A Dinner in Honor of Kathy Sreedhar at the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi

Embassy of the United States Charge d’Affaires Peter Burleigh. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy New Delhi

On October 31st the United States Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi, Ambassador Peter Burleigh, held a dinner in honor of Kathy Sreedhar, Director Emerita of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP).

Ambassador Burleigh hosted the dinner at Roosevelt House, the historic Ambassador’s residence on the grounds of the United States Embassy. Kathy has known Ambassador Burleigh since his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the 1960s, when she was a Peace Corps staff member in New Delhi. They have remained friends since and she was thrilled to learn of his recent appointment as Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi.

Joining Ambassador Burleigh to celebrate Kathy’s nearly fifty years of service in India were numerous friends and Embassy officials. Kerry Pelzman, Kathy’s god-daughter, and her husband Patrick Robinson, both now serving in senior positions at the USAID mission in India, were among the guests, who also included Kathy’s sister-in-law, the feminist scholar Devaki Jain, and Indira Jaisingh, Assistant Solicitor General of India and a renowned women’s rights lawyer. Renana Jhabvala, the National Coordinator of UUHIP partner organization SEWA Bharat, was joined by her husband Harish Khare, Media Advisor to the Prime Minister of India. Also present were friends serving as foreign correspondents from National Public Radio and the Associated Press, an artist from Alaska, a teacher at the American Embassy School, and Derek Mitchell, who succeeded Kathy as Director of UUHIP last August. Officials at the dinner included the Embassy Spokesperson and USAID’s Chief of Mission.

The Ambassador’s guests were delighted to discover that he had chosen stunning tribal paintings to decorate Roosevelt House during his residence there. The paintings were created by members of the Gond tribe, with whom two UUHIP partners have long worked. Much discussion during the evening centered on UUHIP’s courageous partners and Kathy’s twenty-seven years working with them. Ambassador Burleigh’s dinner was a heartfelt tribute to her pioneering vision for social change in India.

Incredible Support for the UU Holdeen India Program

Derek Mitchell, the new Director of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP), shares the following update:

During August and September, friends of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) have shown incredible support for the work of our partners.

An Uplifting Musical Contribution

On August 13th Keith Arnold and David Burrows of the Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado held an evening of song and stories to raise support for UUHIP’s work in education. Last February Keith and David spent a month teaching music at the Eklavya Parivartan Vidyalaya residential school for girls in Usgaon, Maharashtra, seventy miles from Mumbai. The school provides an education to 170 tribal girls, some of whom come from tribes with female literacy rates close to 1%. UUHIP partner organization Vidhayak Sansad established the school to change this tragic and unjust scenario, allowing hundreds of tribal girls in the Thane District of Maharahstra to become the first
educated women in their families.

Keith and David are music teachers in Colorado. Keith is Minister of Music at the Jefferson Unitarian Church and David, an expert in woodwind instruments, has been Choir Director at Columbine Unitarian Church and involved in the children’s music program at Jefferson Unitarian Church.  The administrators in Usgaon welcomed Keith and David to spend a month teaching protest songs, in the social justice spirit of the school, spirituals, and flute and assisting the English teachers with their instruction.

I had the pleasure of meeting Keith and David during their time at the school in Usgaon.  They were the model for volunteers. They came well-prepared for the culture, language, and environment that they encountered in Maharashtra and were as eager to learn as they were to teach. It isn’t easy adapting to the chaotic schedules and confusing mix of languages anyone new to India finds, but Keith and David went through it all with a smile!

Inspired by their experience with the students in Usgaon, Keith and David resolved to hold musical recitals in the United States to raise $5,000 for UUHIP’s work in education. That amount would allow one student to attend the school in Usgaon for ten years, from the first grade to the tenth, after which students can go to college in India. The recital in August featured classical songs in French and German, flute music, and a performance of “Silence and Music,” a choral piece by Keith that he conceived while in India. Keith and David also presented on their time at the school and the incredible impact it has on
students’ lives.

I was moved to learn of the reactions to the event and the generous contributions those attended made to UUHIP. Dea Brayden, special assistant to President Peter Morales, sent us her reflections:

Keith composed a choral piece that was stunning. He was inspired by his time at an ashram. That’s where that music began in his head…I can tell you that people were so so moved by the slide presentation and by the videos and recordings of the girls singing and of life at the school. Of course, Keith, David  and I were in tears.

