“Ours is a Simple Faith: With Apologies to Mustard’s Retreat”
Because we stole the title for this service from Mustard’s Retreat, first we offer our apologies for that theft.
It seemed like a good way to talk about our impressions of the Khasi people of northeast India and their beautiful environment.
Unitarianism in India comes from a whole different background than other Unitarianism around the world. It began as an outgrowth of stirrings within a small group in NE India who were impacted by Christian missionaries, and who rebelled against the trinitarian views of those missionaries and developed a Christian religious view which melded their indigenous religious view of one god with Unitarian theology. More about that in January….
A little background: The Khasi people represent about 1.3 million of the more than a billion people of India. They live almost exclusively in Meghalaya, India and they are part of its 70% Christian population.
Nine to ten thousand of them are Unitarians, and the Education Committee of the Unitarian Union of Northeast India runs 51 non-sectarian schools there.
First Unitarian Congregation of Ann Arbor (to which we also belong) has a partner school in Mawkisyiem, a small village in the southern part of the state near Cherrapungee and the border with Bangladesh. In October three other members of UUAA besides us comprised the group of “Big Hearts” that went to Meghalaya to visit the school and the kids and to assess progress and needs.
We decided along with the Education Committee to use the opportunity to provide another session of teacher training for the teachers of the UUNEI schools. So after site visits to several churches and to the partner school in Mawkisyiem, we undertook 5 days of teacher training at Madan Laban Unitarian Church in Shillong.
Photo of Madan Laban Church with workshop banner
We are outsiders to the Khasi culture and therefore worked closely with the Education Committee to develop our training process.
Photo of Kong Cream Nongbri, Khlur Mukhim and us
Since we are both educators, we could draw upon our skills to design a training process which focused on using group techniques in the classroom and in planning and designing lessons rather than just teaching from the textbook.
Our strategy was to work with a smaller group of about 30 English-proficient secondary and upper primary teachers for two days on the materials we would use with them and the other 100 lower primary teachers during the final three days. Cathy from Ann Arbor and a corps of volunteers made posters for the training,
Photos of poster artists
We had such a good time! We used a computer and projector, exercises, skits, small group discussions, brainstorm sessions, and many other techniques with the teachers.
Photos of teachers at tables
We balanced in-class session work with breaks which included circle songs, dances, food and activities.
Photos of the teacher relevant activities
Our focus was on teaching strategies which the teachers could actually use in their classrooms at whatever age level they taught.
This year we came to the conclusion that our plan for providing teacher training for all the teachers regardless of their grade level or their subject matter had been successfully completed. What we need to focus on now is more age specific and subject specific teacher training. Ah, the next steps for the future!!
To provide a theme for the teacher workshop, we decided to sing “Ours is a Simple Faith” each morning at the beginning of the lessons for the day. While a large number of the teachers are not Unitarians, we thought it would still provide a focus for our purpose in being there. The song got us doing something physical while it stimulated some thinking and questioning by many of the teachers, since in several places the verses espouse beliefs which are not quite true for Khasis.
The first verse of the song “Ours is a Simple Faith” was a “slam-dunk” for the Khasis. “Life is a short embrace” is their experience of life with its many hazards and challenges. And “Hope is the ground we till” rang true to their experience of some desperate days when there are too few resources stretching to cover too many needs. At least it was clear, once we explained what “till” means.
They were somewhat more skeptical about the lines “There is no hell to fear, No Judgment Day drawing near, Trust that inner voice you hear, Everyday.” However after some conversation, they could understand that this view is held by many American UUs, especially the Universalists among us. “Life’s not a goal or race; it’s about heart and faith and living a life of grace” was more like it!
Verse 3 “Trust is an open hand, making an honest stand, rooted here in the land everyday.” rang true for them. In the end the General Secretary of the UUNEI and the Chair of the Education Committee wanted the words and the performance version of the song from the Mustard’s Retreat website on their computers. Whether they will sing the song themselves is a question, but they will always associate it with 120 teachers in the basement of Madan Laban Church, laughing and talking excitedly about behavioral learning objectives.
Unintended consequences — health of kids
One of the heartening aspects of this kind of travel are the fortunate but unintended consequences which sometimes occur. For us there were two that come to mind.
One had to do with the health of a student whom we have sponsored for about a decade. She is now 24, and word had been received about a year ago that she was not well and was having “fits”, whatever that meant.
Photos of Baiarti, in orange, with her sister and mother, and Phida
Before we left I was connected to the neurologist son of one of our friends. Bill Seeley had just been given a MacArthur genius grant. He generously talked with us and suggested a number of questions to ask when we interviewed Baiarti and her mom. So when in Mawkisyiem at the interview I took pictures of a whole lot of medical records they provided and passed that information on to Bill, who immediately replied from California with helpful ideas.
A couple of days later, we were visiting a stalwart Khasi elder, and her daughter arrived and was introduced as a physician.
Photo of Elgenia, Education Committee Chair Khlur and the Big Hearts from Ann Arbor
As I sat listening to the conversation and thinking about things, I began to realize that here was a doctor with whom I could clarify a couple of items. Turned out that not only that, but that the connection was made for Baiarti and another girl who is also experiencing difficulties, to go to Dr Rica’s clinic and receive treatment, including lower cost medication. So with a little financial help from us and all of these connections, we now think Baiarti may be on the road to recovery.
Emergency Preparedness Workshop
The other unintended consequence relates to yet another activity we worked with while in Shillong. Prior to our arrival Nancy and I had worked on writing a proposal which would connect the UUNEI with another Indian non-profit called the Mountain Childrens Forum.
Photo of MCF banner and Aditi and Sudhir
MCF does workshops which empower children to have a voice in their local communities. The UUNEI arranged for MCF to do an Emergency Preparedness workshop for kids and a second one for teachers while we were in Shillong.
Photos of the MCF workshop
Amazing!! And one result was that Nancy found out that one of the teachers, Pynshisha Mylliemngap, a teacher this congregation has supported during this past year to take a government-sponsored course, is already trained by the local government to develop emergency preparedness activities in the community. That should be a very important connection.
There was one last event which Nancy and I created prior to going to India. We thought that it would be helpful to learn about the local teacher education department at Northeaster Hill University so we could understand how teachers are trained and perhaps impact that process. So I requested a chance to give a lecture at the University. Instead, what they asked was if we would do two days of training for their faculty and graduate students. Of course, we jumped at the chance!
Photo of workshop university students
More fun ensued and we also met students from Sikkim, Nagaland and Manipur, neighboring states to Meghalaya.
Photo of the whole group
Closing words: A few words about this congregation’s contribution to Khasi education and to two teachers who are upgrading their certification: Pynshisha, whom we already mentioned, and Valarisha have been teaching 16 and 18 years respectively at Margaret Barr Primary School in suburban Shillong.
Photo of Pynshisha and Nancy
They both completed the CPE-Certificate in Primary Education– with our help and due to recent legislation, they have more courses to take. With the funds which this congregation has given this year, we committed Rs. 6000 (about $125) to each of them to help with this year’s courses. We will re-evaluate with them and the Education Committee before making next year’s decision to see if someone else needs the funds more than they do. For now they are both working hard and very much appreciate our help.
MCF presented us with a great cartoon which expresses so wonderfully the determination of the Indians we know, to do the best they can to impact the lives of the people they serve, even in the face of daunting, sometimes seemingly insurmountable, obstacles. “Don’t ever give up” even if the frog is strangling you! Or is it don’t ever give up even if the bird is swallowing you?
Nancy and Mark Kinney