Harold Babcock's Sermons

March 29, 2009

Human Rights: A Personal View

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 7:54 pm

“Though the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
– Helen Keller

I do not claim to be an expert on human rights, certainly not an exemplar in their protection, but, like many of you, I have been disturbed in the years since September 11, 2001 by what seems to have been an erosion, not only of the reality, but even of the appearance that my country supports the ideal of universal human rights.  For the reality is that while the United States has often supported human rights when it was convenient to do so, as our history of interventions in Latin America alone suggests, it has not always done so when it might interfere with our political and especially our economic interests.

The erosion of our real or only apparent support for human rights may have begun some years earlier than 9/11 in a growing distrust of the United Nations, an organization whose founding and purpose has been strongly supported by Unitarian Universalists ever since its inception as a first step toward what our Purposes and Principles call “ the goal of world community with liberty, peace, and justice for all.”  For many years now the United States has failed to fully meet its financial obligations to the UN.

The erosion of support for human rights has been further signaled by the reluctance of successive United States Administrations to become signatories to the legal frameworks of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, apparently out of the understandably realistic fear that some American citizens might be brought before that court and charged with crimes against humanity.

The questionably-legal retention of hundreds of suspected terrorists and so-called “enemy combatants” in Guantanomo in Cuba has further eroded confidence that the United States continues to support the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or even cares about the appearance of doing so.

Apparently, when it comes to human rights, Americans are to be considered either above the law, or exempt from it.  But are we really that good, and are we really that guiltless?  This double standard begs the question: can we really be trusted to do the right thing?

Ever since 9/11, our foreign policy has been at least in part driven by fear.  Unfortunately, this fear-based foreign policy has caused us to squander what, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was probably the greatest outpouring of goodwill toward our nation at least since the 1989 fall of communism or at most since the end of World War II.  This post-9/11 foreign policy has led us into a questionable war, and it has been only questionably successful in one of its most frequently stated goals: the elimination of the threat of groups like Al Qaida; it has been completely unsuccessful in another: the capture of its leader, Osama Bin Laden.

This, after all, has been billed as a “war against terror.”

These are, of course, observations that might be made by any of us, and probably have been.  They could be construed, I know, as “unpatriotic.”  It does not make me feel good to make them.  Though skeptical of patriotism, I love my country and want it to be better than it is.  I am, as I said, not an expert on human rights.  But I have found the United States actions in recent years to be disappointing at best, disillusioning at worst, and just depressing in general.  Is there reason to hope that some constructive change might be imminent?  Or will the current economic crisis put a halt to this and many other potential positive changes in our country?  What a shame that would be.

In my own understanding of human rights and why it is important to protect them, I have been guided in my life and in my ministry by several principles or ideals from my religious upbringing in the Unitarian, now Unitarian Universalist, Church.  Broadly speaking, these principles are taken directly from the Hebrew Bible and from the New Testament teachings of the man Jesus of Nazareth, that is, they come directly from our Judeo- Christian heritage.  But in fact they are supported by both secular and sacred teachings from a multitude of sources all over the world.

The first of these principles or ideals is the so-called “Golden Rule”: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Or, in its negative form: “do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”  The Golden Rule is “golden” because of its universality!  It is found not only in the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, but in Islam and in all the Eastern religious traditions as well.  It’s pretty obvious that the world would be a far more humane place if we were to abide by this simple rule.  But we don’t.

In my ministry I have been particularly moved by the Hebrew Bible’s injunction, found in several places, to “remember the stranger who is among you.”  (The story that I read to you this morning [“Stranger on the Bus”] is a beautiful and courageous example of living our this injunction.)  We ought to do this, the Bible reminds us, because “we were strangers in Egypt” before the Exodus, which, so the story goes, brought us out of slavery and into the so-called “promised land.”  All of us, at some level and to some degree, are strangers.  It is, in fact, in our own self-interest to be kind to the strangers among us, just as it is in our self-interest to obey the Golden Rule.

This particular biblical injunction has been foundational to my understanding of the church as a beloved community, but, even more, to my understanding of human rights issues such as gay and lesbian rights, and, more recently, to my sympathy for the problems faced by immigrants to this country, whether legal or not.  “Remember the stranger among you, for you were strangers in Egypt.”  It makes you think and ask, what does God–however I interpret that–expect of me?  How ought I to treat the other, particularly the unfamiliar other?

