Before I write anything else, I want to thank First Parish’s lay leadership, staff, and whole membership for your support of my month-long sabbatical in India. Without First Parish’s blessing and respect for my time away — and the willingness of the staff to pick-up additional tasks this past month — the refreshment and renewal I experienced while on sabbatical would not have happened. Thank you for your generosity toward your minister.
As those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that I’ve been posting updates and photographs about my sabbatical. I wanted to let you all know the basics of my sabbatical experience as soon as possible. I’m fairly jetlagged (9.5 hour time difference!) and trying to focus on my “catch-up” work on various congregational projects; but, I’ve written up this blog post; will be sharing a sermon on international Unitarian/Universalism, covenant, and colonialism this upcoming Sunday; and, I am working with Roberta to arrange for a Lyceum presentation sometime soon so I can share my deeper spiritual reflections on my time in India, and especially with our Khasi Unitarian siblings in spirit.
So, what have I been up to?
Shortly after wrapping up worship and a committee meeting on February 24th, I flew to Toronto and then 14 hours direct to New Delhi. After a night’s sleep at an airport hotel, I flew to Guwahati, Assam, where I gathered all of the American UU Partner Church Councilpilgrims for their journey to visit our Khasi Unitarian siblings in spirit. As I mentioned in mysabbatical blogand pamphlet, I was asked to lead this special 10-day Partner Church pilgrimage that brought together American UUs from five different congregations — UU Metro North Atlanta(UUMAN) (GA),First Unitarian Church of Dallas(TX), East Shore Unitarian Church(WA), UU Fellowship of Manhattan(KS), First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh(PA) — all of whom have partnership connections in the same small town of Kharang-Mawsynjri. Pittsburgh is partnered with the high school in Kharang-Mawsynjri, East Shore with the Unitarian church and elementary schools in Kharang, UUMAN with the Unitarian church and elementary school of Mawsynjri, Dallas newly with the Children’s Village in Mawsynjri, and, our one pilgrim from Kansas has sponsored one of the Children’s Village residents, Sunita, for many years. This is the first time a pilgrimage has been planned to explicitly bring American congregations together with their international U/U partners in a close geographic region.
My task as spiritual leader was to care for these American pilgrims during their cross-cultural Unitarian experience — through the stages of separation from home, journeying in liminality, and preparing to reenter home — as well as to lend special support to leaders of the Dallas church and the Khasi Unitarian Children’s Village as they begin their partnership together. I am incredibly happy that the Children’s Village now has a dedicated and enthusiastic partner in the Dallas church. Near daily, I would gather the pilgrimage group together for a time of reflection and singing, as well as meeting individually with pilgrims at their request. I also strove to provide useful and culturally-sensitive translations between Khasi and American partners.
The particularly special occasion that dictated the timing of our pilgrimage was the tenth anniversary of the A. Margaret Barr Children’s Village, which I cofounded with the Unitarian Union of Northeast India (UUNEI). The orphanage was inaugurated on February 28, 2009, and thus its tenth anniversary celebration was the morning of February 28, 2019. We experienced extremely strange weather — lots of rain due to a typhoon in the Bay of Bengal, highly unusual during the “dry season” — but the Khasi Unitarian organizers were inventive and adaptive to ensure the event could go on as planned. It was a joyous occasion with many speeches and performances, and for me it was an incredible honor and blessing to participate.
Over the course of our days in Kharang-Mawsynjri, we: participated in worship at the Mawsynjri and Kharang Unitarian churches; visited all four partner schools (three elementary and one high school) to meet with teachers and provide enrichment activities for the students; took hikes with UUNEI leaders and Children’s Village kids through Mawsynjri and a nearby tourist destination, Nongjrong; met with village and church leaders to talk about their dreams for their communities; and, spent time building deep friendships with our hosts and partners. My relationships with my Unitarian friends and colleagues in Meghalaya always renews and bolsters my spirit and faith, and I was so glad to share this experience with other American UUs. We also visited the indigenous cultural museum in Meghalaya’s capital city and hiked to the magnificent root bridges of Cherrapunjee.
If you’re interested in learning more about this pilgrimage experience, please come to worship on Sunday the 31stand pay attention to First Parish announcements about my yet-unscheduled Lyceum. You can also listen to Rev. Daniel Kantor’s sermon about our pilgrimage to Khasi Hills on the Dallas UU YouTube page.
After the Partner Church pilgrimage ended, I flew back to Delhi to pick up my spouse from the airport and visit with “my Indian family” in Gurgaon. After a lovely long weekend with them, Cole and I began our own travel across northern India.
Our first stop was Kolkata, specifically to visit the grave of Rev. Charles H.A. Dall, former minister of First Parish in Needham and American Unitarian Association missionary to India. I am pleased to report that after decades of neglect, an initial donation from two New England UU ministers restored Rev. Dall’s historic grave marker and the Unitarian Union of Northeast India has funded an explicitly Unitarian headstone and is continuing to fund the monthly upkeep of Rev. Dall’s grave. I pray that if his spirit lives on in some way, that he knows one of his congregations in the United States remembers him and that the resources he provided to Hajom Kissor Singh in Meghalaya helped birth the thriving Unitarian Union of Northeast India. As I’ll share on Sunday, I’ve been wrestling with my mixed feelings about Rev. Dall’s missionary work in the colonial capital of the British Raj.
Next, we began the part of our journey that focused on Cole’s learning goals as a high school teacher of world religions (specifically, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism): first, to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha became enlightened; then, to Varanasi, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism; and then, to Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching. We ended our travel in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, a world wonder built under the Mughal Muslim empire.
We knew that visiting Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, and Sarnath would be intellectually enriching for Cole, but I underestimated how moved I would be to revisit these places of great spiritual history and power. It has been ten years since I traveled to any of these places, and I had forgotten the palpable spiritual energy in each place. It was spiritually renewing and inspiring to hear monks and nuns chant at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya; meditate at the footsteps of the giant Buddha statues of Bodh Gaya and Sarnath; discuss theology, philosophy, and death with sadhus at the Varanasi ghats; float diya lamps for my maternal grandmother and for First Parish’s members of blessed memory along the Ganges; and, receive the colorful blessings of Holi in Varanasi and Agra.
Cole and I also reflected on major global issues, prompted by our experiences along our journey: post-colonial inequity; poverty; climate disaster and pollution; women’s liberation, LGBTQ equality, and racism/colorism; and, war and violence, due to the dangerous terrorist and military escalations between India and Pakistan over the past month. In quiet moments by myself, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on challenges and opportunities First Parish is facing in membership, children’s RE, and our history with slavery. We also ate a lot of extremely good Indian food, slept as much as we could each night, went bowling and to see Captain Marvel in “4D” with our friends in Gurgaon, and spent two afternoons by hotel pools playing rummy, reading, and enjoying the hot, sunny weather. So, there was a little time for relaxation and rest, too!
Again, I thank First Parish for supporting my sabbatical leave. I hope that the personal spiritual renewal and learning I’ve experienced in the last month will enrich the congregation in its shared leadership with me. I look forward to catching up with all of you on Sunday the 31st!