Member Testimonies

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.

My name is Ellen Campbell and I am an institutional junkie.  I come by it naturally; my mother, at 91, is currently serving what must be at least her fifth, and possibly tenth, term on her local church board.

You’d have thought, after 24 years as an executive at two different charitable organizations, the YWCA and the Canadian Unitarian Council, I’d be ready for some other type of activity—needlework, perhaps, or learning Sanskrit, or playing bridge.  And it’s true that for the first year of my retirement I didn’t do much besides read, clean out drawers, and nag Doug about the stacks of papers on every available surface in our apartment.  But here I am now, on two boards and a committee, doing much the same kind of work as a volunteer that I did so long for pay.

What is it that draws some of us, like moths to a flame, to activity that many people think is as appealing as a root canal?

Is it the three day meetings, the business broken up by meals and coffee breaks during which we often talk about the same things we’ve been dealing with formally in the meetings?

Is it the reams of paper we get in the mail to read, which usually end up in one of those stacks?

Is it the opportunity to function by arcane rules of order, develop complex "mandates" and strategic plans?

Well, yes and no.  Some of my closest friendships have developed as I worked with people to build strong organizations—at those long board meetings.  Those piles of paper document significant and meaningful work.  And those arcane rules and mandates and plans provide orderly ways for people to make decisions and to have impact on the community around them.

But what it comes down to is that I really love to work as part of an organization that is doing worthwhile work.  Working with others to dream dreams and then find ways of making them real, seeing change—often slow, but perceptible—drawing new people in and re-involving people from the past—these are the kind of things that make me feel that life is worth living.

Will I still be an institutional junkie at 91?  Who knows?  But I’m not ready to quit cold turkey now—or for a long time to come.

[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.