Annie Margaret Barr was a British Unitarian who dedicated her life to the people of the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya (which means ‘abode of the clouds’ in Sanskrit), India, located in the Northeast corner, above Bangladesh and below Bhutan. She lived in the Khasi Hills for 40 years and opened schools for children as well as brought medical resources to the area. She also started an orphanage which closed upon her death in 1973.
The Anne Margaret Barr Children’s Village in the Khasi Hills, named in her honor, opened in February 2009. All of the existing orphanages in the Khasi Hills until that time were religiously affiliated. The Unitarian Khasi community felt uncomfortable sending their orphaned children to orphanages that would likely convert them to faiths other than Unitarianism and so isolate them from their birth communities.
The Unitarian Union of Northeast India contacted some Unitarian people from India and the States, who got together and raised funds and this unique and loving Unitarian orphanage, The Annie Margaret Barr Children’s Village, was built in 2009 that houses 10 boys and 14 girls ages 6-18 as well as 2 ‘mothers’ who care for their needs and the needs of the house and property who are extraordinary and a cook.
But it is more than an orphanage. It is a place where young people sing, pray, dance, do yoga, care for one another’s needs, grow organic vegetables, harvest honey, wash clothes by the river, put ribbons in each other’s hair on the way to school. It is a place of spiritual, physical and emotional health and well being. It is a place where bodies, minds, hearts and souls are grown. It is a place where the children are also the healers, not because they are asked to be, not because they are not cared for as children, but because like all living beings that are tended with love, care and great focus and intention, they have become part of what heals there.
The children’s lives are organized around the principles of discipline, love, spiritual growth, self-care, care of others and community, academics and environmental care. They all do yoga together, a kind of yoga that is about moving and breathing and knowing the self, walk through the village of Kharang to the Annie Margaret Barr Unitarian School together, study and do homework, lead Unitarian children’s church every Sunday, wash their clothes at the river, sing, care deeply for one another, garden, sweep, haul water, help cook, pray before every meal from their hearts, and welcome the stranger.
I learned living with these children without heat or hot water, without flushing toilets or showers, without transportation or stores to buy anything from while washing myself and the dishes at the river and rubbing my clothes on a flat stone to clean them- I learned, and not right away and not easily, to ask how I can bless rather than what blessings I am missing, how I can love rather what love I am without, how I can offer myself in new ways rather than seeking and finding lack in and around me.
I did not smell wonderful while learning this or sleep well while learning this or keep my belly in one piece at all times while learning this. But smelling and sleeping and being in one piece are not what I needed after all. India’s love is a fierce love. She blesses by turning everything inside out and putting it back rearranged. I have ears in my toes now.