Another seminal biblical passage for me comes from the teachings of Jesus, but is also found in Judaism.  It is the so-called Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  We love to give lip service to this instruction, but find it terribly hard in the execution.  But I have tried to be guided by it in my dealings both with people and with ultimate reality.

Equally challenging to me has been Jesus’s response to those who would claim to be his followers: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Believe it or not, this passage has given me not only the impetus, but more importantly the courage, to stand at the beside of the dying, to visit with and hold the hands of AIDs victims (before that disease was fully understood), and to walk through the gates of the Maine State Prison to visit a child abuser, among many other things I would rather not have had to do.  I’m not bragging, only trying to say that I have tried to do what is right, as I understand it, toward my fellow human beings, and though I have often failed, these are some of the challenging teachings that have inspired me to be my best, or at least my better, self.

And one could do far worse, when it comes to an understanding and practice of human rights, than to follow the prophet’s claim that God only expects us “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

All of these teachings have served as touchstones in my effort to live a good, or at least a better, life.  And it is teachings like these that under-gird my understanding of what human rights is all about and why we should care about them.

In recent years my understanding of human rights and their abuses has been deepened and I hope nuanced by my participation in our partner church relationship in Transylvania and in my international work with the UU Partner Church Council.  I have learned a lot about the difficulties faced by religious and ethnic minorities.  I have met the victims of human rights abuses and I have seen the impact those abuses can have, first hand.

Often, when I am in our partner church village, I find myself looking at one of the older people there and thinking about all that that person has lived through in his or her lifetime–things I cannot even imagine: fascism, and the devastation of war experienced first-hand, and fifty years of communist misrule: a political system which turned practically everyone into a spy and where personal integrity could lead to deprivation for oneself and one’s family, to imprisonment, and not infrequently, to death.

I have learned what it means for people who have experienced these things simply to have friends on the outside: often it means that someone, anyone, is keeping an eye out to notice possible abuses and to lend moral support to those who continue to be oppressed and to be prevented from achieving their full humanity.  Often our presence alone is enough to lend protection to those who are most vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Around the world, human rights continue to be abrogated.  Last year, our member Becky Dill spoke to us passionately about her personal commitment to work towards the alleviation of human rights abuses and suffering in the African region of Darfur; as of this week the Boston Globe was reporting that the crisis there is actually worsening after the expulsion of more than a dozen foreign aid groups.

But this is only one area in a world still suffering from such abuses, and it underscores the importance of our continued support for human rights worldwide and for the institutions which help to protect those rights.  As the morning’s reading reminded us, we cannot do everything, but still we can do something.

This year, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  I urge you to read this Declaration and to consider how far we have lived-up to or failed to live-up to its principles, and how it continues to challenge us on behalf of our troubled and troubling world to be the better people I truly believe we long to be.  (One small but important way that you can be involved in the support of human rights around the globe is by becoming a member of the Service Committee, if you aren’t one already.)

Perhaps nowhere is the need for human rights protection more compelling and heartrending than it is for children.  This past week, Sandra Thaxter, a member of our Social Action Committee, sent me the following excerpt from the Children’s Statement to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children from May 2002.  Perhaps you will find it as moving as I did:

We are the children of the world
We share a common reality
You call us the future, we are the present
We are not the sources of problems, we are the resources needed to solve them
We are not expenses, we are investments
We are the victims of exploitation and abuse
We are street children
We are the children of war
We are children whose voices are not being heard: it is time we are taken into account
We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for children is a world fit for everyone
We are the children of the world
We are united by our struggle to make the world a better place

Why should we care?  Because making the world a better place is what I believe religion is really all about, or ought to be.  As poet Mary Oliver has written, “I walk in the world to love it.”  Let us remember that we, too, are called to love the world and its people, and let each of us do what we can in whatever way we can to build the better world of our dreams.  May it be so.  Amen.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


March 15, 2009

Growing Into Stewardship: Opportunity and Challenge

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 7:27 pm

“. . .We remind you that you have chosen to belong to this church, to be part of it.  And then we ask, ‘How do you intend to take care of this community?”
– The Rev. Frank Clarkson

“Rank by rank again we stand.”  This old hymn–school song, really–so familiar to Unitarian Universalists who attend our annual General Assembly and its Service of the Living Tradition, reminds us of our calling to “higher truth”; it reminds us of our dreams and aspirations, and it reminds us of the sacrifices that others have made on our behalf.  It is almost always a thrilling moment when several thousand people join in singing together passionately the familiar words, “what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes, and seal them true.”

