UNITARIAN CHURCHES IN INDIA? WHERE? WHEN? HOW?

Sermon by Leon Hopper
(Minister emeritus, East Shore Unitarian Church, Bellevue, WA)

Paint Branch UU Church - [MON. DD, YYYY]

The backdrop for my sermon are found in these lines from the chief rabbi in Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks:

"I see in the rising crescendo of ethnic tensions, civilization clashes and the use of religious justification for acts of terror, a clear and present danger to humanity. For too long the pages of history have been stained by blood shed in the name of GodIn our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened by difference" (The Dignity of Difference).

In the context of the rabbi's observation I have a truly remarkable and amazing story to tell: the story of how the Khasi, Hajom Kissor Singh, became a Unitarian and founded the Khasi Unitarian Church of NE India. This story, I believe, is one of the romances of world-wide liberal religion and should have an honored place in the larger story of our religious history, yet few have heard or know it.

Before I can tell the story of Hajom Kissor Singh there is the need to set the stage. And answer the first question: Where are the Khasi Hills?

The Khasi and Jaintia Hills (identified as the Scotland of India) are part of the State of Meghalaya, which means "abode of the clouds" in North East India. NE India has been likened to the thumb narrowly attached to the bulk of the sub-continent of India. To the north is the state of Assam and beyond is Bhutan and the grand Himalayan Range, while to the south are the plains of Bangladesh. Flowing through the central lowlands of NE India is the river Brahmaputra, fed by tributaries originating far into the mountains, and hills north and south.

The State of Meghalaya is marked by countless hills weaving and folding into and along side of one another. There are deep valleys and a few high peaks. The elevation ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level. In the monsoon season it can rain for a month at a time with hardly a stop. Cherrapungi, north of the Bangladesh border is the "wettest place on earth," recording more than 440 inches of rain a year. During the monsoon months, the nights are disturbed by the thunder of torrential rain on corrugated iron roofs and, if the rain stops for a time, there is still the roar of floodwaters coursing down the drains and the harsh croaking of frogs in the ponds.

83% of population is dependent upon agriculture. The dominant crops are rice and maize most importantly; then fruit - oranges, pineapple, lemons, guava, white potatoes; and from the wooded hills, forest products and lumber.

Shillong, under British rule the Hill Station for the region, is the capital and largest city of Meghalaya, with a population of 250,000. In the mid 19th century it was a retreat for the British rulers during the hot summer season, the only city in the state connected by road to both the north and south.

The Khasi and Jaintia people are indigenous to the area (not Indian or Hindu), and rather animistic in their religious and tribal practices. Their society is matrilineal. Lineage and inheritance follow the mother's line. The property owners are women, but control rests in the hands of the maternal uncle. Centuries ago their ancestors drifted into the hills from Mongolia and Cambodia. They have their own language, unwritten until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 1800's.

Footnote: the early 19th century Rammohun Roy ("the Father of Modern India") was a thorough student of the New Testament, and as such Roy engaged in heated exchanges with a host of Christian missionaries. He corresponded with William Ellery Channing, Joseph Tuckerman, and Henry Ware (all significant 19th century Unitarian leaders). Not long after the establishment of the AUA (American Unitarian Association) in 1825, the Society for the Promotion of Christianity in India was formed in the US. The Society supported a Unitarian presence in India until 1886, including the Unitarian missionary minister in Calcutta, Charles Dall. (All these elements will come to play in my story.)

 

Around 1840, 45 missionaries of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church swept into the Khasi Hills, saturating the area, and proceeded to convert vast numbers of Khasi's from animism to Christian beliefs, substituting the fear of hell for the Khasi fear of demons. In addition, these missionaries provided the Khasi's with a written language, translated and printed the Bible in Khasi, established school, and provided for education for their new converts.

Now to the story Hajom Kissor Singh and the Unitarian Church in NE India:

Hajom Kissor Singh was born in Cherrapungi in 1865 some twenty-four years after the influx into the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of the missionaries of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church. He belonged to the second generation of educated Khasi's and attended a missionary school. At the age of 15 he was converted.

Singh throughout his life was a very thoughtful, reflective, curious man. He became a student of the Bible and relished the opportunity to explore religious thought and philosophies. Over time he wrote a number of hymns for the Khasi Unitarian Hymn Book. Thus, given these interests and inclinations, it is not surprising that Singh, at the age of 19, began to realize that the teaching of the missionaries was not in tune with the basic teaching he found in the Bible or the good news spread by Jesus and his close disciples. It appeared (to Singh) that the open love and mercy of God, the righteous life, the dignity of man/woman, the importance of caring and loving each other and the teachings of great teachers of mankind had been discarded (by the missionaries).

Further, he felt that the message of election, damnation and salvation was incompatible with the teaching of Jesus he found in the Gospels. He felt that the message of the missionaries, based as it was on fear, was not the one that would redeem his people, fear-ridden as they were by their own primitive demon-haunted, pre-Christian religion. In the teaching and example of Jesus he found a message of divine love, a love that casts out fear, overcoming evil with good, and a sublime belief in the essential divinity and potential splendor of the human spirit.

Continuing to ruminate and reflect on these thoughts he shared them with a Khasi Brahmo leader who identified Singh's religious position as Unitarian and put him in touch with Charles Dall in Calcutta.

