December 5, 2002 - Palm Beach Post: Ethiopia RPCV John Rex's spritual journey took him through India to the Unitarian Universalist Church

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Ethiopia RPCV John Rex's spritual journey took him through India to the Unitarian Universalist Church

Reverend John Rex in North East India

Read and comment on this story from the Palm Beach Post on RPCV John Rex who was a member of one of the first groups to go the Ethiopia in the Peace Corps and who has traveled a long spiritual journey through Africa and India to his present vocation as minister for the First Unitarian Church of Palm Beach County at:

Long road led minister home*

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Long road led minister home

By Ron Wiggins, Palm Beach Post Staff Columnist
Thursday, December 5, 2002

By the age of 50, John Rex knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church.

For 27 years, Rex, now 62 and minister for the First Unitarian Church of Palm Beach County, had been almost what he wanted to be all along: a schoolteacher.

Close, but no halo. He quit and went to seminary.

"Much of our lives," he explained in a recent sermon, "we assume identities that are not consistent with our real gifts."

So what are you saying, John, that you faked it for almost three decades? What was the clue? Burning bush, or a blinding flash on the Damascus road?

Rex, a scholarly balding man with a swimmer's physique, chuckles tolerantly.

"I was raised Episcopalian, and I've always been spiritual. When I graduated as a psychology major at Bowdoin College in Maine, I decided I wanted to be a priest."

First, you have to talk to a local priest and answer some questions. "My answers suggested I was not quite on the right wavelength for the job."

This, said Rex, was back in 1962, when the Peace Corps was starting. Rex had read The Ugly American, an indictment of America's often heavy-handed foreign policy failures, and signed on with a group of fellow young idealists bound for Ethiopia.

"We were a big group -- 300 or so, including Paul Tsongas. The theory at the time was that kids fortified with American ideals and a college degree can be taught to do about anything on short notice."

Turned out to be a pretty good theory.

An idealist in Ethiopia
In short order, Rex was headed for an Ethiopian community, where he would teach English to Muslim ninth-graders. Immersion in Islamic culture taught him to take his own cultural assumptions with a pillar of salt:

"It hit me that if I had been born in Ethiopia, I'd be Muslim. So much that we take for granted about ourselves is dictated by our upbringing rather than decision."

The part of him that would transcend culture and environment, he sensed, was his idealism. "I've always been idealistic, so I suppose I would have been an idealistic Muslim."

So a college degree and two years in the Peace Corps qualified him for what?

Vietnam, if you weren't careful. "I came home in '64 subject to the draft."

In those days, Rex noted, a degree in practically anything and a stint of teacher certification training would get you a teaching job in the public schools. He got a job teaching English 7-12, married a Catholic in 1968, and together they begat a boy and a girl.

In respect of his wife's religion, he attended Catholic Church for a while. "It just didn't work for me. I started to look around."

And took his sweet time looking, because soon he was faced with a son old enough to ask, "Why do I have to go to church if Dad doesn't?"

"Spiritually, I was still looking when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church." Ecclesiastically speaking, he was in love.

Many pathways to God
In case you aren't hip to Unitarians, I'll give you my Methodist journalism teacher's sour take on Unitarians: "Unitarians! Jumping Jehosephat, boy! They don't even believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ! Why, they're little more than an ethical society!"

Turns out that Unitarians are a good deal more than an ethical society. They believe that there is no single pathway to God or enlightenment and that each person must find her or his own way.

Rex signed on big time. Soon he was running summer camp programs and serving his church as religious education director in Williamsville, N.Y.

Enjoyment in a line of work is not always vocation, and in 1990 he retired from the New York school system with a plan to find what had been missing in his life.

"I wanted to go into the ministry. It was a huge leap."

That leap widened the philosophical gap in the family, and a divorce followed. He enrolled in the Starr-King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.

"I loved being in seminary. It was a great breath of fresh air. It was here that I knew I had found a way to honor my gifts. No longer would I be forcing myself into a mold."

Christopher Rex Hostel
His training took him to India, where he taught English to theistic Hindus and volunteered with Mother Teresa's mission to street children. In Kharang Village in northeastern India he taught and left behind a legacy -- made possible by the death of his son, Christopher.

"There was some insurance money and a need. Female students could not attend a school from outlying areas without a dormitory. The money built the Christopher Rex Hostel."