This, after all, is the essence of stewardship.  It is the recognition that we stand in a long line of truth-seeking and aspiration, a long line of people trying to live the best lives of which they are capable, and of people trying to build the better world of their, and our, dreams.  Stewardship is the commitment to make those dreams and aspirations, and that higher truth, a reality in our daily lives.

Today we are beginning our annual stewardship drive, and as we do so it is good to be again reminded of these things.  It is good to be reminded of the many reasons that we gather here, and of what we are striving to build together.  It is good to be reminded of our highest hopes and ideals, not only for ourselves, but for our children, and for our world.

Recently, you should have received a letter from me, most of you by e-mail, in which I asked you to think about what makes the church different from any of the other organizations which you support or to which you may belong.  I said,

Belonging to a church is unlike almost any other commitment you will ever make.  It asks you to be the better person you long to be.  It encourages you to be of service to a needy world, and not just for yourself.

I suggested that “there is probably no other cause which touches so many facets of our lives and lives of our children.”

This year a small and dedicated group of newcomers and old-timers has been hard at work to form a new vision of what stewardship ought to look like in the context of our church.  They have tried to think creatively about all the reasons we come to our church in the first place, and about what is really needed in order to build and support a beloved community here at the First Religious Society.  And this year, for the first time, they are asking that you consider “growing into stewardship” of this place which has become the spiritual home for so many of us, this place where we can be truly ourselves in our relationship to others and to God, this place which so many of us have come to love.

As my colleague Parisa Parsa wrote in the morning’s reading,

The spiritual notion of stewardship turns our common notions of care on their head.  It asks that we care for things not because they are ours, but because they are not ours: the planet, our nation, our towns, our church, our homes, even our own bodies.  All this is entrusted to us to care for as it were our own, to cherish and protect and hope to leave in better shape then we found it whenever possible.

“It’s profound,” Parisa writes, “to consider the responsibility that goes with stewardship, it’s a privilege and an honor and a task not for the faint-hearted.”

In my letter to you, I said that we understand that these are difficult economic times.  Hardly any of us have been unaffected by the events of recent months.  Yet, we believe there is still untapped potential for giving within this congregation.  This is our challenge.  I also said that we have looked at giving patterns in comparable Unitarian Universalist congregations, and we have good reason to believe that we can do much better.  And that, my friends, is our opportunity!

We cannot live by our fears alone.  Sometimes we must take risks, spiritual and intellectual and physical and material, in order to live life fully and to sustain the things we care most deeply about.

What would it mean for each of us to “grow into stewardship,” to move, as it says in our stewardship brochure, “beyond interest to commitment to community, not just out of self-interest but also out of a sense of obligation to those around us today and those who will come tomorrow”?

The question posed by this year’s stewardship drive: “Am I–are we–simply passing through this faith community, or is it a fundamental part of my life calling for earnest, continuous commitment?” seems to me to lie at the heart of the matter.  For it is commitment–commitment of our time, our talent, and not least of all our treasure–which often leads us to the discovery of deeper meaning and deeper obligation in our lives.  It is our commitments which restore and strengthen our faith in others and in ourselves, and it is our commitments which give us hope and courage in the face of our fears.

We Unitarian Universalists, I believe, are too often guilty of selling ourselves short when it comes to commitment.  We worry too much about not wanting to offend people or making unreasonable demands on them.  We are too often reluctant to speak about the need for sacrifice in order to uphold the things which we hold dear: whether it be the sacrifice of our time and energy, or, especially, the kind of “sacrificial giving” of our financial resources that other religious organizations often demand and receive from their members.

The result is that our church ends up seeming a whole lot less important than I believe it actually is.  The message we are sending is that what we stand for, what we are trying to accomplish in the world, what we have to offer, is just not all that important.

