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A spark of understanding

My first encounter with Unitarianism.
By Bernadette Siegel
Fall 2009

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In late December 1945, my husband Arthur and I were living in San Francisco where he was a doctor stationed with the Coast Guard. We had been married the previous August. The previous December he had been in the South Pacific on an attack transport from which he wrote many letters telling about the heartbreak of treating all the wounded. So we were looking forward to our first New Years as a married couple.

But the Coast Guard needed a doctor on weather tender, and Arthur was scheduled to ship out on December 31. Naturally I was terribly disappointed. But Arthur told me that a shipmate had just arrived from back east with his bride. She didn’t know anyone, so he thought she and I might enjoy getting together for New Years. I called her, and we arranged to meet on New Year’s Day for lunch and a movie.

Her name was Mariel Hoffman, and I immediately liked her for her warmth, intelligence, and naturalness. She and her husband had been married two weeks earlier in a Unitarian church in Connecticut. That really didn’t mean much to me. I had been raised in a rigid fundamentalist church that had totally turned me off religion, so I liked that she didn’t try to save my soul or pray before lunch.

I don’t remember the name of the film, but I do remember the newsreel. This newsreel was about the trials and execution of the Japanese warlords and showed them walking to the gallows. I had been so propagandized by four years of war that it didn’t affect me much. But then I looked at Mariel. She was crying.

I was quite taken aback and wondered what in the world could have affected her so much. She must have felt my question because as she wiped her eyes, she turned to me and said, “They were human beings, too.”

In all my twenty-two years, no one had ever said anything remotely like that to me. The truth of her words so struck me, I knew I could never think of the Japanese in the same way as I had before; I could never look at anyone in the same way as before. Mariel had lit a spark of understanding in my heart.

Twelve years later I joined a Unitarian church.


Bernadette Siegel read this story to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, California, on November 18, 2008, when she lit a candle in honor of her eighty-fifth birthday.

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