Freshly frocked but without a flock in 1995, Rex returned to find part-time jobs in Fredericksburg, Va., and Jacksonville. Finally, he could preach what he practiced.

"Ours is not an easy religion. Because we don't give ready answers and we don't have creeds or doctrines as such, we put a lot on the individual. We ask our members to accept personal responsibility. We do take strong stands on social issues such as reproductive choice and gay and lesbian rights."

And what about the big question: Is there life after death, and what's it like?

"We don't know. This is not what some people want to hear."

For those who are impatient with fuzzy theology, Unitarians will smile patiently and cite Henry David Thoreau: "One world at a time, my friend, one world at a time!"

After the death of Roger Cowen, for many years minister of the First Unitarian Church, Rex was elected minister in September 2001.

Vocation: Becoming one's true self
Last Sunday he spoke on a subject dear to his soul: vocation, not as a goal "but as a gift to be received."

If you can unwrap it after high school or college, so much the better. He could cite one case in which patience is rewarded. Quoting Parker J. Palmer, a Quaker teacher and writer, Rex declared:

"What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own."


Read the following sermon by RPCV John Rex where he talks about the Unitarians and Universalists he worked with in the State of Meghalaya in North East India, an isolated hilly area between Bangladesh and Bhutan, home of the Khasi tribal people at:


from the The Reverend John Rex
October 28, 2001

Last week I spoke of Unitarians and Universalists worldwide. Today my focus is on one very special group in the State of Meghalaya in North East India, an isolated hilly area between Bangladesh and Bhutan, home of the Khasi tribal people. When the British conquerors arrived in the nineteenth century, the Khasis were neither Hindu nor Muslim. Christian missionaries converted so many Khasis that today Christianity is the majority religion there. A small minority of 9,000 or so Khasis are Unitarians, clustered around over thirty churches.

I arrived in Meghalaya in September, 1998, with a hope that I would have time to study the language, culture and Unitarian religion. However, I was scheduled to lead a program immediately after my arrival, so, with the able assistance of one very special Khasi friend, who served as logistics arranger, interpreter, and co-worker throughout my stay, I began.

It struck me then, as it does now, how totally unprepared I was “to give proper Religious Training to the Ministers, Church Visitors,” and so on. I knew very little about their religion or culture. Since that time, I have studied, written, spoken and published a great deal on Khasi Unitarianism, but that technical information is not my focus today. I would be happy to share that information with anyone who is interested at another time.

This morning I would like to share an untold story that I think illustrates my intercultural/interfaith experience, and that raises for me a real question of: What would you do? And I will ask “What would you do?

Today’s story begins on the morning of October 20, 1998, as I prepared to travel with my co-worker for a visit to a village named Mawlat. This was our fifth excursion together, out of the city into the countryside, and we had established a routine: that he would arrive with his motorcycle; and I, bundled up in my heavy winter coat and gloves and shiny red helmet, with a full pack on my back, would sit behind him on the cycle, and off we would go, first through the crowded city traffic jams, and then onto spectacular country roads, twisting up and down steep hillsides, with long vistas of magnificent scenery--the roads becoming less and less functional the farther we got from the city.

On this particular day, rain was falling. Understand that parts of Meghalaya have the heaviest rainfall in the world, and I can’t imagine cycling in the icy rain. My co-worker managed to find a jeep to take us part of the way. Not far from our destination, we stopped for tea--always tea--and waited for a bus, that finally came along in the rain, packed with people and produce. Riders made a space for me and my pack, in the middle of the front aisle, and the bus continued at a crawl over what was no longer a road as such, but a track in the mud, with large stones laid here and there as a makeshift road bed, deep ruts everywhere, and steep cliffs dropping off in the clouds to the side. After about an hour of swaying, lurching, banging about, the bus came to the end of the line: near to but not quite at our destination.

Three years before, a landslide had washed away the final connection of the “road” with Mawlat, so, I was told, we would have to walk the last “ten minutes or so” just after dusk on a narrow, slippery path that dropped off sharply at one side.

And so it was that I arrived in Mawlat proper, in which there are no roads at all--just pathways and steps--since the whole village, which I would guess, embraces many hundreds of families, is made up of houses that cling precariously to the side of a very steep mountain.

