Member Testimonies

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.

Good morning

My name is Bert Christensen and I’m retired.

I’ve been a Unitarian for almost 40 years, and while I’m still open to discovery and change, most of my religious and spiritual questions have been resolved. As a matter of fact, I grew up as an atheist, and I like to say that I’m one of the few Unitarians that moved right theologically when I became a Unitarian.

I have held many positions in this Congregation, including serving as its president, and I have served on the boards of The Canadian Unitarian Council and the UUA. I have enjoyed these experiences and learned from them all. It was busy. I once had Unitarian meetings twelve days in a row in Toronto, Boston and Syracuse. And at that time, I was running my own business. After all that, you might think that I would have became burned out. Well, I was, and for a few years I wasn’t seen much around here. But Donna kept after me to become involved again and we all know what happens when Donna makes up her mind about something. So, I volunteered to work in the office one morning a week. This soon escalated to being the convenor of Administration and Property Services and the webweaver of our web site.

When I was so heavily involved years ago, I did it for the challenge, the adventure, to see if I could do it. Now, I have a different reason.

Michael Caine, 3 years older than I, and a veteran actor of almost 40 years, recently played the best role of his career - Dr. Wilbur Larch, in the movie adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. Dr. Larch holds as one of his fundamental principles, that the purpose of life is to be of use. To be of use.

The reason this Church is still a central part of my life is NOT the obvious religious questions, but rather that it provides me with a way in which to be of use. If I can answer a query from a newcomer when I am in the office, I feel I am being of use. If I can organize an administrative task so that the office runs smoother, I am being of use. If I could ever get the elevator to function for more than a few days at a time, then I would really feel I was being of use.

These tasks are satisfying, but for me the real joy is doing the web page. The web page gives me the opportunity to be creative rather than just administrative, to explore a part of me hitherto untouched.

I only took up this current leading edge communication medium, the web, after my retirement, after 45 years in the television and electronics business, after keeping up with the constant revolutionary changes in electronics during my working years. So, after all those years working with the hardware, I am now working with the constant changes in the software. I still have the fun and exhilaration of learning and applying something new.

So even though I’m retired, this congregation continues to give me the opportunity to tackle new skills, to enjoy new relationships, to master new technologies…. To be of use.

And I haven’t been happier in years.
My name is Helen Iacovino and I consider myself a Unitarian Universalist mystic. In a nutshell, I feel that there is a unifying, transcendent power in the universe which pervades all things, although I do not call it "god." Since I was a teenager, there were times when I would suddenly experience that power, and I would feel deeply connected to the universe. However, without the long and noble history of humanism in our movement, I would probably not be comfortable with words like "mystic" or "spiritual" because they would still have their Christian overtones. In fact, I might not be comfortable exploring this area at all if humanism had not done so much to distinguish our faith from the Protestant roots of its origins. I agree with humanism’s basic principles, and in daily life, I depend on reason even if I argue against it at times. What I have always valued most about our religion is the freedom to explore, and also the kindness of the people in our congregation.

In the debate about the humanist and mystical perspectives in Unitarian Universalism, I feel there are actually more commonalities than differences, because we all share some basic UU values. One important commonality is the question of authority, a crucial concept for Unitarian Universalists. Both humanists and mystics would agree that it rests with the individual, and both value the individual’s own judgement in matters of belief.

It disturbs me that people are feeling left out over these issues, because I think Unitarian Universalism is larger than that, and that when we remember another shared value, that of tolerance – and of course love – we can overcome this, and learn and grow from it. I think back to Unitarian history, and how the movement was divided by the Transcendentalist controversy in the mid nineteenth century, and later incorporated the wisdom gained and grew from it – in fact grew to shape twentieth century Unitarianism.

I think the key is to remember our UU conviction that truths are relative. Mystics can guard against saying, "They just don’t see it," while humanists can guard against saying, "They see what’s not there." In embracing viewpoints that differ from our own, we don’t have to take them on for ourselves, we just have to acknowledge them as other valid viewpoints. In an ecumenical gathering, when a Catholic talks about meeting Jesus in prayer, a Unitarian Universalist will often nod, and think about the value of being in touch with one’s inner self, or about true compassion for others. It is this kind of respect, which we often show in interfaith meetings, that we can bring to the humanist/ mystic debate in our own congregation. More often than not, the other person is not out to deny our view, but only to express their own. To use 70’s jargon, they are not out to "lay their trip on anybody."

I am confident that as a congregation we will be able to enter into dialogue with each other, and both our congregation and 21st century Unitarian Universalism will be the stronger for it.

