People of global spirit

By Alan Dearnley; Michael Johnston; Susan McClelland | 1996-01-01 12:00:00

To mark the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, the United Nations Association recognized individuals in Canada for their work and for displaying the ideals, values, and spirit of which the United Nations has been built. Several residents of Toronto received their awards from the Lieutenant Governor in November. Here we present selected portions of interviews with some of them.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut

Rabbi Gunther Plaut was born in Germany. After receiving a doctorate in law he fled Hitler's Germany to the United States where he became a rabbi. He joined the American army during World War II, serving as a chaplain with the infantry. He was present at the capture of the first concentration camp in Germany. Rabbi Plaut has published more than 20 books--most recently, Asylum: A Moral Dilemma, which deals with the plight of refugees. He has served as president of the Jewish Congress and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Now he sits as a one-person board of inquiry in human rights cases.

MICHAEL JOHNSTON: How have you contributed to global cooperation?

RABBI GUNTHER PLAUT: Every person who has a sense of his or her humanity takes it as one of life's challenges to do something for other people. I think it's part of us. It expresses itself first and foremost in the universal drive to do something for your children and your family. That's part of the built-in mechanism of every living creature. In many creatures it goes beyond that. Ants and bees subdue individuality for the sake of the community. Human beings fall somewhere in between those who care only for self and those who are programmed to care only for the community. We care for self and the immediate circle around us.

But many care also for larger concentric circles. It depends on how far you reach. Some people don't have an opportunity--or think they don't have an opportunity. Everyone actually can contribute something in the world at large for people they will never see. This is what they have learned at home, in their religious institutions, or from peers. Or maybe it's part of their inner nature. Our forebearers hunted in groups--as do wolves and other animals--and they cared for each other. When you are in a war you begin to care for the buddies you are with. I was in the Second World War for three years so I know about that. Depending on your time in life, you do care for others. Sometimes you have to, and other times you want to.

I think I grew up rather selfishly. Not because of my parents, but because of my nature. But when I became a refugee from Hitler in a new country, I began to realize that I was part of a world. I think it left its stamp on me. I was going to make this a better world, right then and there.

JOHNSTON: How has Judaism influenced your actions?

PLAUT: The first chapter of Genesis contains the words, God created man and woman, in the image of God did he create them. So the unity, the oneness of all humanity, is part of our most basic religious instructions. I came from that sort of background. It wasn't anything unusual, and religion really emphasized it.

JOHNSTON: As a man concerned with the welfare of humanity, can you isolate what you would consider to be your greatest achievement?

PLAUT: Well, first let me make the question a little smaller. I'm always worried when people are concerned with humanity.

Frequently, they are not concerned with their neighbor next door but they say they are concerned with humanity. It puts me off a little. Nobody can be concerned with humanity. What does it mean? Ecology? Okay, fine. Social justice? Fine. Poverty here, abroad, Greenpeace, atomic energy, atomic bombs, and whatnot. But you know, ultimately, everything you do relates to humanity.

What has been my most valuable contribution? I don't know. Sometimes I think that you can make your greatest contribution if you are truly yourself, but not only yourself. There is an old Jewish saying that has become part of the proverbial treasures of humanity. If I'm not for myself, then who am I? If I'm for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when? I learned that as a child, and I've never forgotten.

I don't think there is anything specific and special. If you ask me which one of my books is the most important, I can tell you that. But what I have done that was the most important? Well, I was a practicing rabbi for 40 years. I used to be a rabbi in Minnesota. When I left, there was a good deal about it in the newspapers because I was very active politically, socially, and organizationally. I got a letter from a minister in a church in North or South Dakota. I didn't know the person. He had been in a Lutheran Seminary in Twin Cities. He was going to be a minister. It was his life's ambition, his hope, but somewhere along the line he had lost his faith and from then on he felt that his life was over for him. He couldn't be a minister without faith and he was so depressed he started to think about suicide.

He picked a bridge from which he was going to jump and as he walked to this bridge he came by a lighted building. It happened to be the temple at which I was the rabbi. It was a summer day, and the doors were open. A service was going on. Just on impulse, he went in and listened, and what I said in the sermon turned him around. He abandoned thoughts of suicide, he found his faith again, became minister, and is now serving in this congregation in Dakota. I don't know this man, but the most important thing is that I don't know what I said, or when this was. So when you ask me what is the most important thing that I've done, I don't know. But I do know that this man says I saved his life, and maybe, in the total accounting, that's the most important thing I ever did.