In the darkness I was led to the house where I would stay, and plunked down in a room about twelve feet square, lit by a single hanging electric bulb, perhaps 25 watts. I sat on a chair, but as people came in the room, many with bare feet and wrapped for warmth in their plaid shawls, the room filled with those sitting silently on the floor. My journal notes that there were never fewer than ten people in the room. Those in charge, the “head men--and women” worked out plans for my visit with my co-worker. That being done, my dinner was brought in and people drifted out of the room.

I had heard there would be a choir practice that evening, and I said I wanted to join the choir. That simple gesture, it turned out, became a key to my connection with people there.

I had started out my visit with the Khasis wearing a watch that I checked from time to time, as we Americans do, and I would ask my co-worker what time a meeting would begin, or, in this case, what time choir practice would begin. He was very patient with me, as I caught on slowly that these country people have no clocks or watches, and that activities begin when people arrive, whenever that might be. Choir was to be in a building nearby when participants arrived, so I picked my way carefully through the puddles to that building with its rows of rough wooden benches, and there I joined a gathering of people assembled to sing together.

The only light was from a single, dim, bare electric light hanging from the rafters. The music in question was written by hand in pencil on sheets of paper, the words in the Khasi language which is written using our western alphabet, and the musical notation being a different system of symbols completely unfamiliar to me--which didn’t make much difference as I could barely see it and I learn music by ear. I didn’t realize until later that the men and women in the choir were “youths,” local unmarried people in their late teens and early twenties, most likely finding the choir to be one of the few opportunities to gather and interact with their peers. The choir director was a Khasi Presbyterian, a good friend of the Unitarians.

The women lined up in the front two rows, equivalent I guess to soprano and alto, and the men lined up in the rear two rows: tenor and base. With no instrument to accompany, the choir director taught by singing a line and having the row repeat it after him. At no time did he stand in front of the group to direct with his arms. Working slowly, but with enthusiasm, through all parts of the whole piece, eventually we all were able to put it together and sing in harmony. I needed a flashlight to see the words, and I was most grateful for the ongoing help of the youthful tenor section who helped me learn my part--remember they did not speak English and my interpreter wasn’t there--and who were most forgiving of my ineptitude.

Just as there are no particular times to begin an event in this setting, there are no times to end either, and there is no sense that it is “getting late,” or time to “turn in.” If folks are having a good time, they may go all night! But I got tired and finally had to withdraw when much of the singing was done.

The next morning, when the rain had stopped, I stepped outdoors to see for the first time that I was staying above the clouds in one of the most beautiful places in the world. After a breakfast of tea, chapati, apple, and banana, I moved to the building where the choir had practiced, which turned out to be the Unitarian church and school house. In daylight, it appeared to be much like a large shed, with uneven wooden planks for floors--some missing--and with the best light coming through window openings--no glass--which also let in a very cold, damp draft, making occupants--most being small children--choose between the possibility of having light or heat but never both.

Remember I was there to train teachers, which training most often began with observations of school in session. As a retired teacher, I had some skills to share. To the extent possible, my colleague and I convened “seminars” of the local teachers, and attempted to focus on what was good and positive, providing models and suggestions.

What I remember in Mawlat is that our teacher training seminar attracted much community attention, with people crowded at all the open windows and doors--crying babies, and barking dogs--there apparently being nothing much else to do at that time in that place.

My two days and nights in Mawlat passed quickly, with almost every moment full of activities happening, of course, when people arrived: long Unitarian worship services at which I was asked to preach again and again. I might note that the Khasi idea of Unitarianism is that it is the “religion of One God,” and thus worship involves many long prayers, hymns, and sermons. In fact, for people who may have walked a great distance to go to church and who make worship a central feature of their lives, the longer the sermon the better--with a tradition of extemporaneous preaching--and one service might even have two or three sermons--and last two or three hours! So, yes, I did that, as well as responding to invitations to visit homes in the village, staggering up and down steep stairways and paths, leading seminars, and then, of course, another choir practice.

We only practiced one anthem, which, I later discovered, was written especially for the dedication of a Unitarian church nearby that week.

The second night, I was asked to leave the singing to join a gathering of head men in the nearby house. They had a number of questions about religion, and I was the first minister to spend time there whom they might ask. I gave answers as well as I could in words that might make some sense in the context of their lives. It was a challenge, they being intelligent and motivated, but not formally educated as we know it and coming from such a different culture. Examples of questions that I later wrote down in my journal:

“What happened to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion?”
“Was Jesus born on December 25?--and “Do American Unitarians celebrate Christmas?”--and Why?”
And a very pressing issue: “Will the world end on January 1, 2000?” - such rumors being rampant in that part of the world.

