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.