Don Toppin

Don Toppin was born in Ontario and educated at Queen's University. Hespent 15 years as president of a New York public relations firm and one year conceiving the idea of the global college as encouraged by U Thant.

Don is a quiet crusader of adult education in public affairs and human development. He has given thousands of speeches, waged scores of successful public service campaigns, and published several books. Don was awarded an honorary life membership to the World Future Society in recognition of his service as director of the First Global Conference on the Future.

MICHAEL JOHNSTON: How have you contributed to the cause of global cooperation?

DON TOPPIN: I started to think globally in 1929, when my grandmother brought me a little red book on the League of Nations that had cost her 15 cents. The League didn't make it but after 1945 the idea of nations working together came up again and the United Nations was born. Because of the motivation provided by my grandmother, I've been associated with things international from the beginning, although I've never attached a title to it.

My grandmother noticed that society, as she knew it then, didn't equip their members to be leaders in social change. You were taught to be a lawyer, a butcher, a doctor. But there wasn't anyone whose sole function was to make sure where we, as a society, were going--where war and poverty were not necessary. And so, when she learned that I had won some prizes for speaking and had a radio show, she provided reinforcement for me to do the things that were part of something else.

First there was the institute of public affairs, then the radio broadcast, which certainly was international in scope. My concept of a global college came out of the research that I did for my book, This Cybernetic Age. It brought me to meet U Thant and Robert Muller for the discussion of a global college, which had an impact within the U.N. University.

JOHNSTON: You're still a very active member in the community. What plans do you have for the future?

TOPPIN: To keep doing what I am doing, but to bring in new people. I like the involvement of the 1995 student population. There are not a lot of them, but there are some who already have vision and can see themselves playing a major part in the global society. There are some who will be taking up local issues and they will find out what is on the other side of the mountain.

You are just a nobody by yourself. You just can't do this thing by shooting your neighbor; there is no point to it. But a few people will continue to shoot their neighbors and I don't know why. My grandmother was always concerned about the people up the road. I asked her why there were tensions between two families and she didn't know, but it had always been that way. She said it always will be that way. Though she was rather narrow on that one point, she was broad enough to know that it didn't have to be that way.

JOHNSTON: What are the most pressing issues facing Canada and the world?

TOPPIN: We have an economic system that doesn't relate to the necessities of the times. People shouldn't have to be worried about welfare cheques. There's lots of work to be done. That work is of a different nature than our grandfather's and so on. They're not going to be bailing hay and spreading manure on Bay or Yonge. There's a whole new opportunity to understand the nature of the expanding universe and to take responsibility for some part of it, to be in touch with the whole. They have to be pretty flexible in what they do. But there will be something to do, something inventive. There should be a way of funding it. I think this needs to be formalized. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine suggested we take it on this winter, but I'm 82 years of age and it's far too big a thing at this moment. But parts of it have already been started. That's only in the distribution of income, but it's important that people have money in their pockets to pay for their lunch. There is an answer but it is not up to me at this point to enunciate it. It has to do with a good arrangement for living together.

Patrick Rechner

Remember the startling image of Captain Patrick Rechner as he stood handcuffed to a post while on a U.N. observer mission to the former Yugoslavia? This was just one of his many ordeals while he was held hostage for almost a month by Serbian military captors. I wanted to acknowledge Patrick's global citizenship when I heard his response when he was asked whether he felt animosity toward those who held him hostage. No, he said. I try to understand their position. If I felt hatred toward them, I would only be feeding into the hatred that consumes the entire region.

Patrick grew up in Toronto. From a young age, he knew he wanted to be a soldier and at 13 he joined the army cadets. Patrick will admit candidly that at first it was the lure of world travel which prompted him to pursue a military career. Now, however, it is the feeling of helping in some way--of making a difference.

When Canadians first learned of Patrick's being taken hostage, many sat shocked, blaming the government for placing our children in situations where their lives were endangered. This is not our war, I would hear people say.