Yet, as our small group of First Religious Society visionaries has tried to make us think about, what would your life and this community be like without this Unitarian Universalist church?  What would your life be like without this quiet time for reflection and renewal on Sunday mornings?  What would it mean to our community if there were no one to promote our Unitarian Universalist principles of worth and dignity, of respect and justice, of equality and compassion?  Would our religious education program, which teaches our children tolerance and acceptance, which teaches them to value themselves and their bodies and the sacred gift of their lives, be missed?  Where would we go to hear music that lifts the spirit and nourishes the soul, and words which move us and inspire us to live lives of service and love?  Where would we go to find like-minded people with whom to share this journey of life?

Is all of that worth sacrificing for?  I believe that it is!  And I believe that our church is, in fact, of profound significance not only for us who are members and friends, but for the community at large.

For when others in our community have given voice to racial and religious intolerance, this church has tried to promote a different vision.  When others have voiced their prejudice and hate, this church, even by its presence alone, has stood in opposition.  Though we have not always succeeded in living up to our ideals–we are human, after all!–still we have tried to stand for truth and right.  We have tried to live up to our sacred aspirations, and we have tried to honor those who have gone before us who have sacrificed all in order that we might stand upon this sacred ground where we stand today, indeed, in order that we might have life itself.

In the words of this year’s stewardship brochure,

Stewardship, like our community, is multi-faceted.  We are stewards when we teach in Young Church, sing in the choir, commit ourselves to community action, or volunteer for clean-up day.  Without these acts of stewardship, we would not be the sort of community that drew each of us here in the first place.

But, as we are also reminded, “The truth is that our acts are supported, in fact enabled, by the financial health of our community.  Our stewardship, your stewardship, must include acts, and it must include generous financial support.”

As our former student minister Frank Clarkson recently wrote to his congregation in Haverhill,

. . .You have chosen to belong to this church, to be part of it.  And then we ask, ‘How do you intend to take care of this community?’ for the coming year, but not only that.  How do you intend to leave this church for the next generation? Will it be stronger or weaker, because of how we have acted?  Looking back, will we be proud of what we have done?”

And so, this year we are asking you to “grow into stewardship” of this, our beloved community.  We are asking you to increase your support of its aspirations and its dreams.  We are even asking you to make sacrifices on its behalf.  But, especially, we are–I am–asking you to join in supporting the lofty ideals of which our concluding hymn speaks:

Come, thou fount of inspiration, turn our lives to higher ways.
Lift our gloom and desperation, show the promise of this day.
Help us bind ourselves in union, help our hands tell of our love.
With thine aid, O fount of justice, earth be fair as heav’n above.

Amen, and blessed be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

March 1, 2009

Pilgrimage to the Khasi Hills

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 4:46 pm

“The ultimate authority in the Unitarian faith lies in the centre of the human heart.”
– The Rev. Helpme Mohrman

As most of you know, I recently returned from a visit to the Khasi Hills of northeastern India, where I had been invited to attend the 109th annual convention of the Unitarian Union of North Eastern India on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council.  Yes, there are real Unitarians in northeastern India, approximately 10,000 of them in over 30 churches!

Along with my wife Sabrina, I made the exhausting but fascinating trip to the remote city of Shillong, capital of Meghalaya State, sometimes known as “the Edinburgh of India” for it’s hilly location and quaint Victorian architecture dating from the days of British rule.  (Shillong, it seems, was considered a cool oasis during the long, hot Indian summers.)

There is so much to say about the Khasi Hills and people, but let me backtrack for just a minute to the Indian capital city of Delhi, where Sabrina and I spent three nights and two days en route to Shillong.  As this was our first trip to India, we were convinced by our Indian travel agent to spend at least a couple of days sightseeing in this more typical area of India, and in particular to make a day-trip to the city of Agra, location of the justly famed Taj Mahal.  I want to share just a few impressions of our two days in Delhi and Agra.  (Those of you who have traveled to India will possibly relate.)

Indians are the worst drivers in the world.  Conversely, Indians are the best drivers in the world: they must be, in order to survive the total chaos which characterizes driving most anywhere in India!  Indians are completely fatalistic when it comes to automobile travel: it’s all in the hands of God, or, more accurately in India proper, the gods.   As one of our tour guides told us, you need three things in order to drive in India: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck.  The horns, especially, are incessant, and as far as I could tell are used mainly on blind corners to alert drivers potentially coming from the opposite direction that you are in their lane–if indeed there is a lane!  Why there are not more accidents I don’t know.