Keith and David followed up this event with another recital for UUHIP at the home of UUA President Peter Morales and his wife Phyllis Morales. They have now raised $3,971 and plan to hold more musical fundraisers, inspired by the impact it will have on educating disadvantaged youth. The UU Holdeen India Program is deeply grateful to Keith and David for their outstanding commitment.

One Young Woman’s Dedication to Education in India

Kathy Sreedhar with students at the school in Usgaon

Early in September, Kathy Sreedhar, Director Emerita of the UU Holdeen India Program, called to tell me that her seventeen-year-old niece Emily Teall was about to donate $10,000 for our work in education! I was overwhelmed by the news. That would allow twenty new students to attend for one year. What had inspired this young woman, still in high school, to make such an incredible contribution? Kathy told me that Emily had always known about our program’s work in India through what her aunt told her growing up and the kind of education that the school in Usgaon provided tribal girls.  When she turned sixteen she surprised Kathy by donating to our program everything her family and friends gave her for her birthday. She also told Kathy that she was celebrating her birthday by taking friends to a speech by Elie Wiesel. She’s quite an amazing young woman!

That year she and her parents made a personal visit to the school in Usgaon. The girls studying at the school greeted them with songs and laughter. Pictures here of the students show just how warm and welcoming their smiles can be! The Tealls saw the plaque outside the school, dedicating the building to Kathy Sreedhar for her nearly three decades of guidance and support to the institution. They also had an inspiring interaction with Vivek Pandit, one of the founders of the school and now a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Maharashtra. He told us later how impressed he was to meet a sixteen-year-old American so dedicated to the education of tribal children in India.

After Emily decided to make her contribution of $10,000, we asked her what had moved her to provide such incredible support to UUHIP. She’s a modest person and didn’t want to discuss her own motivations, but offered these reflections on the responsibility of those more prosperous to support the disadvantaged:

I believe that the difference between haves and have-nots is one of birthplace, luck or opportunity. Those who lead a life of affluence therefore have a moral responsibility to aid those in need. It costs little to those with wealth and could make a huge impact on those without; they in turn will better the world for themselves and for others, both rich and poor…Those with money also have a moral responsibility to aid those without because indifference or inaction sits no better morally than acting against someone.

Emily graduates from high school this year and we have no doubt that she will continue to inspire others with her vision and dedication. UUHIP is profoundly appreciative of her contribution to education in India.

Ela Bhatt honored with Radcliffe Award

Ela Bhatt
Image source: Harvard Magazine

In keeping with a historied tradition of honoring individuals who have had a transformative impact on society, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study bestowed this year’s Radcliffe Institute Medal upon Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.

“The definition of leader in SEWA is one who helps make others lead,” said Radcliffe Institute Dean Barbara J. Grosz, quoting Bhatt during her introductory remarks on Radcliffe Day, which took place May 27th.

With a legacy of leading and creating leaders, Bhatt certainly fits the bill.

Empowering over 1.3 million marginalized women in India since 1972, SEWA, under Bhatt’s leadership, has created a social justice movement that’s challenging and changing the very fabric of Indian society, believing that “it is from the margins that real transformation comes to the center.” With its origins as a women’s trade union, SEWA has steadily developed into a self-governed NGO, offering assistance in the form of  microlending, health and life insurance, and child care to its members.

“The Radcliffe Institute is proud to honor [Bhatt] this year, in which gender in the developing world is one of its dominant themes,” the Institute said. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is a scholarly community where individuals pursue advanced work across a wide range of academic disciplines, professions and creative arts, with sustained commitment to the study of women, gender, and society.

Over the years, Bhatt has been internationally recognized for her incredible social justice work. Last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honored Bhatt with the Global Fairness Initiative Award; Bhatt was also the 2010 honoree of the Niwano Peace Prize.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, through the UU Holdeen India Program, has been a strong ally and supporter of SEWA for the last 27 years.

