Member Testimonies

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.

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.