I decided that my first retirement project would be writing his biography. Most medical historians were not too keen on the Unitarian sections and finally we decided to have it published in Victoria where i could keep control of the content. That process was an education!

What has happened since has surprised me. All writers have to promote their books but I had not realized that this meant becoming a traveling missionary for historic Canadian Unitarianism. I have not only given addresses at the six congregations surrounding First (where most folk had heard of Workman) but I have also been speaking in many BC churches. It has been fun, especially visiting the new young congregations and learning about their struggles. Do you where are South Fraser, Beacon and Cowichan? My missionary experiences have also taken me into book clubs, professional clubs, gold=f courses, and to a staff meeting of the Toronto District History teachers. I have visited many institutions Workman founded , such as the Board of Trade (If you are surprised by that, just imagine theirs) and of -course the Canadian and Ontario Psychiatric Associations, the College of Physicians and Surgeons,  and a few seminars run by the Addiction and Mental Health Centre.

Questions frequently asked are about Unitarianism and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians of Northern Ireland.; and how did Joseph Workman feel about Roman Catholics?  The psychiatrists wanted to know how Joseph's Unitarian religion had influenced his psychiatry and work at Queen Street, and did he make religion part of his early treatment program? They noted that his assistant and chief matron for 20 years were both Unitarian.

And the family! The descendants of Workman are fascinated and proud of him and provided even more stories, photos, and even furniture. Several of Joseph's interests and characteristics have carried doen thro' the generations, such as the love of words and the love of gardens. Their honesty surprised me. For example, some have spoken of the family vulnerability towards alcoholism (which I had picked up in my research).  Some have returned to the UU fold. I say returned as none of his children remained Unitarian. One took me to her local Unitarian church where she had served on the Board.

All this has affected my life. Looking at the past has helped create a pathway to my present and my future.  Visiting the smaller UU churches has given me a taste of the width of our Canadian movement. And speaking to educated and medical groups has forced me to find answers that are meaningful to the audience. Is this what being  UU pioneer is all about? Workman and Carter ( about Mark will be speaking) were pioneers in the past but these days are not really long gone. In my very limited way I have been asked to do a little pioneering and I am sure you are often asked to do so too. It ain't easy!  But it makes life meaningful and colourful and challenging.

And by the way, come and visit us UUs in Victoria B.C. where 50 years and not 150 years is a long time.