Read Harvard Magazine’s coverage of Radcliffe Day and hear Ela Bhatt’s speech

Holdeen Partner ENSS/SUTRA Receives Changemakers Grant

ENSS/SUTRA A Family of One's Own

The Omidyar Network and Ashoka’s Changemakers program announced UU Holdeen India Program partner Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS), a social movement working through Social Uplift Through Rural Action (SUTRA), as a winner of their “Property Rights: Identity, Dignity, & Opportunity for All” competition at last week’s annual World Bank Conference on Land & Poverty.

In conjunction with SUTRA, ENSS works to secure the rights of single women so that they can live with dignity and justice in Himachal Pradesh, India. Widowed, divorced, deserted, and unmarried women in India face unfathomable challenges, suffering in silence while a draconian system of mores strips them of rights and even basic assistance from their own families. With over 6,000 members, cutting across caste and class divides, ENSS has said no more to this systemic oppression.

By forging new family relationships and giving single women a support network, ENSS/SUTRA is demanding long-term lease rights for them from the government. Promoting a new type of “family,” or naya sasural, single women of all ages would be brought together to create a joint household, allowing for a division of labor through interdependence. This new kinship model gives women the opportunity to help one another and themselves by sharing househould responsibilities, childcare, and farming. Through it, they are no longer alone.

ENSS/SUTRA is pushing the Himachal Pradesh government to grant 30-year lease rights to single women. Through such an acquisition, a collective resource will be born and passed on, empowering landless and economically vulnerable single women. To encourage their government, ENSS/SUTRA plans to create a pilot program of five naya sasurals, comprised of 10 single women and their children, to demonstrate the value of this new family model and the importance of long-term lease rights.

The Changemakers competition attracted over 211 entries from 47 countries around the world, engaging a global community of thought leaders, sector experts, and citizens in support of the critical issue of property rights. ENSS/SUTRA, along with two other grant recipients, will receive $50,000, along with access to a broad network of leaders, to further their incredible work in this important field.

UUA hires new UU Holdeen India Program Director: Mr. Derek Mitchell

Mr. Derek Mitchell

It’s a pleasure to announce that Mr. Derek Mitchell will serve as the new Director of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) effective August 1, 2011.

For the last nine years Derek has studied and researched inIndia, exploring the causes of social transformation and engaging in strategic planning and evaluation with non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups.

Derek recently served for nearly three years as the Philips Talbot Fellow of theInstituteofCurrent World Affairs. He traveled throughoutIndia, extensively researching the challenges that impoverished communities face through globalization and economic change. This broad exposure has made him a trusted adviser to foundations and research institutions concerned about social and economic transformation inIndia.

With a degree in Religion fromColumbiaUniversityand experience working with the Gandhi Peace Foundation as a Fulbright Scholar, Derek brings with him a spiritual and philosophical understanding of the complexities surrounding social change inIndia. Additionally, Derek has worked with current UUHIP Director, Kathy Sreedhar, for the last three and a half years and has subsequently built close relationships with current UUHIP partners, informing his deep understanding of the program’s approach to social justice and organizational support.

As announced last Fall, Kathy Sreedhar will continue to work for UUHIP in a part-time capacity beginning July 1, 2011 and retire from the UUA on June 30, 2012.

Please join the UUA in welcoming Derek into his new position!


“My Life”

"My Life" composition winner and Dea Brayden, Special Assistant to President Morales

This is an essay by a student of the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) vocational school in Ahmedabad, a partner of the UU Holdeen India Program.

This student won the “My Life” composition award at her graduation ceremony, which President Morales attended last month on his journey through India. Her composition was translated into English below by Martin Macwan, founder of the DSK school.

In the story of my life I want to tell others that when I was studying in class 7, I had the desire to study further but I could not due to my family’s poor economic condition. There was a day when my family did not have even a single penny. We stayed hungry. My father has only one kidney and he has difficulty hearing. A year and half back my father was admitted to the hospital and his sister had donated one of her kidneys to him. As of now, my father has fractured his hand. These are some of the difficulties in my life.

My biggest difficulty is my engagement which I was not ready for but had given-in to due to the pressure of my parents. After I return home, I want to break my engagement as I wish to study further. I dream of becoming a beautician and earning money for my parents. I want my family to realize that I can contribute too.