Yet Patrick and his parents would probably disagree. His father was born in Czechoslovakia, emigrated to Switzerland in 1968, and then later to Canada. Patrick's mother was a young child in Lithuania during World War II. International politics and war are not new to the Rechner family. Patrick says that it was his own decision to return to the former Yugoslavia as a U.N. observer after being posted there previously as part of the Canadian peacekeeping infantry.

Patrick brought medical supplies to hospitals isolated from roads by heavy artillery shelling. Patrick feels proud of being able to provide aid to the people with whom he worked. This humanitarian work, he feels, is often overlooked by reporters and the world.

For those living in the former Yugoslavia, their entire way of life has been destroyed, says Patrick. Imagine an entire country mobilized for war. Imagine every man a member of the military. Imagine no other form of business or schooling except that centred around war. We should feel fortunate to be living in Canada, yet so many seem to take it for granted.

When asked, Patrick says he would return to peacekeeping operations. He and his family criticize, not the choices Patrick has made in his career, but the press for their handling of the hostage situation and the war. Patrick's mother and father had never imagined so much hatred could exist in people. But it is Patrick who reminds them of history, recounting one of the oldest stories in Greek literature--the war between Sparta and Athens, which to him could so easily be the war of the former Yugoslavia.

Patrick is currently studying international politics in Paris. He plans on returning to the military after earning a master's degree.

Reverend Brent Hawkes

In 1976, Brent Hawkes gave up his teaching career in eastern Canada to travel to Toronto when he heard there was a church that ministers to the lesbian and gay community. Within a year, he was appointed Pastor, a position he's held for 18 years. He completed his Masters of Divinity degree in 1985 from the University of Toronto. He is presently working on a doctorate in theology.

In 1994, Reverend Hawkes received the City of Toronto Award of Merit, the highest civic award possible from the city where 14 years earlier he had fasted 25 days to demand a public enquiry into actions taken by the police force. His work has included serving as co-chair of the Campaign for Equal Families.

ALAN DEARNLEY: How do you feel you've contributed most?

HAWKES: Marginalized communities now know they have a place to come to. We've placed ourselves at the' centre of the community. We've brought spirituality back to people.

DEARNLEY: What is the future?

HAWKES: There are grounds both for optimism and pessimism. I think we'll see a backlash against human rights. We've had continued oppression but no backlash yet. The media is playing a greater role in revealing oppression. Traditionally, churches and families have been the centre of community, but today churches are offering less and less. Schools used to have drama clubs, debate clubs and other ways of involving both children and teachers. Now the mall has become the centre of life. We're abandoning our youth.

June Callwood

June Callwood was born in Chatham, Ontario. She is one of Canada's foremost journalists. In 1944, she married Trent Fayne and she and Trent wrote more articles for Maclean's Magazine than anybody else. As Pierre Berton writes in his new book, My Times: Living with History 1947-1995, in June Callwood's earlier career there was scarcely a hint of the social conscience which was later to dominate her career.

Ms. Callwood has published more than 27 books, including Love, Hate, Fear and Anger; Canadian Women and the Law. She has been a columnist with the Globe and Mail and host of several television programs. She has founded numerous community organizations, including Jessie's Centre for Teenagers, Nellie's Hostel for Women, and Casey House Hospice.

ALAN DEARNLEY: Why did you choose the path you have taken?

JUNE CALLWOOD: Things worked out gradually. Because I was a journalist for a very long time, I would run into situations that another person might not have had to face. If you found something that needed fixing, you just did it. That was the way our village worked. When I would come across something as a journalist, if something didn't look fair, I'd get people to help change it.

DEARNLEY: What do you consider your top achievements?

CALLWOOD: Casey House has been one of the tops.

DEARNLEY: What do you think we'll see in the future?

CALLWOOD: With all the cutbacks today we'll be doing irreparable damage. In five years we'll start assessing the casualties and begin the repair work. I hope that after that, people will not be punitive again. But it seems that we're determined to go down this path and that no amount of shame will keep us from doing so.

DEARNLEY: What are your pl ns for the future?

CALLWOOD: In Dufferin Mall there is a section of the mall that we plan to turn into a Mother's Corner with food and moral support to help mothers. It's really an innovative mall. We'll provide emergency assistance. Of course, my main goal is to help the children. And I'd like to write one good book!

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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