In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we have many heroes and heroines who lived their beliefs and influenced others with their lives. One of these was Margaret Barr. She was a Unitarian minister and may have been one of the most outstanding women and ministers of the 20th Century because of the work she did.
She was born in Yorkshire, England on March 19, 1899. She died on August 11, 1973, in a Delhi, India, hospital. She not only served as minister, teacher, and founder of schools in India, but also served as nurse, midwife, counselor, sustainer and friend to a large community in India for about 40 years, where she promoted justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
Margaret Barr grew up in a Methodist household, but while she was a student at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England, she attended a Unitarian church. She trained to become a minister at Manchester College in Oxford, England, then served as a pastor in Rotherham, England.
In 1932, Margaret learned about the Indian churches in the Khasi Hills of Assam, which was located in the northeastern part of India. and how they needed a minister to serve their little group. Margaret never questioned how she would get to India. The need burned inside her to be with this little group of Unitarian churches.
But when Margaret wrote to the committee responsible for making the appointment, the committee refused to send her, because she was a woman. The committee was afraid that she would become lonely in such a remote place. But this setback did not deter Margaret; she found a teaching job in Calcutta, India, and began making visits to the Khasi Hills area. The teaching job at Gokhale Memorial Girls School was not just any teaching job. Authorities at the school felt that religious instruction was important but did not want just one kind of religious instruction because there were Christians, Hindus, Brahmas, and Muslims in the school. What they wanted was a program that would tell the stories from all the religions so that the children were just as familiar with the story of Buddha carrying the little lamb in his arms as they were of Jesus blessing the children and Hindi Arjun’s conversation with God and Mohammed’s childlike trust.
By 1936, because of her determination, she won her battle to be minister of the Khasi Hills churches. Women in Great Britain, primarily the Unitarian Women’s League in England, raised enough money to support her salary for three years. While Margaret was a strong woman, she needed the confirmation and confidence that the Women’s League gift brought her. This gift was renewed year by year until 1964. After that time, money came in from individuals, as well as some fundraising by the Women’s League. For more than 10 years, Margaret made her base at Shillong, the capital of Assam. There she supervised the Unitarian churches of Assam and started two schools.
But Margaret felt there was more to do and moved to the remote village of Kharang, which could only be reached by a 25-killometer trek on a stony trail. It was in Kharang that Margaret started a Rural Centre, which was a residential school for children in the surrounding countryside. She continued her supervision of the churches and the Rural Centre flourished under her care. Because so many of the people that Rev. Margaret Barr served lived in villages where illiteracy was wide-spread, she felt that education was one of the basic needs of the people she served. And because the people also lived below the poverty line for most countries, she made her school free.
I wonder if you have ever heard of Margaret Barr before?
I wonder which part of this story is the most important?
I wonder which part of this story you liked the best?
I wonder how it felt to go to the Khasi Hills by herself?
I wonder if she was worried about new customs and new experiences and a new language?
I wonder if you’ve ever traveled to somewhere new?
I wonder in if you see yourself in Margaret’s story?
I wonder if you have ever promoted justice and compassion?
I wonder what practices you have developed that help you to be fair and kind to everyone?
I wonder what other principles or promises this story reminds you of?