Imagine a highway clogged with means of transportation of every kind: cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, tricycle rickshaws, people on foot, people pushing carts, where the center line, if there is one, is utterly meaningless, where adults and small children stand about in the road, where cattle and dogs fearlessly lie about on the pavement as if blissfully unaware of this madness sweeping around them, where the rules of the road, if there are any, are a total mystery.  As our Khasi friend Derick Pariat put it with truth, “Indians drive by instinct.” (Although, one hard and fast rule I think I discerned: don’t slow down for anything unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect life and limb.)

Until I went to India, I had thought that Romanians were the worst drivers in the world.  By contrast, Romanians are what we used to call “Sunday drivers.”

Judged by their driving, Indians are the most impatient people in the world.  But judged by the traffic and the pollution and the sheer numbers of human beings–over 16 million in Delhi alone– Indians must be the most patient people in the world.

Suffice it to say that between terrifying and stomach churning car rides Sabrina and I managed to see almost all of the major tourist sights in Delhi and Agra.  Yes, we encountered incredible poverty, the beggars are heartbreaking, but overall the sheer energy and color and excitement of India simply sweeps you off your feet.  It is, as one of our German friends, who recently visited India herself, said, “intense.”  It would take me hours to recount all the sights, sounds, smells, and impressions of even that brief visit.   India has even invaded my dreams, more than any place I have ever visited:  I don’t usually remember them, but since this trip I have continued to have strange, vivid, and memorable dreams.

Just before we stepped into the large, beautiful park surrounding the Taj Mahal, our wonderful tour guide in Agra, Suresh Dixit, said, “You’ve seen the Taj Mahal a thousand times.”  Yes, but what he meant was, when you really see it you realize what the fuss it is all about.  The Taj manages to live up to every unrealistic expectation.  It may be the most perfect man-made structure on earth.  We were told that it took 22,000 workers 22 years to complete.  When you see it up close, you wonder how it could possibly have been completed so quickly by so few.

Curious that the most beautiful structure in the world should be a tomb.

Brief impressions: the astronomical wealth and power possessed by the Indian Moguls.  The unparalleled artistry of Indian stone carvers and architects.  A funeral pyre seen burning along the banks of the beautiful Yamuna river from the walls of the incredible Red Fort.  The site of Gandhi’s cremation, now a popular and profound pilgrimage destination.  An evening with our Hindu tour guide in the shop of his young Muslim friend, where we were treated like members of the family.   And, yes, the horrible slums along the railroad route to Agra; the sides of the track one vast open air latrine.  As one of our guides put it, “All of India is one great loo.”  Perhaps the highlight of our time in Delhi: a tricycle rickshaw ride through the narrow, clogged, colorful, chaotic streets of Old Delhi.  Simply amazing and simply overwhelming.

After two days in Delhi and surroundings, we were completely worn-out and over-stimulated and looking forward to moving on to our visit in the Khasi Hills.  (For those whose geography is weak: the Khasi Hills are north of Bangladesh, south of Bhutan, and border Myanmar (formerly Burma) on the east.)  We flew about three hours from Delhi to the northeastern city of Guwahati, where we were met by my Khasi friend Pearl Greene Marbaniang’s brother-in-law Habib–I loved that–and put in a taxi for the four-hour-long trip to Shillong.  This, unbelievably, was the craziest drive of all, since the two lane highway between Guwahati and Shillong is the main traffic route from the north to the south of Meghalaya State, clogged with trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, children, and animals,  switch-backing its way terrifyingly through villages, through mountains and passes, and nary a guardrail in sight.  By the time we reached our guest house in Shillong–in the dark by this time, which may have been a blessing–we were completely done in.

Saturday and Sunday during our visit were taken up by the annual convention of the Khasi Unitarians, which was held this year in the small hill village of Pingwait, about a (you guessed it) hour or two drive from Shillong through indescribably beautiful hill country on narrow, winding, bumpy mountain roads.  I was given the honor of unfurling the banner of the Unitarian Union to open the convention.  I was also scheduled to offer a workshop on partnership later that day, but because the Union Board meeting ran to over four hours (not so surprisingly, they were arguing over their budget!), my workshop was cancelled.