Finally, around midnight, I withdrew to the room that I shared with my co-worker and crawled into my sleeping bag with my wool night cap, shivering from the cold, and listening to the youths next door who sang well into the morning.

Morning came all too soon, at dawn, with barking dogs, crowing roosters, and shouting children. After breakfast and a side trip to the top of the mountain, for my edification--that I might see the village on the other side of the mountain (!), six or eight of us men gathered to walk to the next village where the new church would be dedicated the following day. Our walk took us over the route that the bus had crawled two days before, at about the same speed, but this time without the rain, and amidst the most wonderful butterflies I have ever seen. Meghalaya is known especially for two things: its brilliant orchids which grow wild in the moist, cool jungles; and its butterflies, that come in every color, shape, and size. I have never before or since seen anything like it: great swarms/clouds of brilliant butterflies--yellow, orange, blue, green, black--a swirling rainbow all around us.

After an hour or so of walking--one loses track of time when time isn’t of the essence--we arrived at the village of Wahmawlein, whose name means “New Village.” Here on relatively flat land, away from the steep cliffs of Mawlat, along a muddy path were perhaps thirty houses.

This village has an amazing history. After the landslide nearby, which wiped out some hillside Unitarian houses along with the end of the main road, British Unitarians contributed money to buy land on which new Unitarian homes would be built. The land now belongs to the Unitarian Union--under the control of its one Board which directs all church activities--so these thirty or so families, occupy what may be the only exclusively Unitarian village in the world!

After a brief look around, I was led to what appeared to be the most substantial house, where I was to spend the night. After an early dinner, I went to what serves as a “community house,” a bamboo structure with an open fire at one end and a raised bamboo platform just opposite, with two kerosene lamps without any glass chimneys strung precariously overhead providing the only light. Here we were to have our final “Church Worker Seminar,” the term “Church Worker” here apparently meaning anyone in this Unitarian village who wanted to attend. And they did attend, again from my journal: “Crowd swells, sitting on raised platform, floor around fire space--women nursing babies, sleeping children, young and least 50 people crammed into a very small (but now warm!) space.” As usual, we began with singing hymns--which these folks knew by heart--followed by a prayer. Then the head man gave permission for the seminar to begin--nothing ever happened until the head man gave permission.

Having started after dark, around 7 PM (here I am, looking at my watch!), we went about two hours and discovered we were just getting started, so we went another hour, once again with burning questions about such things as Christmas and the year 2,000 and more. At some points along the way, participants provided answers or gave long explanations and I asked them questions, so this became a true dialogue, a sharing, a meeting of the minds. Finally we had closing hymns and ended with what may be the longest ad lib prayer I have ever heard.

Around 11 PM I went up the road to choir practice in the new church, where a portable generator was producing more noise than electricity and very little light. After an hour or so of singing, I groped my way “home” in the dark to find my co-worker hard at work translating our “welcome song” into English. I crashed, and slept easily, but, being the old man that I am, I was up early and out, there being no indoor or outdoor plumbing whatsoever.

It was dawn--perhaps 6:00 am--but it turned out that most of the village had been up all night getting ready for the dedication of their new church, whitewashing the walls, erecting shelters for the overflow crowd, putting up tissue paper decorations and bamboo poles topped with banners.

Not far away, a large group of men was cutting up a whole cow that had been purchased by the village for a feast. the meat was cut into small chunks, then tossed into in huge pots that would be simmering all day over great outdoor fires. It appeared that everyone had something important to do and was doing it with great enthusiasm.

By that time, I recognized faces as I moved about. These were people I had joined in worship, some of whose homes I had visited, whose schools I had observed. These were people with whom I had connected, and, already, whom I had learned to love and respect. These were the Unitarians of Mawlat and Wahmawlein.

Late in the morning, a jeep arrived from the city of Shillong, carrying the General Secretary (understand “head man”) of the Unitarian Union, Mr. Carley Lyngdoh, and the Chief Guest, Mr. Geoffrey Head, a British Unitarian so honored because of the British contributions paid for the land, and others. I was told that much of the cost of the church we were dedicating was paid for by the UUA. This special party was led off to the house where I had stayed the previous night, and I joined them for tea.

