Member Testimonies

Three questions provide “guidelines” for personal testimonies: What brought me here? What keeps me here? What religious or spiritual issue am I wrestling with now? I realized I’ve been on a journey, starting with little awareness of Unitarianism to a degree of understanding, a journey with no insight regarding its future course. Shawn provided a quotation from Kierkegaard: “We live our lives forward, but we understand them backwards.” That seems to sum it up.

I grew up in a non-practising Jewish home where my father who held and voiced the family opinions insisted that all religions were “bunk.” Yet we were constantly reminded of being Jewish although observing no Jewish holidays or practices. We celebrated Christmas with presents and a huge dinner, avoiding anything that people would see, like a Christmas tree or other seasonal decorations, and we stayed home from school on Jewish holidays because of what people would think. I found the hypocrisy distasteful.

So how did I get here? It started in Madison, Wisconsin, while attending university. I lived in an interracial residence which, I learned, had been largely sponsored by local Unitarians, a daring undertaking with the Civil Rights movement over a decade away and in many communities two YMCAs, one for whites and one for blacks, as was true of some local churches. All this was new to me, coming from London, Ontario which was almost totally homogeneously white.

I attended Madison’s Unitarian congregation at a very exciting time. Ken Patton’s previous dynamic ministry had left a lingering glow. And the congregation was building a new church, designed by famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright whose grandfather was a founder. He believed in using local materials. This meant limestone, available north of Madison. The church organized two work parties: one loaded limestone on trucks at the quarry, the other unloaded at the church site. I chose the quarry and during a glorious autumn season spent Saturdays there. Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography became almost a text book for the congregation, used in RE and other programs. Heady days!

Meanwhile increased interest in religion led to exploring Protestant student centres. I even looked at the Quakers, but abandoned them because they seemed very pure-hearted; I felt I wasn’t “good enough.”

In Toronto in the early ‘50’s, I at first felt isolated and decided to “try” being Jewish. While scouting Jewish circles, I was told by a prominent rabbi that “we have nothing here for single women at all.” That closed that door. By chance I encountered a former Madison Unitarian who suggested I come here. I did, I immediately felt at home, I stayed.

My reasons: feeling accepted, and free to explore and think for myself. It was difficult explaining Unitarianism to others. Part of that was the times. Unitarians here tended to define themselves negatively, unlike traditional religionists. Avoiding the “trappings of traditional religion” seemed almost a mantra. Back then, I didn’t understand Unitarianism. I tended to describe myself as Unitarian by temperament rather than conviction.

The big gift I received here involved personal change, from being extremely shy, finding it difficult to express any opinion (many here now would never believe that!) to becoming more outgoing. Developing organizational skills led to founding Carrousel Club, actually joining the church in 1962 in order to be president, hardly a noble motive. But temperament trumped conviction then. Over time I’ve filled various roles here and my sense of this as my community and my “social lab” grew and strengthened.

But a strange thing happened on the way from then until now.

It took time to understand Unitarianism as a liberal religion. Recently, I have reflected on major influences that culminated in a set of liberal values. They included my early introduction to racism and civil rights issues, and employment in human rights; ongoing participation in the adult education world where “liberal” attitudes and projects abounded; graduate study in sociology; opportunities to learn about aboriginal peoples. Dominant throughout has been continuing influence of the Unitarian environment which nurtured me, especially with its emphasis on respect for others and their views. I am deeply grateful. And somewhere on this journey I accepted humanism as my “brand” of Unitarianism. Finally, I felt Unitarian by conviction.

The three questions? I came seeking an accepting home. I stayed because I found it here. Any doubts absolutely vanished when I was hospitalized last summer. I was totally overwhelmed by the constant flow of visitors, cards, gifts, phone calls and tangible help that poured forth from members of this congregation both then and afterwards. The church as my community became incredibly vivid.

The third question, “What religious or spiritual issue am I wrestling with now” is still evasive, overtaken by increasing comfort with my humanist outlook and less need to wrestle.

There is a lovely poem which a former minister used to quote, translated from Greek, and called Ithaca or Journey to Ithaca, as the destination of a long journey through life, enjoying delights and ignoring threats, recognizing that in the end, Ithaca might disappoint. The message: the journey trumps the destination; travelling outweighs arriving. Another quotation, from lyrics by Sondheim: “If you know where you’re going, you’ve (already) gone.”

Good Morning. My name is Paul Bognar. At this time of year I'm also known as a Grinch, a grouch, a humbug, party pooper, and worst of all for December, Ebenezer Scrooge. Unlike the Grinch, my shoes aren't too tight, my head's screwed on right (mostly), and my heart isn't three sizes too small. You see, I don't like Christmas.

Oh, there are many things I don't like: Barbara Streisand movies, parsnips, gangsta rap,... It's OK for me to dislike things like that. But because I don't like Christmas, people feel the need to try to change my mind.  Almost every Christmas movie or special on television portrays someone like me: someone who dreads Christmas. Those stories always are about redemption. The character has lost the "spirit of Christmas," because they've lost something from their childhood, or lost a love, or a family member. The poor soul needs to rediscover the magic of the season to be saved. These are tales of intolerance. It is just not acceptable in our culture to dislike Christmas, thus the need for redemption.