No problem: we were invited to the home of the Rev. Nangroi Suting, whose lovely wife Bari provided us with a delicious lunch of tea, rice, vegetables, bread, and beef.  The Khasis live in extended families, and are one of the few matrilineal groups in India:  inheritance is through the mother’s family.  Bari and Nangroi are currently living not only with their only child, a two year old boy, but with several aunts and sisters, Bari’s mother and father, an older child of one of Bari’s sisters, several young women whom they have taken in and helped to educate, a British Unitarian visitor, and a young Unitarian Universlist woman from the States who is spending six months in the Khasi Hills.  All done with amazing grace and hospitality.  Their simple house sits high on a bluff with a glorious view across the Khasi Hills.

At the end of the day we returned to Shillong, so exhausted from the day’s experiences and impressions and journey that we retired to bed without supper at around eight in the evening.  The next day, which was Sunday, we returned early to Pingwait for the main event of the convention: a day-long worship service in a constructed-for-the-occasion outdoor church.  This is as close to a tent-meeting as I have ever been!  Soon the makeshift “church” was filled with about 500 Khasi villagers in their colorful tribal costume, prepared to spend an entire day in church, patiently (even the children!) listening to sermons and prayers and wonderful musical offerings and frequently singing hymns–it is clear that hymn singing is one of the most important elements of their worship–interrupted only by the sight of an occasional rooster wandering through the congregation.

The Khasi Unitarians are mostly poor, uneducated village farmers, raising livestock and vegetables on small, hillside farms where water is a precious commodity, especially in the non-rainy season, which February is.  Several hours a day are spent in carrying water, as few of the houses have running water, and most lack even the most basic sanitary facilities or electricity.  I heard of one village where there is one latrine for every 140 people.  Cooking is done over small, charcoal braziers, either indoors or out.  This time of year, which is the end of winter, the temperatures sometimes fall into the 30’s at night from a high of around 60 or 70 during the day, so the braziers also serve as central heating.

During the morning service I was scheduled to speak for about ten minutes, but soon realized that my “sermon” would pose too difficult a challenge for the translator, so I was madly eliminating quotations and whole paragraphs up until the moment I rose to give it.  By this time the power had failed–because of a particularly dry winter, the power, which is hydro-electric in origin, is turned off for brief periods each day.  So with no sound system, and a questionable translator, I set out to shout out my sermon to the few English speakers in the front rows who might be able to hear me.  If only I had known that the theme of the convention was “Let your little light shine” I might have had an easier time of it!  Though the sermons were all in Khasi, one would be jarred to occasionally hear the preacher say or in one case begin to sing in English, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”  Ultimately, it didn’t matter what I said, or didn’t say: it was our presence that really  mattered.

What to tell you about these wonderful and friendly people?  They are small in stature and huge in heart.  The Khasis apparently originated to the east, probably in Cambodia, and so they look more like Cambodians than typical Indians.  They are kind and generous and treat their guests with the greatest respect.  Many of the older people, men and women, chew the Betal nuts and leaves, disconcerting at first as it turns the mouth and teeth a bright red color.  As already noted, they are wonderful singers, joyful and heartfelt, and since many of their hymns come from the western, Christian tradition–most of the native people living in the Khasi Hills are Christians of one variety or another–it isn’t so hard to sing along in their phonetic Khasi hymnbook.  As we approached the convention site in Pingwait I was surprised to hear the tune “Abide with Me” playing through the sound system!

But are the Khasi Unitarians really Unitarians, I can hear you asking?  In fact, Khasi Unitarianism was founded by a native Khasi, Hajjom Kissor Singh, in 1887.  Singh discovered Unitarianism on his own after he became disaffected with orthodox Christianity.   His main influences were American and British Unitarians.  Though the Khasis remain theistic in their theological outlook, they are dedicated religious liberals.  Their original statement of faith reads,

We believe in the unity of God, in the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God, in the Brotherhood of Man, in Love, Union, Worship, and Faith, and in Immortality.

Singh himself defined Khasi Unitarianism in terms of duty to God, to fellow humans, and to oneself.

