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Unitarian Schools

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From the Khasi Hills in Northeast India—Shillong, Meghalaya

This morning, 28 Feb 2011, we set out to visit 2 of dozens of Unitarian schools in northeast India. The Education Committee of the Unitarian Union now runs 37 Lower Primary Schools, 10 Upper Primary Schools and 4 Secondary Schools

The UU Church in Clearwater, FL, is a sponsor of the Margaret Barr Memorial School. The school has about 60 students from pre-K through 7th grade in the village of Lawsohtun. Founded in 1982, the school gets some funding from the State of Meghalaya but subsists mostly on donations. A few families can afford a materials fee of 20 Rs/month, but most of the students are from peasant families and do not pay. Most of them wore uniforms, and I’m sure they are handed down and altered.

Two rows of children politely lined up on both sides the gate to greet us with shy smiles and a corsage of ribbon and beads. Chairs were waiting for us in the shade of the porch where we enjoyed a program of welcome and songs from the children.

After the program we had a tour of the school. The computer room is the size of a closet. It has one working computer and one that needs repair. There is no internet, so all they can learn are applications. For languages, they study their native tongue Khasi, the more formal Hindi, and English. One class sang the alphabet song for us in English.

The head teacher and 7 other teachers receive appallingly low salaries—about 1800 rupees/month (less than $40). Government schools pay at least 3 times that amount, namely, 6-12,000/month. Even so, one of the teachers said he bought pencils and other supplies out of his salary. Before leaving the site, we took up a collection on the spot and gave each of them a cash bonus.

Margaret Barr, for whom the school is named, was a Methodist born and raised in Yorkshire, England. She became a Unitarian in 1921 as a student in Girton College, Cambridge, after a friend invited her to a service. The sermon that day was a scholarly and appreciative explanation of Hinduism. She loved the Unitarian approach to other faiths. Barr went on to become a minister herself.

While she was serving Rotherham Unitarian Church (1927-33) she learned about the indigenous Unitarians in the Khasi Hills of India and about their founder Hajom Kissor Singh. After a visit there she wanted to return. Several years later she got a job at a girls’ school in Calcutta that paid for her move to India.

Eventually she made her way to the Khasi Hills, where illiteracy, poverty, and ill health predominated. H.K. Singh had died and the congregations were floundering. She opened a school and trained teachers in Shillong. So that students didn’t have to leave home, she opened another one in Kharang, then a Dispensary, and finally made Kharang her permanent home. She would open schools in villages then turn them over to the Government. She died in 1973.

Clearly, Margaret Barr heeded the advice given to her by Gandhi: “Keep out of jail and find some constructive work to do.”