Good morning.  My name is Margaret Joyce and I am here this morning to share with you what for me is a very important anniversary.  One year ago this month on New Member Sunday I became a member of this congregation.  An event for which I have never ceased to be grateful and which in many ways changed my life.

On Sunday mornings the Worship Leader says: "From our many and varied paths we come to this place...."  My path, like some of yours, was an Anglican one although it has been many years since I followed that path.  A number of incidents in the lives of my friends as well as disquieting world events had caused me to doubt my Church's teachings.  For a number of years I drifted. I no longer attended church and while I sometimes had vague feelings of guilt I went on living in what I now realize was a spiritual wilderness.

In 1972 I went back to University, not with a specific goal in mind but just to prove to myself that I could still function in the academic world.  In my first semester I chose a Humanities course, medieval history, literature and philosophy.  As my first required paper we were asked to write on any topic we chose as long as it dealt with some aspect of the course.  I decided that I would write about my own personal philosophy.  Writing it would present a challenge and I could incorporate it into my paper.  After some research I found a number of well known people whose beliefs and non beliefs were similar to mine.  From their writings and my own convictions I gathered my beliefs together and wrote them down.  Writing them gave me a sense of comfort and peace of mind.  I now knew what I believed and could live by these principles without guilt that I had abandoned my former faith.

In 1998 a friend of mine passed away.  He had been a member of this congregation for many years.  Some of you may remember George Barker.  I came here for his memorial service and was impressed by the simplicity of the service and the moving tributes.  I left with the feeling that I wanted to find out more about this place, its history, philosophy and purpose.

More than a year passed before I did anything about my good intentions, then one day I phoned the Unitarian Information Centre and asked for some literature on Unitarianism.  I received a large brown envelope containing a number of pamphlets full of all kinds of relevant information.  As I read I thought: "This is my philosophy, this is my doctrine, this is what I tried to express in my university paper almost thirty years ago,  I don't have to become a Unitarian, I am one.  I have been a Unitarian all those years and did not know it."

On November 7th 1999 I came to my first service.  It happened to be New Member Sunday with both choirs in attendance.  It was of course quite different from any church service I had attended before.  Where else would dancing be part of a Sunday service?  It was also Hindu observance Sunday which added to its uniqueness for me.  I learned later that observance of other faiths was all part of Unitarian doctrine, their respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I continued to come to the Sunday morning services, enjoying the simplicity of the Order of Service, the message of the sermons, the children's story, the candle lighting for celebration and concerns, the music and quiet meditation and afterwards the fellowship of Coffee Hour.  I found that I brought home with me a wonderful sense of comfort and belonging which stayed with me all week.

As the months passed I felt that I should make an effort to give something back in return for what was being given to me.  With this in mind I volunteered to serve on the Welcoming Committee and in September I accepted the position of chairperson of Daytimers, that delightful group of friendly interesting people who had made me feel one of them

In the welcome letter I received from Mark and Donna after that memorable first visit they wrote:  "First Unitarian is a safe haven in a hectic world, a caring community that will soothe your heart and nurture your soul."  It has done all that and more for me.  It has given me a spiritual home.  I do not regret my Anglican roots or the discipline of my early religious training.  They gave me a foundation from which to build and to make my own decisions about my faith.

I  would like to end with a few lines from that University paper I wrote so long ago and still have.  I has the professor's comments and a B+ at the bottom.

More than 2000 years ago Aristotle wrote to one of his students.  "The master key of knowledge is indeed a persistent and frequent questioning.  It is by no means fruitless to be doubtful on particular points.  By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth."

Part I

Good morning.   My name is Agnes Vandergang, and I have been a UU, and a member of this congregation, for more than 12 years.   During that time I have insinuated myself into just about every corner of this place.   I have sung in the choir, deliberated church policy around the board room table, led adult programs on topics dear to my heart, crawled on my knees through the Haunted House set up in Shaw Hall for Halloween, and danced up a storm right here in this sanctuary.   I have served more cups of coffee than I can count, exhibited my photographs on these walls, and planted perennials in the secret garden.   This year I finally agreed to be a teacher in the religious education program.   I have laughed out loud, stamped my feet in rage, and wept with despair in this building…   In fact, in case the ministers have failed to inform you… I own this place.   Oh, don’t worry or sigh with relief, I’m not talking about the mortgage.   I’m talking about belonging – I am an integral part of this community and it (and that means you) are a part of me.   This is my home. You are my family.