If I were to try to define Khasi Unitarianism for North American Unitarian Universalists, I would say that it is closest to the “Channing Unitarianism” of the 19th century; indeed, William Ellery Channing’s writings remain popular among the Khasis.  Several of their affirmations will sound familiar to long time Unitarian Universalists: salvation by character; the progress of humankind onward and upward forever; freedom, tolerance, and the use of reason in religious matters.  Jesus is a model for how the religious life should be lived, but not divine.  The motto of Khasi Unitarianism?  “To Nangroi”: “Keep on progressing.”

One thing I mustn’t fail to mention is the flaming chalice: flaming chalices are ubiquitous among the Khasi Unitarians and can be seen on and in their churches and in decorative motifs almost everywhere.  They are always lit during services and meetings.  My favorite Khasi chalice?  The one with an electric fan in the bottom inflating a paper mache flame at the top!

My dear friend Pearl Greene Marbaniang, Assistant General Secretary of the Unitarian Union and minister of the Unitarian Church in Shillong, gives this eloquent description of Khasi Unitarianism: “. . .the teaching and example of Jesus: the message of divine love, the love that casts out fear, the overcoming of evil with good, and the sublime belief in the essential divinity and potential splendor of the human spirit.”  It is a hopeful and optimistic faith.

(Khasis, by the way, are quite creative in the names they give their children: along with “Pearl,” a few of the names that we ran into: Purple [as in the color], Helpme, Roosevelt, and Recover.  Obama will probably be popular soon.)

Pearl is an English professor in his day job: none of the Unitarian Union ministers is paid for his or her services.  Ministry is truly a labor of love and religion a way of life in the Khasi Hills.  A diminutive and unassuming man, “addicted” as he says to the Betal leaf, I first got to know Pearl at the ICUU meeting I attended in Oberwesel Germany in the fall of 2007.  Incongruously, I had found myself discussing with him in depth the English poet John Keats.  Subsequently I have learned of Pearl’s wonderful and ready sense of humor, and I want to share just a few of Pearl’s “pearls of wisdom”:

  • (on optimism and pessimism): “the optimist laughs to forget; the pessimist forgets to laugh”
  • (to the men of his congregation, who don’t attend services often  enough): “you are not too bad to stay out, and not too good to come in”
  • (about marriage): “people get married for better or worse, but not for  good”
  • (during a meal in a village home): “sometimes it’s better not to know what you are eating”
  • (Pearl’s idea for his epitaph): “Here I am, all dressed up with no place to go”

During his sermon on Sunday, Pearl quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s claim that “God is like electricity: everywhere, but you must plug in.”  Also in his sermon he made the amazing statement, which I had never heard before: “God is the absence of a presence.  God is the presence of an absence.”  Wow.

Our amazing Sunday ended with a meal and tea in a village home, in the near darkness, before driving back to Shillong over that long, narrow, winding road–this time in the dense fog.  But by now we, too, had become fatalists!

Our last day in the Khasi Hills we were driven about an hour and a half south through spectacular mountain and valley scenery to Cherrapunjee, during the monsoon season known as the wettest place on earth, but now extremely dry.  (Indeed, global climate change is a topic of real concern in the Khasi Hills.)  From here you can literally see Bangladesh.  Several spectacular waterfalls were dry as a bone, though we did manage to see one magnificent falls of perhaps a thousand feet in height before returning home to Shillong.         My one order of official business was to complete the signing of a memorandum of understanding governing an orphanage that the Union is opening in the village of Kharang, and I am happy to report that I was successful.  (Besides the orphanage, the Khasis operate a number of schools.  Despite their relative lack of resources, the Khasis are strong believers in education and social service.  If you are interested in the possibility of sponsoring a student in one of their schools, please speak to me after the service and I can provide you with some more information.  It’s pitifully inexpensive to do so.)

There is so much more that I could share about India and my pilgrimage to the Khasi Hills (like the 36 hour door-to-door trip back home), but I will spare you that.  Though brief, our visit was rich in experiences, impressions, new friendships, and memories.  As always, I was humbled to be in the presence of people who share our liberal faith in the face of such overwhelming odds.  Once again I have had the profound experience of making connections across borders of geography, ethnicity, and culture.  I especially want  to thank all of you for your patience and support in the face of my many absences on behalf of the Partner Church Council this year.  I hope that this little report is enough to peak your interest in the worldwide sweep of our liberal experiment in faith, and to make you want to learn more, and perhaps even to experience it first hand.  Amen, and as they say in the Khasi Hills, “Khublei.”

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock

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