When I was twelve years old, I was so anemic that people advised my parents not to waste money on my health and hospitalization; that I should essentially have been allowed to die. My parents were hopeful of my survival, however, could not find people who could donate blood to me. I’ll never forget that while I was hospitalized for twelve days in Jamnagar, one of our neighbors donated blood for me.

I have never been allowed to step out of my house. I have been told repeatedly that a girl should never step outside the house and respect and believe all her parents tell her. Thus,  I believed all what was told to me. After coming to DSK (Dalit Shakti Kendra) I believe that even a girl can make progress. In my family, all believe that a girl should be married off at sixteen. I am not prepared for marriage but my parents believe that a girl at sixteen is destined to be at her in-law’s home. I wonder why only girls have to suffer all these difficulties? The boys have no restrictions.

I cannot select my own dress. If I have to go somewhere I have to seek permission. Why all these rules for me alone? Why do these rules not apply to my brother? After I return home from DSK I want to tell my parents that both boys and girls should be treated as equals and should not be discriminated against. Initially I did not like DSK but today I feel it is my own home. I do not wish to leave from here. On my return home, I want to challenge my arranged marriage. DSK has taught me that I should make decisions for my own life.

I understand that parents like agreeable daughters. After coming to DSK I have learned that a I have a right to have a say about my own life. I have a right to live. On my return home, I want to convince my neighbors to send their daughter to DSK. I will tell them that after going to DSK one gets a new life as has been the case with me. On my return home, I want to setup my own business. I want to become self-sustaining.

Initially all were opposed to my idea of coming to DSK, but I did not believe them. I will convince my parents that girls should be allowed to be free. One of my nieces had eloped with a boy and my parents feared that I too, if set free, would also elope. Parents should trust their children; girls elope when parents do not trust them. Although I shall never elope, I do want to marry the person I choose. I do not want to disrespect my parents but it does not mean that I shall give in to their choice of the boy when it comes to the question of my marriage. It is my life and marriage has to be my choice.

After marriage, do the parents know that the girls are happy with their husbands? I want to ensure for my marriagethat I am happy after the marriage. It is a normal case that initially after the marriage, the girls are treated nicely by the in-laws but often, in the later days, they are beaten and sometimes even killed too. At DSK I have learned that I have a right to live and make progress.

At home, I hated to be a girl. The girls are expected to make all the sacrifices. After coming to DSK I am proud of being a girl. In our families when a girl is born, her arrival is treated as an advent of  ‘Trouble’ for the family. Birth of the son, on the other hand, is an advent of ‘Kuldipak’ (Lamp of the clan). The life of the girl is compared to ‘Jalebi’ (A sweet that is shaped like a spider net, with complicated architecture) but the birth of a son is celebrated by distributing ‘Penda’ a delicacy, which is nicely shaped and known for its taste. Why do our own parents discriminate against us girls?

Everyone in the neighborhood tries to influence me and my parents regarding my marriage. People and my parents question me on my idea of pursuing my education in place of marriage. Their logic is that after marriage the girl has to attend to all household chores and therefore need not be educated. But I do not approve the idea that women have to serve the husband after the marriage. He will order for water and then go to sleep. At every stage, the girl after her marriage is criticized and oppressed. Often she is abused and assaulted. She has to obey everything her father and mother-in-law tell her. Hence I do not want to marry until I am on my own and independent. On my return, I want to tell others not to interfere in my life.

I want to start my small business. I will never be able to forget what I learned at DSK. This is the account of my life thus far.

International Women’s Day: Ela Bhatt Counted Amongst “Women Deliver 100”

Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a partner of the UU Holdeen India Program,  is on the list of top 100 people working to advance women’s lives worldwide.

In line with 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, advocacy organization Women Deliver has announced the “Women Deliver 100,” the group’s list of the hundred “most inspiring people who have delivered for girls and women.”

“This list recognizes women and men, both prominent and lesser known, who have committed themselves to improving the lives of girls and women around the world. Honorees derive from the fields of health, human rights, politics, economics, education, journalism, and philanthropy, and represent a great diversity of geographic and cultural backgrounds,” according to the group.

Included on the list are Michelle Bachelet, executive director of the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or U.N. Women, Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the U.N., Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, and Andrew Mitchell, U.K. secretary of state for international development.