Wherever I go, I end up talking about this place and how much it means to me. Truth be told, I brag about this congregation the way some people brag about their grandchildren.   And when I see new faces among us, I get excited.   I love to share my experiences here with newcomers, and invite them to discover for themselves who we are and what we have to offer.   Even though, like the majority of Unitarians, I am an introvert, I don’t feel the need for a reminder about the “3 minute rule” (that’s the suggestion that’s been made in recent months that we all spend the first 3 minutes of coffee hour talking to people we don’t know)…   But, it wasn’t always so.

There was a time when the exhortation to welcome newcomers made me as petulant as a 2 year old with a new toy.    I had spent two years seeking an alternative religious community, didn’t even hear about Unitarian Universalism until I went away to Boston one summer.   Having found this gem of a religion, and made it my own by jumping in with both feet, I did not want to share.    As members we were regularly invited from this pulpit to take the time to talk to newcomers, who were given green mugs at coffee hour.   I confess to you today:   I hated hearing about the “green muggers”.   I’m ashamed to recall the things that went through my head:

I found my way here without any help – they can too”.

This is the only time of the week I get to connect with my friends;

no one’s going to take that away from me ”.

“I do so much work around here; let someone else talk to new people”.

You see, as a young woman with a questioning mind and strong feelings, growing up in a conservative Dutch Calvinist community, I had felt like an outcast for as long as I could remember.   I was starved for a sense of belonging.   I was not unlike the broken cup Donna described a few weeks ago – feeling I could never get enough.   Trying to make up for lost time, I thought I needed to safeguard my resources.    I could not yet trust that what I had found would last.   Perhaps the sense of community I experienced was only superficial, and would come apart when individual differences surfaced, as they inevitably must.    Or worse yet, I would discover that once people got to know me, my ideas and feelings would not be any more welcome here than they were in the tradition I grew up in.   Not yet sure of my new-found home, I held on to it for dear life.   I would not, could not open my heart to others seeking the very thing I hoped I had found.

What are you holding on to for dear life?   What keeps you from living deeply, engaging fully, and giving freely?   Allow yourself to imagine letting go.   Consider allowing this community to support you in the process.   Are you prepared to open yourself to the glorious possibility of transformation?

Part II

Not wanting to share; holding on tight for fear of losing what we have.   These are such human feelings.   Children articulate them fiercely:   “Don’t touch that! It’s mine!   You can’t have it!”   And are adults really any different, except that we have learned that “selfishness” is not socially acceptable?   We pretend to be nice, even when we feel mean and think nasty thoughts.   We quietly resist, complain and undermine.   What does it take to let go of the wish to have sole possession of something?   How do we become, not wholly selfless, but truly generous?   How do we let go of the things that hold us back?

You may wonder why I am talking about this on New Year’s Eve – the service during which we are invited to let go of the past, and welcome transformation.   Well you see, with all the talk about growth over the past year, I kept thinking back to my resistance to talking to those “green muggers”, and wondering whether other members might be less than happy about being asked to share.   I thought I might not be alone in having had mixed feelings welcoming others into our circle.   And I knew for sure that each person here would be familiar with the feeling of not wanting to let go, even when the time is ripe.   And I wanted to testify to the fact that this common, human experience can be transformed, here, in this community of faith.

Let me tell you what happened to me in during the time between wanting this congregation all to myself, and becoming eager to share it.   In the choir, I developed a camaraderie with others who enjoyed singing.   As a board member, I struggled with issues of responsibility and authority.   At one meeting I ranted about some voices carrying more weight than others.   Everyone heard me out, despite the less than fully mature presentation of my concerns.   I met women whose concerns and circumstances were similar to mine, and developed rich and enduring friendships.   I witnessed difficult issues and tensions within the congregation aired openly, and dealt with in love and compassion. Flirting on this dance floor, more than a few times, in this “safe” setting, I finally understood that I am valuable for much more than my sexuality.   As it became clear in the past few years that I wouldn’t be having children, I befriended a young family, and hope to be present at the birth of their second child next spring.   And, teaching a class of eight-year-old boys, I am moving through trepidation towards (occasional) gratification.

Having been embraced so often, in so many different ways, my cup is over-flowing.   I have, almost without noticing, given up safeguarding what I have.   I now experience the most joyful imperative to share my abundance.   I have been transformed within and by this community.

What about you?   What do you need in order to let go and embrace the new?   Whatever your struggle, there is a place for you here.   There is enough understanding, support and love to go around – open yourself to it.   The wonder of our diverse, multi-faceted community is that you can customize it meet your own needs – we offer do-it-yourself transformation!   We boldly proclaim to be “a community serving each person’s spiritual journey”, and let me tell you, it’s no mere slogan.   It’s an open invitation, and a challenge.   Ask yourself what you need to let go of on the cusp of a new year.   Take a step on the journey.   Believe me, it’s worth the trip.