The following post was written by Rev. Jay Leach, senior minister of the UU Church of Charlotte. He is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

Since disembarking from our plane in the Mumbai airport last Saturday evening, it feels as if I have been trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose of experience. The flow of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and thoughts is at a rate that is completely impossible to imagine, must less take in.

From the seaside of one of the world’s immense cities, we came here, to the modest, bustling campus of Vidhayek Sansad, the center of such astounding activity in this area of such astounding need and opportunity. We were greeted at the gates by a procession of over 200 tribal schoolgirls clad in navy blue and white, and they enthusiastically paraded us in a pulsing procession to this remarkable place.

We’ve been learning from local tribal activists — union leaders — who have unpacked accounts of their decades of work. The depth of their clarity, conviction, and commitment easily transcends the barrier of language, which often requires translation from Marati, the state language, into Hindi, the national tongue, before making its way into English. Their accounts are of creative, powerful, often clever, and always strategic efforts to lift themselves and their people out of a complex web of oppression and exploitation.

Yesterday included a visit to a nearby small village where a centuries-old Hindu temple rises like a fortress above the swarm of the street. We were there not just to see that spectacle but to hear from other union activists about their work in organizing the temple staff to demand fair wages. Their actions included a hunger strike staged on the steep steps leading up to the temple. They also chose not to discard (as was their responsibility) the mounds of marigolds offered in homage to the deity but to fill the offices of the trust officials who employed them with the wilting blooms until the trustees agreed to negotiate.

The needs of the so-called adavasi — the “first people,” whose legal rights to these lands have been so abused — are as foreign as so much we’re encountering and as familiar as all struggles for justice and equity in which the members of our delegation are engaged. Our learning — and my learning — is taking place at the intersection of this way of strategizing for change and our individual and congregational efforts to work with immigrants, the economically deprived, the homeless, the incarcerated, and all those deprived of full equality and adequate opportunity.

Our learning continues, today with more activists, tomorrow in excursions into outlying villages to observe and document what we experience and understand about the work of these courageous agents of creative change. I’m profoundly grateful to be having this experience and look forward to unpacking it and exploring aspects of it with my congregation in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

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