The actual dedication service took much of the day, beginning with the traditional garlanding of guests at a welcoming arch--to much applause, then moving to the door for speeches and more applause, then crowding inside for worship with many of my villager friends left outside looking in the open windows and doors. When it came time for the choir to sing, I stood to join them, and the General Secretary motioned me to sit, but I said, no, I was in the choir, and I stood and sang with them. In our rehearsals, and again in this presentation, the choir stood shoulder to shoulder and swayed, in our lines, to the music. I made a tape of one rehearsal.

The chorus in Khasi is:
Khublei, Khublei ia phi
Ki parabangeit ba la ia wan hangne...

Which translates:
Welcome welcome to you
Fellow members who have come here...

After much singing and speaking, including a speech from me, and preaching and praying, the church was finally dedicated, and the time for the great feast had arrived. As I worked my way through the crowd, greeting friends, the General Secretary informed me that a special feast had been prepared just for outside visitors and would be served in the house where I had spent the night. I was invited, expected, yeah ordered (that being his authority in this hierarchical system), to dine with the outside visitors. The visitors headed for that house, while the villagers gathered nearby in the open, on rough hewn benches, for their feast.

The choice was reasonably clear. Should I go with the outside guests, or stay with the villagers? What would you do?

My choice was to stay with the villagers and to feast outside. I took my place on a bench and was served along with everyone else, eating with my fingers.

I should note that among many Indians including the Khasis, eating is not a social occasion as it is here, so this whole feast included some waiting, eating my food quietly, and then walking away to make a space for the next person to be served.

At some point, the outside visitors departed in their fancy jeep. They had done their duty in making a ceremonial appearance, and the villagers did their duty in saying farewell.

The next morning, when my co-worker and I left on the motorcycle he had gone off to retrieve, it seemed the whole village came out to say goodbye with great warmth and enthusiasm. One key person told me how important it was to them that I had attended their feast.

Four months later, when the Khasi Unitarians gathered for their Annual Conference in February, 1999, the Mawlat choir was invited to present an anthem. For me to join them, my co-worker and I returned to Mawlat for choir practice, staying overnight (Remember the bumpy road and the long walk...).

Later that month, I returned to the USA to take up a half time ministry in Jacksonville. A year later, 2000, after finding that the world had not come to an end, I traveled once again to Meghalaya, this time to be present for the 100th Unitarian Conference that was attended by dignitaries from the UUA, including our President, John Buehrens.

In that brief visit, my activities were limited, but I asked to revisit Mawlat, once again to attend choir practice. This time the villagers greeted me as an old friend. They said they found it hard to believe that I would keep coming back. I said I just came half way around the world to sing in the choir.

The photo was taken when my co-worker and I were preparing to leave on his motorcycle at the end of my 2000 visit.

Later, we joined thousands of Khasi Unitarians and the foreign guests at the Annual Conference, with all the necessary ceremony and ritual and everyone doing their duty, but my heart wasn’t there--except, perhaps, when I was singing with the Mawlat choir.

May we all be blessed with the harmony of real connection in our lives.

More about Unitarian Universalists of Palm Beach County, Florida

Read more about the Unitarian Universalists of Palm Beach County, Florida at:

Unitarian Universalists of Palm Beach County, Florida

We are a liberal religious community of diverse and free-thinking individuals. We seek spiritual growth and social justice. As adults and children who learn, love, share and serve together, we welcome all to our family.

We must always remain vigilant to protect our civil as well as our religious liberties. All of us people who believe passionately in one political view over another, people who hold dearly to one religious dogma or another, must protect the rights of those with whom we disagree. That is the only sure way to preserve our own rights, and the rights of children.

We, as Unitarians-Universalists, are committed to that task. We do not take this path because of any creed or dogma, nor are we directed by any ideological certainty.

What we have, and what we offer, is respect -respect for your intelligence,...your personal integrity,...your humanness, an acceptance and a reverence for the inherent worth in every individual.

At this church, before any creed, our belief is in you. We believe the ultimate measure of a human is not so much in the creed expressed, but in the worthwhile deeds attempted.

We invite you to join us.

words from the Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert's "Called by Whom? To What?"

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