Unitarians in the Khasi Hills

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 the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills.

On the road from the Guwahati airport up to Shillong I saw my life flash before me so many times I got tired of the reruns. It took four hours to go about 60 miles up the winding road. The road was utterly jammed with coal trucks going 10 or 15 miles an hour and belching thick black diesel exhaust. We would pass them, avoiding head-on crashes with millimeters to spare. I grasped the “chicken strap” handle above my door and wondered whether getting crushed by a Khasi coal truck would qualify as martyrdom. I didn’t think it would. Khasi traffic is to Boston traffic as Boston traffic is to a rural road in western Wyoming.

Shillong, a city I had never heard of, has a population of around two million. In the manner of fast growing cities in the developing world, it is noisy, crowded, and has air that is horribly polluted. It was our base during the visit. In many ways, visiting the Khasi Hills is leaving India. The language is different. The people look very different. The vast majority of them are Christian, with Catholics and Presbyterians being the largest groups. The caste system, a continuing blight on Indian life, is completely absent.

The Unitarian movement here is utterly fascinating. The founder of the movement, Hajom Kissor Singh, arrived at a classic Unitarian theology entirely by himself late in the nineteenth century. He had no knowledge of Unitarianism. (You can read more about him here.)

The Khasi Unitarian movement he founded is now the third largest group of Unitarians or Unitarian Universalists in the world. There are 45 congregations with a total of about 10,000 adults and children. Only the United States and Romania have more.

While there I visited the “mother church” in Jowai, a congregation serving 1,000 people, and the site of the headquarters of the their association. We also visited a number of rural churches in the villages. Evidence of the long relationship between the UUA and the Khasi Unitarians is everywhere. People remember former UUA presidents who have visited. Several of their churches have partner congregations in the United States.

Everywhere we were greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. These Unitarians have more than congregations. They value education and run a number of schools. They have even created a small orphanage that currently provides a home for 21 children. Like us, they worry about keeping their young people. Like us, they never have enough funds to do all they wish to do.

My last day there, Sunday, Feb. 27, I preached at the Madan Laban church in Shillong. In my sermon I spoke of our common heritage as religious people who are never content to preserve the past. I spoke about how the essence of our spiritual heritage is to be people who cross borders, who see opportunities, who continue to learn. I spoke of how today we are challenged to cross borders of culture and class.

We have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the Khasi Hills and elsewhere in the world. They have much to teach us about how our faith can express itself in different ways and yet remain true to our core values of human dignity, compassion, freedom and justice.

If we are to be a thriving religious movement in this century, I am convinced we will do so by joining in partnership with Unitarians and UU’s from across the globe. In this new multicultural world we have much to learn from one another.

Rev. Morales was recently on a two-week journey across India to meet with human rights partners. This concludes the coverage of his journey; view all of the posts from the trip here.

View more photos from President Morales's visit to the Khasi Hills!

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!

SEWA Organizes the Poorest of the Poor

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 blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with SEWA – the Self-Employed Women’s Association – a partner of the UU Holdeen India Program.

About 30 women sit on the floor ready to begin their organizing meeting. We are at a village office of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) a couple of hours west of Ahmedabad.

These women are SEWA village leaders, and they are something to behold. The overwhelming majority are illiterate Dalits. Years ago they would never have dreamed of leaving their village to attend a meeting. Most would not have come out of their home. Today they are leaders.

SEWA is a stunning success story—and a testimony to the change we Unitarian Universalists can help create with the right partners. SEWA membership is now 1.2 million. And they plan to add millions more in the next few years. This is grassroots organizing at its best.

On this excursion we are accompanied by Reema Nanavaty, SEWA’s extraordinary leader. She is quiet, calm, small, and an organizational force of nature.

At the village meeting we hear the women talk of their organizing work and of the changes they have already wrought. Perhaps chief among these changes is the effect their involvement has had upon men, particularly their husbands. They talk of husbands who originally resisted their work, who moved to grudgingly tolerating it, to the miracle of a husband who will actually cook a family meal while she is away or even serve tea to women who gather at the family home.

SEWA organizes the poorest of the poor. Its focus is upon empowerment. This is not a charity. The strength these women draw from one another is palpable. They have become a movement ten times the membership of all our UU congregations. It is humbling and deeply moving.

One of the women, who works as a “RUDI” (an itinerant merchant of SEWA food and related products), speaks of how she has diversified and now carries a cell phone and charger. For a fee she will charge a phone and also sells minutes, becoming an itinerant cell phone. I jokingly tell her that my phone could use a charging. With a entrepreneurial sparkle in her eye she offers to sell me some minutes if I need to make a quick call.

This, I pray, is how our world will change. SEWA is doing truly amazing work. My phone did not get recharged. I did.

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

View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit with SEWA!

Freedom Tastes Like Salt

On February 14, 2011, Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), embarked on 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 blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit with salt workers in Gujarat who the UU Holdeen India Program works with through the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

It isn’t as though I have not seen poverty before. I saw it growing up in San Antonio. I have seen it in American cities and rural poverty in the deep South, in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

The flatlands surrounding the salt pan in Gujarat, India.Yet I was not prepared for the salt pan workers. Even the photos cannot do this justice. We drive across featureless dried mud for miles. Around us there is an endless expanse of perfectly flat, perfectly brown nothingness. I am wishing I had a GPS unit and had “dropped a pin” at the start, for I have no idea where we are or how we could possibly find our way back. We pass some wild asses along the way and wonder what they eat out here.

