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Reverend Margaret Barr, a Unitarian Guided by Love

Adapted from "Margaret Barr Teaching Trust" in A Stream of Living Souls by Denise Tracy. Used with permission.

A stone struck Margaret in the leg. "Ow," she said. She turned to see where the stone had come from.

Crowds of children—young children—faced each other angrily. A British woman, Margaret watched, not understanding the words they spoke, only understanding their fear and hatred.

"They are calling each other 'filthy, dirty, stupid' and much worse. It is obvious they hate each other," said the translator.

"What else is happening?" Margaret asked.

"There are three groups of children. One group is Muslim. One is Christian. One is Hindu. They go to separate schools. They have been taught to fear and hate each other," the translator replied.

"Education does this?" Margaret questioned.

"Schools in India are based on religion. You choose which school you attend depending on your beliefs. Missionaries are often teachers and they teach that the Christian religion is better than any other religion. The Hindus and Muslims of India teach the same. So religion is a source of great tension," the translator sighed.

"You have to be carefully taught," she thought. "What would it have been like if I had been raised to despise all people who were different from me?" As a Unitarian, she couldn't even imagine it.

Margaret was in India to work with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's most important work was teaching people how to read. Many people, children and adults, did not know how to read or write. Gandhi knew that if people were literate, then they could learn about the world; if they could learn about the world, then they would know more about each other; if they knew more about each other, then they would learn compassion. Gandhi knew compassion would save the world from hate. This is why Margaret, a Unitarian minister, was working with Gandhi. She believed in his message of compassion.

One day Margaret said to Gandhi, "Instead of schools based on religion, let's start schools where all religions are taught. We can focus on reading, but we can also focus on the message of love and compassion." And Gandhi agreed.

"If I were to start this school, I would bring a universalist point of view to all the lessons. I would teach that living a life of love is the path to God, no matter what god you believe in. Love is a teaching for everyone, whether they follow Brahma, Buddha, or Jesus," Margaret said to Gandhi. And Gandhi agreed.

"I would like to teach all children that being kind to each other is as basic as reading. It is common in all religions. Then they can grow up to be good Hindus and Muslims and Christians," Margaret said. And Gandhi agreed.

And so, with the help of many Unitarian and Universalist friends, Margaret Barr opened a school and an orphanage in a small town in the Khasi hills of northeastern India. She traveled back and forth from England, raising money. Every time she returned, they would greet her with "Kubhei, Kong Barr. Kubhei!"

Whenever she got discouraged, she would remember the crowds of children she had seen, calling names and throwing stones. She would say to herself, "If I can teach one child love and compassion, that child will teach one family. If a child can teach one family, then that family could teach one village. If one family can teach a village, then that village could teach an entire nation. Then there will be no more hatred in the world."

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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