“I am flattered to be included in the Women Deliver list which recognizes people working hard to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Mitchell said in a Mar. 2 statement. “Girls and women are at the forefront of the UK Government’s work to tackle poverty in the world’s poorest countries.”

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th; this is the 100th anniversary of this special day.

Empowerment through education

On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked upon a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI). This blog post by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit to a vocational school in Ahmedabad for Dalits and other castes, founded by Martin Macwan, a renowned human rights activist and champion for Dalit rights.

We arrive at the Dalit Shakti Kendra vocational school just in time for graduation. Actually, that is not the whole truth. One of the parts of being UUA president that I find embarrassing is that people make such a fuss. I know that it is for the office and not for me, but it still feels weird. So, the truth is that the graduation ceremony for these young women begins when we arrive. And, given the realities of traffic in India, we arrive whenever we get there.

These young women are mostly 17-20. They are smiling, proud, confident, joyful. This afternoon they will return to their homes, mostly villages, with skills that can help them rise one rung on the ladder out of abject poverty. They face tough odds—but more on that in a bit.

They have just completed a three month training course in a vocational skill—things like being a beautician, a seamstress, basic office computing skills, etc. There are a couple of dozen options. I, my assistant Dea Brayden, and a couple of volunteers from Jewish World Service are the “dignitaries” up on stage. There are special awards for writing, speaking, and even sports awards. These last are important, for most of these young women have never done anything athletic. Most have never worn a pair of shorts outdoors.

The school, now ten years old, was founded by Martin Macwan. Martin is a living legend. He was a Dalit child laborer who eventually won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. This school began as a school for Dalits, but now accepts students from other castes as well.

In addition to being a gifted leader, Martin is a font of creative ideas. Take a look at the accompanying photo of “Gulliver.” Gulliver, still under construction, will be a tour of the interior of human anatomy. In his office he shows a clever but disturbing box that includes little cubes that show existing practices of untouchability and their prevalence. There are almost one hundred practices and many are prevalent in more than 90 percent of villages. These include such things as a Dalit woman having to prostrate herself before a high caste to beg permission to marry.

I was particularly impressed with Martin’s willingness to evaluate what his school is doing and make changes. For example, they have found that boys who attend the school are highly employable. They either get jobs or set up shop as a tiny independent business. But months after leaving only 20 percent of the girls are working. On further investigation they found that poor families were not willing to allow girls to leave the home for work and would not purchase equipment for girls. The school is changing so that every student will leave with the simple tool of her trade like a sewing machine or beautician tools. If they are not being used in six months, the tools will go back to the school.

This school has graduated more than 5,000 students. For many of them, this training was a godsend.

I find myself wondering why there aren’t thousands of schools like this and why the public education system is so indifferent to the poor. Of course, I have seen similar struggles in America’s schools.

Five thousand graduates. And the poverty in India includes several hundred million. There are more desperately poor in India than the entire population of America.

The arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but that arc is very, very long. I find myself wondering whether I could have the courage and sheer stubbornness to stay the course the way these human rights leaders have. My hunch is that the smiles of the graduates keep him going.

Rev. Morales was recently on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.

View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit at the Dalit Shakti Kendra Vocational School!

Waste pickers of New Delhi

On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked upon a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI). This blog post by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with waste pickers in New Delhi.

The best way to read this posting is to sit next to an open garbage can, preferably a “ripe” can. Try to imagine living with that smell all day, every day.

Today we visit “waste pickers” in New Delhi. These people make their living sorting through garbage, picking out what has value in the recycling market. It rained a couple of days ago, so the path into the site is muddy. We have to pick our way carefully. Mahesh and Shashi, who work to help organize waste pickers, lead us to a small room. The room is the only “structure” in the dump. This dump for sorting garbage is one of about 70 in the city.

We enter to meet some of the leaders of this waste picker community. As always, they offer tea. We hear numbers that are simply staggering. There are 350,000 waste pickers in Delhi. This site is far from the worst. In the distance we can see a “land fill” larger than the mesas back home in Colorado. The waste pickers live here at the site, in makeshift huts among the garbage. Cattle and dogs wander around.