A salt worker raking brine.Finally we arrive at the camp. We get a tour of the well, the pump, and what look like rice paddies with white salt at the bottom of a few inches of brine. The salt workers camp out here for six to eight months. Entire families come. They walk out here, carrying what they will need. The season begins with women smoothing out the bottom of the salt paddies with their bare feet. We learn that their feet have absorbed so much salt that when they die and are cremated their feet don’t burn.

Rev. Peter Morales meets with salt pan workersOK. I was prepared to see some rough conditions. What really got to me was when we sat having tea and bread squatted on the tent floor. Ready for the big shock? Here it is: They love this! And they are not faking it. Their faces light up when they talk of finally marching out here, carrying all what they will need for the season. The children are happy (children can’t fake this).

For me this would be life in hell. Nothing green in sight (and I mean nothing) for miles. Living in a small tent in a desert. No electricity. Hard work all day. And they love it.

Salt crystals.They love it because here they are free. They set their own pace. They have no overseer. In the village they are Dalits, “untouchables.” They are dehumanized every day. I realize that I take so many freedoms for granted. These untouchables are happy to endure enormous hardship for a small taste of freedom.

Here, in the desert of Gujarat, freedom tastes like salt.

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

Salt workers chanting "We are one!"
View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit with the salt workers!

Seeds of a Social Revolution

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 blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey. In this update Rev. Morales reflects upon his visit at a girls’ school in Usgaon, run by UU Holdeen India Program partner organization Vidhayak Sansad.

I saw the seeds of a social revolution at a girls’ school in Usgaon last night. I looked out at 177 girls. They were smiling, alert, overflowing with enthusiasm, full of life. They had just put on an amazing program of song, dance, and drama for us, mysterious visitors from a place they cannot imagine.

These vivacious girls are daughters of brick makers. Their mothers have no education and are little more than beasts of burden or slaves. Were it not for this school, these girls would be hauling heavy bricks to kilns and caring for siblings. The physical and spiritual brutality of such a life is beyond my imagination. Yet I saw it, only a few hundred meters from the school.

I write this at dawn the following morning, after staying on the school grounds in simple accommodations. I have just had a bucket bath (no shower), with warm water from their solar unit. These simple accommodations are something the families of these girls have never experienced — and, sadly, probably never will experience.

But these girls will have a different life. They are full of hope and determination. They are learning to read and write. Perhaps more importantly, they have self esteem and a growing confidence. They have no illusions about the exploitation from which they come. This school, less than two hours from Mumbai (Bombay) is run by an organization called Vidhayak Sansad co-founded by Vivek Pandit and his wife Vidyullata. Theirs is an amazing story. He has worked to free thousands of bonded laborers – India’s equivalent of slaves. He is now a member of the district legislative assembly.

Watching these girls and seeing the work of Vidhayak Sansad spurred me to reflect upon the limits of charity. What makes this effort so important is that it is not charity; it is empowerment. Charity can alleviate suffering, but cannot do anything to change conditions that produce suffering. These girls, and millions like them, have a chance to change India forever. It makes me proud that our Holdeen India program has played a critical role in supporting this effort.

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

View more photos from Rev. Morales's visit with Vidhayak Sansad!

India’s Hidden Poverty

Juhu Beach, Mumbai

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 blogpost by Rev. Morales is part of the continuing coverage of the journey.

In American cities, poverty is mostly hidden from view. Here in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the images and smells are on every block. We walked for about two-and-a-half hours today and never went 50 yards without being confronted by heart-rending sights.

In America, especially in prosperous suburbs, one can go months without encountering the desperately poor. India’s hidden poverty is enormous, but its hidden poverty is actually outside the city. Here, almost a billion people live on about fifty cents a day.

This evening we had dinner with Palagummi Sainath, an award winning journalist, and his wife Sonya, an activist in the women’s movement. Sainath is the author of the influential book, Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Sainath’s writing is wonderful. It is clear and powerful. In person, his tireless passion and moral outrage over what is happening to more than 800 million Indians living in rural poverty is palpable.

Sonya and Palagummi Sainath

The situation has gotten so bad that more than 17,000 farmers commit suicide every year. The suicide rate has skyrocketed along with foreclosures in recent years. Indian farmers have one of the highest suicide rates on earth.

India, like so much of the world today, is a study in which a very few get spectacularly rich with the nation’s economic growth, while the vast majority sink lower and lower. In America, the percentage of wealth controlled by the top one percent of our population has shot up during the last twenty years.

In the coming days, we will be visiting organizations partnered with the UUA’s Holdeen India Program. These organizations attempt to help the poorest of the poor, not primarily with economic assistance but by supporting grassroots organizations that help people organize themselves to access legal rights guaranteed by the constitution but ignored by the government.

I am no expert on economic development. Yet, as a religious leader, I cannot help but wonder why we see so little moral outrage when the very few get spectacularly wealthy while little is done to help the desperately poor. Where is the compassion? Where is the sense of justice?

Our next visit is to a rural school for poor girls. I will sleep in what I am told is a rundown room.

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

View the trip route:

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President Morales Visits India – Photos from Mumbai