Dall quickly responded, sending Singh copies of sermons by William Ellery Channing. Singh was especially impressed with Channing's "Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety" and quickly recognized his affinity with the Unitarian faith and principles.

On September18, 1887, in his Jowai home, the first Unitarian 'church service' was held. With that momentous event the founder of Khasi Unitarianism had taken the first definite step toward the establishment of the Unitarian Church of NE India. (132) It is amazing that Singh was but 22 years old when he gathered and organized the church in Jowai.

By 1889, within two years of its foundation, the movement had taken concrete form when its membership had grown to thirty. The first church building with a thatched roof was built on the top of the hill at Jowai. Soon after this building was constructed, attempts were made by hostile elements to burn it down, but they succeeded only partially. In 1895, a finer church was built on the same site, but in 1918, once again, the hostile elements launched a plot to destroy the church building and this time they succeeded and the building was burnt to ashes. As a result, in 1919, the church members decided to shift to a safer site some distance away. Here they built a new church, which remained until it was replaced by a spacious building in 1947.

As Singh worked to promote and extend the reach of the Unitarian faith in the Khasi Hills, there were severe physical and cultural limitations. The Khasi Hills were remote and the villages isolated and for the most part inaccessible. Bruce Findlow, (a British Unitarian Minister) who lived for a year in Kharang 50 years ago - 68 years after Singh founded the Unitarian Church - wrote of his experience there:

Of the village: virtually no music, no art, no literature, no drama, no dance of their own; no wheeled vehicles, no ploughs, no beasts of burden but themselves and their children, no medical services, no postal services, no newspapers, few crafts, and only the vaguest knowledge of their own history and place in the world. And yet, no more than twenty miles away is the capital city of (Shillong) with all the apparatus of democratic government and all the amenities and burdens of modern civilized life. To walk from Shillong to Kharang is to walk out of the twentieth century back into the past to a time when men/women knew no life but the triangular path of work, food, rest.

Recognize that the most important feature of the Unitarian movement in this region is that, although bearing the name 'Unitarian,' it is an indigenous movement in the sense that the main principles of the faith had been developed by the founder Hajom Kissor Singh, even before he became aware that there were like minded people and that there was a faith similar to what he had thought of on a worldwide scale. The Unitarian Church of the Khasi Hills has maintained and retained its separate identity and its local roots.

Singh's faith was extended in a climate of hostility. What matter if the Calvinists called him atheist, an enemy of the Lord, and ridiculed him, persecuted him, tried to burn down his Jowai Church and finally succeeded in 1918. He stood firm in his convictions, courageously, patiently and persistently.

Kissor Singh defined Christianity as a way of life, and salvation as escape from inner slavery of sin and superstitions. He discouraged proselytizing and wanted people to respond spontaneously to the message of friendship and tolerance. He never intended to impart some 'supreme truths' through his schools but rather to help people realize themselves. Hence, the Motto To Nangroi [Keep on Progressing].

And what of today? There are 35 churches, a total of about 10,000 members, in three cities (2 Shillong + Jowai). The remainder are village churches, both weak and strong. Fifty years after Bruce Findlow's comment about remoteness, there are roads (of varying quality) to all churches, with many footpaths of cement walkways.

Church buildings range from rudimentary ones with corrugated steel roofs and walls to simple structures of white walls, and others with vast windows. But whatever the size or condition the Flaming Chalice is prominently displayed - on the peaks of the roofs, in the window designs, on the front doors and on the pulpits. Also on prominent display is their church motto: "To Nangroi - Keep On Progressing." Theirs is a positive and forward looking faith.

For seating there are simple benches or pews. The chancel area is usually on a raised platform, many times with a railing. In the larger churches there is a raised central pulpit with table in front of the pulpit and two chairs, one for the moderator of the service (like a Worship Associate in our services). Pews or chairs are placed on one side of the chancel for visiting dignitaries.

They do not have an ordained clergy. The Khasi Unitarians have always been lay led with appointed Church Visitors to serve them - preach sermons, help with leadership, advise and counsel. A few Church Visitors are full time and paid. Most are trained volunteers.

This is the established order of service:

Silent Service
Reading (Bible or other scriptures, or poetry)
Hymn (numbers posted before service)
Lord's prayer
Prayer
Hymn
Sermon
Hymn
Prayer
Collection with Hymn
Closing Hymn
Benediction with Responses (O, God be with us. Amen)

(The Khasi's do like to sing.)

There is a more informal service at Nongthami.

Education is important. Often a school is attached or adjacent to a church (as with the large school in Jowai - 600 students)

In the city, emphasis is on advanced education. [example of Suzi and young men of Nongthami - all college educated]

Their congregations are full of folk of all ages - children, youth and adult - radiating a vibrant spirit and boding well for future generations. During our visits to churches we received greetings from children and song.

Remoteness may explain their great welcoming of visitors from "outside."

1896 - Sunderland
1934-77 - Margaret Barr (English Unitarian minister)
Contact and support from British Unitarians
Contact and support from UUA in more recent years - contributions for building projects

And now partner church connections: five North American congregations are partnered with five Khasi churches, which are, as rabbi Sacks urged, enlarged by difference.

The UUA's 6th Principle declares for "the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all." So it is that with the partner church program we are stretched toward a global community grounded in living experience, not theory.

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