Ann Coxworth’s Spark Story

It might be because of the recent accident I had that resulted in some rather painful injuries that I’ve started to notice what a lot of ads for pain-relief products there are on the CBC National News every evening. Have you noticed this? It seems that advertisers have concluded that those of us who watch The National are either suffering from arthritis, are hard of hearing, or are looking to buy a new car.

Anyway, one of the pain-relief ads strikes me as a bit odd. There’s this somewhat bent, elderly man, clutching his hands, who earnestly asks us “Do you know of anyone who would keep on buying something if it wasn’t doing them any good?”  I  guess his message is that people are still buying the product therefore it must be doing them some good.

That old guy reminds me of the conversations Ewen and I have sometimes had about why we keep on year after year financially supporting Saskatoon Unitarians (SU). Among all the many good causes that we support, our Unitarian pledge is one of our largest annual contributions, and has been so for many years. So we’ve sometimes asked ourselves why we keep doing this, when we could instead divert more of our resources to Oxfam or Greenpeace for example. Well, I guess that because we keep doing it, and have been doing it for about 55 years, it must be doing us some good.  But just what that good is, has, I think, evolved over the years.

We’ve been members of this congregation since 1961, when we moved to Saskatoon with our two infant daughters. At that time the totally lay-led Unitarian Fellowship of Saskatoon, as it then was, met in the old red-brick YMCA building on Spadina Crescent, a building that was torn down before most of you were born. We would pick up our coffee on the way into the meeting, then listen to an interesting talk, and then have a good discussion. Sitting in the front row were Violet and John McNaughton – it was always John who asked the first question while his more famous wife sat quietly listening.

The Fellowship was where we had the opportunity to mingle with interesting, thoughtful, open-minded people and to explore ideas in a non-judgemental environment. It was where we developed life-long, close friendships. It was where our children could be exposed to ethics education and where they could learn to respectfully and critically understand the religious concepts that their school friends talked about. It became our community within the larger Saskatoon community. The Fellowship became our extended family.

As the years passed we changed our name to the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon (UCS). This was our compromise between Fellowship and Church. We went through various experiments with ministerial leadership, interspersed with periods when we reverted to totally lay leadership.  Membership fluctuated up and down.  I often talk about how when I chaired the Sunday School Committee sometime in the 1970s, we had 72 children enrolled. – and no paid staff. That worked then because most of us young mothers were at home, and had time for serious volunteering. We always knew we could rely on Unitarian friends for help at difficult times. The congregation was a place where we explored meaning, developed our own theology in a supportive environment, and became the people we are today. So the congregation was meeting all kinds of needs for us – social needs, educational needs, personal development needs.

And of course it still does.  I think that for many people these are still the needs that draw them to this community; they’re looking for a community of shared values and mutual support and they find it here. That’s worth a lot!

But in the past several years something of huge importance has been added as far as I’m concerned. We seem to be living right now in a period when, in many ways, global civilization seems to be moving towards chaos. I don’t need to spell out just what I’m talking about, but we’re seeing mounting and often unprecedented threats to democratic systems, to the environment, to peace, to responsible social policy. People are being uprooted from their homelands. Values of justice, cooperation and generosity are being threatened by divisiveness, selfishness, and lack of care about the future and about the world beyond our immediate borders. There’s a wide-spread sense of despair and powerlessness, which is too often dealt with with a shrug of the shoulders, a sense of “well, there’s nothing I can do about it so I’ll just ignore it and enjoy what I can today”.

This is where Saskatoon Unitarians can play, and is playing, a very important role. Increasingly I see this congregation as one of what I like to call Islands of Sanity, centres from which the recovery of civilization will grow. These islands are communities with values such as those embedded in our principles, communities that are mutually supportive, that can become centres for the growth of positive change, that can learn and demonstrate how to live together in diversity, that can nurture young people as they face the huge global tasks ahead.

So my conclusion is that, yes, I do know why we keep on financially supporting this community, not only because it meets our own personal needs, but perhaps, now, more importantly, because it’s part of a network of communities from which civil society will be restored. This is what gives me optimism.

Ann Coxworth