Growing up, Michael Haslett learned a simple creed of human rights: "You're equal. You should be safe. You should be happy. If you want to go to school, you go to school."
"But that's not true everywhere in the world," he recently told the congregation at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey.
Half a world away, Haslett is working to change that reality and improve the lives of children at a school in South India, built largely by St. Peter's, his home parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.
Last July, Haslett left his Washington, D.C., job at an international development agency to work as a volunteer English teacher at St. Peter's English Medium School in the poor, rural village of Kothapallamitta in the state of Andhra Pradesh. After the school year concludes at the end of April, he either will sign on to teach another year there or go to work with the National Campaign for Dalit and Human Rights in New Delhi. He updated the Morristown church on the school's progress during a Christmas visit back home – a trip extended into February because of new Indian visa restrictions.
Haslett teaches English to fourth- to seventh-graders in the school, which serves 175 pre-kindergarten through seventh-grade students: Christians, Muslims, Hindus; Dalits and non-Dalits. Sometimes called "untouchables," Dalits continue to face caste discrimination, particularly in rural areas.
"The goal of the school from the onset was to have children sitting together and learning together," Haslett said. "If you sit next to someone your whole life, you can just be friends."
They teach in English, which along with Hindu is one of two national languages among 20-some recognized languages in India, he said, noting that knowing English eases travel. "It also helps in the greater globalized economy to be able to work in and with the whole world."
The school charges tuition on a sliding scale, starting at 50 rupees a month for kindergarteners. For comparison, 45 rupees are worth one U.S. dollar, and a 20-ounce can of Coca Cola costs about 50 cents, he said in an interview after his St. Peter's presentation. Teachers are paid $30 a month at most – enough to live, but not to climb the social ladder, he said.
That's $30 a month more than Haslett is receiving. He saved money from his Washington employment to fund his current venture. "Luckily, village life is an inexpensive life," he said.
'Called' to service
The job in Kothapallamitta "called me," he told parishioners.
The seeds of that call were planted in 2001, when he visited the village as a youth group member as part of a growing "companion relationship" between Kothapallamitta and St. Peter's. Episcopal Diocese of Rochester Bishop Prince Singh, then an associate at St. Peter's, previously had served as priest of 17 congregations in Kothapallamitta and the surrounding area and helped launch the companionship and raise awareness about the plight of the area's Christian Dalits. St. Peter's raised funds to build the school, with some support from St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Franklin Lakes, where Singh served as rector before being elected bishop.
Haslett returned to India for a month in 2004 with another former St. Peter's youth group member, Danielle Allatta, and again in 2007 for the dedication of the completed school building. The two subsequently helped launch the D.deVoe Foundation to help defray educational costs for poor Indian children, starting with St. Peter's school.
"For me, it's always been about these children," Haslett told the Morristown congregation, showing photos of the schoolchildren. "They're really just special kids that are just kids, like anywhere else in the word. They're energetic, and they want to learn – and they want to play and to dance."
And some are doing quite well. Two girls recently placed top in the district and first and second in the state in an essay contest, said Haslett, who filled in as head of school for six weeks before his visit home. A third girl received an honorable mention. "It was great to show that our kids are learning and our teachers our teaching. We just had three girls told that they're the smartest in the state."
Making a difference
"Even psychologically for a child to know that you're going to that school is a big deal," Singh said in a telephone interview. It's a self-esteem boost, "especially for a Dalit child, who is filled with the reality of survival constantly, to be able to actually go to a place that is so … grand. They've got marble on their chapel floor. It's not the normal existence of a child in that neighborhood."
The education is superior to that in the public schools, yet affordable in a way other private schools are not, he said. "Without primary education especially, there's no way a child is going to be prepared for the possibilities of the 21st century."
"I think the capacity for it to be a really terrific school has not been realized yet, and that's where I think Michael can play a role in helping us move into that phase," he said.
"His dedication in terms of just being there and helping that school take off in some ways is just commendable, and I'm just so proud of him and so inspired by his drive."
"He's been our evangelist," Singh said, noting Haslett had spoken in his diocese to St. Luke's in Fairport, New York, which is now developing a companionship relationship of its own.
"What I find most touching," said the Rev. Janet Broderick, St. Peter's rector, "is that this isn't a program. He spontaneously, in response to the gospel and his own circumstances in his life, gave himself to this. … We try to program responses to the gospel, but the real one is even more exciting than anything we could have planned on." When you plant seeds – such as sending a teenager to India – she said, you wonder: What did it do? "Here, we've been able to see what it did."
Haslett credits the values he learned at St. Peter's, which he started attending in fifth grade, and from his family with setting him on the path to Kothapallamitta. "I was raised watching a father who helped other people and did the right thing. For me, I had an opportunity to help people and do the right thing."
But he eschews the title of missionary, noting he's not there to proselytize.
"I'm working with Christians, but to help Indians. I'm there to help some kids learn," he said. "I'm not solid enough in my own faith that I'm going to preach and tell somebody that they need to change their religion or do something different."
One of the key lessons he learned in the confirmation classes taught by his father and Allatta's grandmother, he said, was: "Most people don't pick their religion. They're born into it, and God knows that."
Living alone in a very different culture, the only non-South Indian for miles around, hasn't been easy, he admitted. Adding to the difficulty, his mother was diagnosed with a serious illness before he left. The first five weeks were the worst, he said. "Now, I'm okay. I've adjusted."
"I knew that this first year was going to be hell. I knew that this would be hard, and I was going to be alone. I was right."
But he hopes it will serve him well in a future career in international development, he said. "When I make it through this, I'll know I can make it through anything."