The big issues for these waste pickers right now are, ironically enough, access to garbage and a place to process it. Now that there is money in recycling, big corporations are moving in, threatening to move these people from garbage sorters to unemployed. They also want a place set aside for sorting so that they don’t have to live among the piles of waste.

I find myself wondering whether any of these people have ever slept in a bed with a mattress and sheets. Or whether any of them have ever experienced hot and cold running water. I wonder, but I know the answer. Few of these people will live to the age of 50.

In a matter of weeks or months everyone will be forced to leave. As New Delhi continues its explosive growth (there are something like 17 million in the metropolitan area), the waste sorting sites get pushed further and further out. A couple of blocks away a new five star hotel is going up. Its owners will not want guests looking out on heaps of garbage.

The children here cannot attend government school because they are “undocumented.” Having been born at home in villages, they cannot prove they are citizens of India. India has millions of illegal migrants who are actually Indian citizens but cannot prove it.

The small room we are in doubles as a one-room school run by volunteers. On the chalkboard are names of the months in Hindi and English. The school started with five children. Now there are 55, so many that they have to meet outdoors. As we meet, a couple of curious kids pop in. One boy, dressed in yellow pants and shirt, looks like he just got out of the shower. His hair is perfectly combed.

As we visit, it is clear that the people, while quite friendly and polite, are not sure what to make of a religious leader who has come wearing jeans and sturdy REI walking shoes. They wonder if I am going to preach or do something ceremonial. I try to explain that for us, spirituality and work for human equality are inseparable, that for many UU’s service is our prayer. “Oh,” one of them says in Hindi, “for you work is worship.”

The program we fund through the UU Holdeen India Program helps support basic organizing work among the waste pickers. Progress is very slow. The challenge is simply staggering.

As I return to my simple hotel room (one star level, but it now seems like the ultimate in luxury), I reflect on what I have seen. None of this is necessary. People need not live like this.

I realize that what is most disturbing in all of this is what has happened to people in India and in the whole of our world when we tolerate such things. Some important part of us dies when we become numb to the suffering of others.

Rev. Morales was recently on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.

View more photos from President Morales's visit with the waste pickers of New Delhi!

They are leaders. And it could be dangerous.

On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked upon a two-week journey to India to visit with several partners of the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) and with leaders of the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI). This blog post by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with a Dalit family in Gujarat.

My right hip joint screamed, sitting on the hard floor. My pampered and aging body is not used to this. It longs for my comfortable office chair. I fidget, but I dare not get up. This is too important. I am sharing a meal with the wife and sons of a Dalit martyr.

Some 25 years ago, Pocha and three other men were murdered by high-caste neighbors because they stood up for land rights for Dalits, “untouchables.” Worse yet, these people were essentially abandoned by the liberation theology-influenced Catholics who had inspired them to stand up for their rights.

Today, this Dalit ghetto still has no running water. It has been shut off by the ruling caste. A half-mile or so from the ghetto are the village wells. There are four of them. You may only take water from the well appropriate to your caste. The Dalit well, of course, is the furthest away. And it regularly has dead animals thrown into it so that Dalits have to beg for water from the other wells — wells from which they dare not draw water themselves.

Pocha’s widow, Dani, who has been very quiet, tears up when asked how she found the strength to continue after her young husband’s murder. She raised five children. Today we sit in a small concrete house. It is a recent upgrade from the hut in which they lived before. Ramesh and Himat, the sons, have taken up their father’s work. They are leaders. And it could be dangerous.

As the meal is served, I am asked to offer a blessing. These people are nominally Christian. (Someday I will get used to these sudden requests that I lead a prayer.) I quickly scramble through Christian images in my mind. My prayer speaks about Jesus teaching that when a few gather in his memory, his spirit is with them. I speak of bringing the memory and spirit of Pocha into our midst. Then I speak of Jesus teaching that an act of service to the lowest member of society is the same as rendering that service to him.

I realize, as I sit on the floor sharing a simple (but wonderfully spicy and delicious!) meal, that I am there as the representative of our religion and of the wonderful work the Holdeen India Program has done here in the past decades. Having me as a guest is not a big deal; having the president of the UUA there is a big deal.

And I realize, too, that these people have been abandoned before by a foreign religious body that turned and ran when the going got tough. May that never be said of us.

Rev. Morales is on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners.

View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit!