Margaret Barr – A Universal Soul
Edited and Compiled by Y. Surrendra Paul
Published in 1973 by Unitarian Inter-Faith Fellowship of India
Imagine my delight at finding this little book of 125 pages on the second-hand bookstall at the Chester GA. It must have been very difficult for any reader to part with it. Sadly it has been so well read that it is in a very poor state but it will continue to be treasured and read and re-read with the tender loving care that such a gem deserves.
The book contains letters to her parents, Unitarian colleagues around the world and to those whose vision she shared, to build a stronger India based on liberal and Unitarian Universalist principles. She was never a missionary though and objected strongly to the term and repeated this throughout her life. There are also letters to Kong (older sister) Barr, articles by her, tributes to her, biographical material and a long excerpt from her book The Great Unity published in 1937 and reprinted in 1951 – now out of print sadly but if anyone has a copy I would very much like to borrow it.
What makes it special to this English Unitarian reader is the Indian perspective we are given. A perspective that demonstrates the esteem in which Margaret Barr was held by those she worked with and whoever she came into contact with. This didn't mean she was a meek and mild soul as she certainly stood up to those who might wish to shape her life. The General Assembly back in Britain certainly thought it unsuitable for a woman to go and letters to her mother illustrate how far she had moved to Universalism and against anything that smacked of missionary work in her determination to carve out her own future with the villagers of the Khasi Hills.
We read how she followed her sister Mary, who was one of the early village workers with Gandhi, and how she spent time with him and appreciated the advice he gave to her in her search to find how she could be most useful to the Indian people. He told her to "keep out of jail and find some constructive work to do". First she taught comparative religion at a non-Christian girls' school in Calcutta where she was encouraged to write her book, The Great Unity. In her vacation she visited the Khasi Unitarians that she had learned about whilst at Oxford and in 1936 made her home among them as a representative of the GA. There was much poverty, illiteracy and ill health in the villages around so she decided to commit herself to developing basic education. She never forgot the lessons she had learned from Ghandi as through her life the project grew, providing not just educational provision but also health care.
This small book though is far more intimate than the basic outline of her life as it shows how those she met and lived with in India revered her and interacted with her day by day, how she encouraged them to be liberal and generous in the new India they were building. There are touching stories of her last few years and her final illnesses. How, in a coma, she was carried on their backs to the hospital twelve miles away as they could not afford to wait for a Jeep, which thankfully did get through when the sad party had struggled half-way. She writes of her love of reading the Sermon on the Mount alongside the Bhagavad-Gita. Throughout she is referred to as Kong and the editor of the book feels that if Unitarians had saints she would be one.
What I like about it most is that it inspires me now with its Universal encompass and although only a small book, each article, letter and tribute brings me closer to the source of goodness that was Kong Barr.
A dream come true – the story of Kaharang
by Margaret Barr
This gem of a book written by Margaret Barr and published by the Lindsey Press in 1974 is no longer in print but fortunately can be accessed and downloaded from the GA website. Unlike other books about Margaret Barr this account takes us directly into her life giving us insights into her experiences, difficulties and friendships in an India, but more specifically the attempts to establish non-sectarian education and social provision in the Khasi Hills.
What I have found to be of particular interest is the importance of friendship to Margaret Barr and especially the role of women across the class divide in the India of this time and the crucial support of Unitarian women in the UK, Canada and USA.
Whilst studying at Cambridge it was a friend who took her to the Unitarian chapel there, where she '…knew at once that (she) had come home and the quest for a religious affiliation able to satisfy (her) intellectually, emotionally and spiritually was ended' (P.11). Having been brought up as an evangelical Methodist this move towards an inclusive faith resulted in later difficulties in religious understanding between her and her parents but I do think it gave her insights into the need for non-sectarian education in India as opposed to the government supported missionary schools.
Margaret's sister Mary was an early influence in her religious and educational development. Mary resigned as a teacher in India for a Wesleyan Methodist Missionary School, joining Mahatma Gandhi as a village worker. Being interested in the Indian National Movement Margaret visited Mary at the Ashram and was grateful for the advice given to her by Gandhi, directing her towards village work if she wished to be constructive.
Although the GA wanted to support the autonomous Unitarians in the Khasi Hills, they didn't feel it appropriate that a woman should go to India alone. Being a teacher as well as a Minister, Margaret was undaunted and secured a position at Gokhale Memorial Girls' School and whilst there developed a course on World Religions and in 1937 published 'The Great Unity'. During her time at the school she was able to get to know middle class and upper class Indian girls and learn more about education in India. She remained devoted to girls' education throughout her life. During school holidays she was able to visit the Khasi Hills and village churches, firstly accompanied and then alone, learning the language as she got to know the villagers. She was able to write to the GA advising that there could be no objections now that she had proved herself and was on the spot.
In 1935 the GA agreed to fund her for a year to explore possibilities for further developments. Margaret reported back that the best place to set up a permanent centre was Shillong from where she could contribute to the Unitarian movement and education in Khasi. It was never her intention to take leadership of the Khasi Unitarian movement but rather to educate leaders. There was a mixed reaction from the GA but it was the women of the churches who decided to raise enough money for her salary for the next three years. This commitment was continued until she became a pensioner in 1964. The support of Unitarian women can be seen from reports, letters and articles reproduced in: 'A Century of the Unitarian Women's League 1908-2008' edited by Judy Hague and published by the British League of Unitarian and Free Christian Women in 2008.
Lady Reid, wife of the Governor of Assam was a great friend and influential supporter of Margaret's work. Her role was crucial in ensuring the school at Shillong came to fruition, the school being named after her. Even when she moved from Shillong she tried to organise a Women's Education League.
Margaret Barr described Ellen Giri as her kindred spirit. She too was a teacher who dreamed of establishing a non-sectarian, rural high school with Margaret. However, it wasn't to be as Ellen died before their joint dreams could be moved forward. All hopes were shattered but Margaret recognised that there was still a great need to focus on health, welfare and training even if it meant her first love of educational development had to be sidelined.
Evelyn Shullai was 'the most precious and enduring of my Shillong friendships', a beautiful young woman, educated in Missionary schools, yet sharing Margaret's passion for non-sectarian provision. Becoming a teacher she was someone Margaret could depend on when absent from Shillong.
Without the support of Unitarian women it is unlikely that her dream of setting up the Khasi Rural Centre could ever have been attained. Dr Lotta Hitschmanoua, Director of the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada became a great friend of Margaret, visiting her at the Centre in India. Appreciating the work that was being done there the USCC agreed to pay the salaries of three full time workers. Mary Lawrance of California had earlier visited Shillong, returning to America, where she started 'The Friends of Margaret Barr' groups.
On her occasional times away from Khasi Margaret would return to speak at the GA in the UK and other venues around the country as well as Canada, USA and Australia, trying to raise support and finances for her work in India.
In May 1963 she travelled to the USA and received the 'Annual Award for distinguished services to Liberal Religion' from the UUA. Speaking without notes she received a tumultuous reception.
It would be incorrect to think that Margaret Barr restricted her friendships but rather 'A dream come true' demonstrates her ability to connect across class, sex, nationality and age. She is absolutely honest in concluding, that the principle aim with which she had started failed in producing not one single trained leader for any Khasi Unitarian Church. Not because of any lack of effort on her part but the lack of interest from the churches themselves.
The above account is selective but does show a continuing thread running right through from the first days of the Unitarian movement, and that is the importance of women networking and their realisation that education and social service is central to their faith.