Reflections from the President of the UUA

May/June 1999

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Do you feel powerless in the face of global, systemic poverty? Well, you’re not.

Do you think the poor are powerless in the face of oppression? Well, they’re not either.

These lessons came home for me during my recent trip to India.

Before leaving I came across some statistics from the UN Human Development Report for 1998. Of the world’s 5.8 billion people, 4.4 billion live in developing countries. Three-fifths of the people on our planet lack good sanitation; one-third lack safe drinking water; one-fourth lack adequate housing; one-fifth lack modern health services. Of the world’s children, one-fifth don’t get a fifth-grade education, and one-fifth are malnourished.

Basic education for all who aren’t getting it now would cost $6 billion a year. (How do I know this? Well, among the 10,000 Khasi Unitarians of India—you saw their photos in the last World—you can double the salary of a teacher for $12.50 per month.) Eight billion dollars is spent on cosmetics each year in the US alone. 

Basic sanitation (after a visit to India, you come back to your bathroom saying, “Thank you, God!”) for all would cost $9 billion, plus the ongoing cost of maintenance. Europeans spend $11 billion each year just on ice cream. We spend more.

Reproductive health services for all women would cost $12 billion. That’s the amount spent on perfumes in North America and Europe.

Basic health care and nutrition would cost $13 billion. People in the US spend more each year on pet food.

In Japan alone, $35 billion are spent on business entertainment annually; $50 billion are spent on cigarettes in Europe; $150 billion on alcoholic drinks in North America; $400 billion on narcotics worldwide; $780 billion on the world’s military. Last year, the world produced and consumed more than $24 trillion dollars in goods and services—six times the 1975 figure.

Can we honestly say we’re powerless? Well, neither are the poor.

In India I met with a group we have funded through our UU Holdeen India Program. Over the last 10 years, they have freed from “bonded labor” (a modern form of slavery, according to the UN) over 15,000 tribal people. They revere the Rev. Martin Luther King because their struggle, too, is nonviolent. They chanted for me, “Jindabad! Jindabad!” (“Long live the struggle!”) and “Manusai! Manusai!” (“We are humans!”).

We have also funded SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association), which has organized into cooperatives and unions hundreds of thousands of women from among the poorest of the poor. Their SEWA Bank has pioneered empowerment through micro-credit, becoming a global model.

Another UU Holdeen partner, Martin Macwan, a dalit (untouchable) lawyer, has risked his life defending dalit human rights. Five years ago, when I saw him last, he was training human rights advocates in 50 villages. Now Vavsarjan (New Creation), founded by Macwan and supported by Holdeen, is in over 2,000 villages, defending dalits against atrocities.

While in India, I visited schools run by yet another Holdeen partner. They train child laborers to read—and to struggle. The poor are not powerless. Nor are we. What we need is to arrive at a simple realization: We must relinquish some of our power and privilege to those who most need it. If that sounds hard, I’m sorry. My wife told me years ago that I belong to the “kick-ass school of pastoral counseling.”

Also on my trip to India, I spoke to 3,000 of our Khasi Unitarian sisters and brothers gathered for their annual meeting. If you don’t know their story, I direct you to the last chapter of the book A Chosen Faith (Beacon, 1998). This indigenous (matrilineal, tribal) Unitarian movement, which has existed for over a century, needs not our charity but our partnership.

And the Khasi Unitarians are ready for it. Every congregation sponsors a school. Youth who go beyond fifth grade all learn English. I sent the first e-mail message from their headquarters to 25 Beacon, using a computer bought for them by one of our ministers, the Rev. John Rex, a former school principal who spent six months among them, helping us to know them and them to know teacher-training methods.

At the end of our meeting, all the Khasis stood and as a group said: 

We pledge to remove selfishness, jealousy, stupidity, misgiving, and enmity among Unitarians, so that we may build the holy religion of one God in the spirit of compassion, love and trust.
 We pledge to respect other religious groups. 
 We pledge to take care of our environment and all forms of life in it. 
 We pledge to respect the conscience and free thinking of all and to support each other, to uphold justice, righteousness, and truth.

Their motto, which dates back a century, is “To Nangroi!” (“Keep on progressing!”), and as both a greeting and a farewell they say, “Khublei!” (“God bless you!”).

They are not powerless. Neither are we. We can be their partners.

Yours faithfully,
John Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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