At this time of year, when people are supposed to be filled with "joy," when we are meant to have heard angels sing, when we are to give generously and perfectly the equivalent of leaping lords and golden rings, all the while listening to bells jingling on a silent night, my halls are decked with ever darkening grey. A cloud of dread, the grey of seasonal affective disorder, often the blackness of depression. Fa la la la la.

Many people think that a blue Christmas is for those who can't enjoy the holiday because they're grieving, or lonely, or poor. I've been all of those, and I want to say that while those conditions didn't help, neither are they the cause of my blue Christmases.

Thirty years ago, still a teenager, I was walking home very late on a Christmas Eve. A heavy snow was falling, all was quiet. Three blocks from home, warm light poured from the window of the old house at the corner of Dunkirk and Rosedale avenues in Hamilton. Inside, I could see the Christmas tree, lights and candles, and a young man and woman dancing the polka. The young man and woman were looking into each other's eyes, and laughing, laughing with joy and love. Somehow I knew, even then, that I would always be outside the window at Christmas, that this was a time for others, but not for me.

I suppose I have many reasons for not liking Christmas. It is absolutely impossible to ignore. It's too commercial, too tiring, too expensive. It takes up too much of the year (did you notice that decorations appeared before thanksgiving this year?). Wassailing when I don't drink alcohol. The stress of not spoiling the holidays of those I love. And the carols. Endlessly reminding me of a saviour that isn't mine, in a religion I've long left behind, pressing Christmas spirit on me, demanding seasonal joy from me, turned on as if a faucet.

And then there are the truly painful holidays. Five Christmases ago, I faced my first Yule alone, ever. My marriage had broken up, and for the first time in almost twenty years, I would not see my daughters on Christmas. I bought my usual tree, and since I had no decorations for it, I improvised with odds and ends . I went to the Christmas Eve service at First Unitarian Hamilton. I sang Christmas carols whose theology meant nothing to me anymore. I spent most of the day alone in my apartment, only one or two people phoned to wish me "Merry Christmas." I drove to my sister's for dinner with her family. Her invitation was a caring, loving thing to do, but because I was not normally part of their holiday celebrations, I was the fifth wheel. I coped and I survived. And each holiday season since only brings back painful memories of the last days of my marriage, of the Christmases I spend without my children, and of my parents, both now deceased.

I don't have to justify not liking Christmas. For me, it is one long Streisand rerun, that I have to endure for nearly three months every year, served with parsnips instead of popcorn, and a soundtrack of gangsta rap carols.

Oh, I like turkey, the smell of pine in my home, lights, candles, quiet, snow, and many other things that one can find at this time of year. But don't ask me to like Christmas. Don't ask me to explain why I don't like it. To me, it's the parsnip of holidays. If you like Christmas, I want you to revel in it, celebrate it and find joy in it as you never have before. But if you don't like Christmas, or your Christmas this year is too painful to celebrate, I want you to know you are not alone, and that there are people who understand and respect you. And a few of us are found here, in this safe place.

Today is the day that I will, for the first time in public, reveal something to you, my fellow Unitarians, that is extremely personal, concerning my sexual orientation. Though many of you have had contact with me through my work on the church’s finances, at an adult education program, or maybe just recognized me as one of the amateurs that happily, albeit nervously plays and sings his heart out every Father’s day.......none of you, until today will know the truth. Oh I’m sure that some of you have a suspicion; there have been hints and clues that some of you may have noticed over the past several years. Well here it goes..........I Jack McFadden am straight. As long as I can remember, I’ve been attracted to members of the opposite sex. I also strongly suspect, that I will remain heterosexual for the rest of my days.

It sounds so strange doesn’t it? Were any of you thinking.........Is he gay? It is after all Gay & Lesbian Pride Sunday and I did say I was about to reveal something about my sexual orientation. Granted, the small army of children that I’m seen with every Sunday did pose a logic problem but maybe , just maybe I had a few of you thinking for a brief moment. And what if I had "come out" as a gay man. Would it have changed your opinion, of me ? (be that good or bad !).

When I was asked to give a testimonial as a part of this service, I kept struggling with the question," What could I possibly offer to the theme of gay pride ? The word normal kept coming into my head. Believe it or not that is why I started with such an abnormal opening. After all, in our society, there is no need to "come out" as a heterosexual. It’s just so normal ! As I started to ponder my normal orientation, I also began to realize how easy it has been for me because of that orientation. Society has never scorned me for my inclinations and in actual fact, I have no doubt been stroked and possibly even rewarded for my attractions to the opposite sex. I was in the "in" crowd growing up. Would it have been the same had I been attracted to members of my own sex? And today, my lovely wife and three beautiful children are not just my family but also an asset to me at work, because I so neatly fit the good corporate image. It’s been pretty easy being normal.

But I’m not here today to try and shoulder the blame for the fact that up ‘till now, I along with other heterosexuals have benefited from the makeup of our DNA. Nor can I do much more than say that I realize that up ‘till this point in time, it has been much harder to live life as a gay person. I wish it had been different! What I am here to say is that to me, Normal is a society that does not judge based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. To that end, I’m proud to be a member of a church that not only states that as a part of our principles and purposes, but regularly encourages us to re-examine our thoughts, words and deeds for traces of prejudice that might still exist due to the indelible mark that "normal" society has placed on each and every one of us. By recognizing and celebrating the fact that there are good people here, doing good things, and that it doesn’t matter at all that some of us are straight and some of us are gay, we are helping to redefine the word normal. On Gay & Lesbian Pride Sunday, that is something in which we can all be proud.