Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2013


The new science center at New London Hall. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

Past Issues

Contact Us

Address Change

College Homepage

Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness
Barry and Jim Alter in Srinagar, Kashmir, in the 1950s.

Barbara Beach Alter '42 P'65 reflects on a life of service

By Beth Hamilton

For Barbara Beach Alter '42 P'65, becoming a missionary was both a natural outcome for a minister's daughter and a somewhat unlikely calling for a woman who wanted no part in evangelical proselytizing.

However, the 35 years “Barry” Alter spent as a missionary in India turned out to be the ideal way to fulfill both her commitment to Christianity and to “secular humanism.”

Now 92 and a resident of an assisted living facility in Massachusetts, Alter is still the same vivacious, sharp-minded woman who landed in Karachi — at that time it was still part of India — on Oct. 27, 1945.

Alter's father, David Nelson Beach Jr., was a New England minister who led a number of churches, including Center Church in New Haven. Her grandfather was president of the Bangor Theological Society in Maine, and her great-uncle was a missionary in China in the late 1800s.

This lineage shaped Alter's faith, but also set up an intellectual conflict. As an 18-year-old philosophy major at Connecticut College, she struggled to reconcile her Christian beliefs with a broader understanding of the world.

“I ultimately decided theology is a poem that doesn't define God, that can't define God,” she says.

After college, she married James Alter, a social activist and Yale Divinity School graduate who was jailed in 1940 for his pacifist convictions. The couple was eager to set out for India, where Jim had grown up in a Presbyterian missionary family, but they had to wait until the end of World War II. Meanwhile, they tackled anti-poverty work in Tennessee, where the first of their three children, Martha, was born.

Once the wartime ban on travel ended and they went to India, the family “did whatever the church needed of us,” says Alter, who learned to speak Hindi and Urdu. She describes their time in India as living “in the midst” of others both physically and spiritually.

Jim established the Christian Retreat and Study Center in Rajpur, but the Alters did not want to impose their religious traditions, such as Western hymns, on those who attended the center.

“We ran the study center like an ashram. You washed your own dishes, you waited on your own table,” Alter says.

Martha (read more) and her brothers, John and Thomas, studied at the Woodstock School; three generations of Alters had attended the interdenominational boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas.

(Today, John is chaplain at a private school in Virginia, and Tom is a well-known Bollywood actor. Recently, the whole family gathered in Mussoori to celebrate the wedding of Tom's son, an Indian sportswriter who covers cricket.)

The family returned to the United States in the early 1980s, but Jim's health was faltering. He died in 1983, and his family buried his ashes in India.

Newly widowed, Alter wanted to be useful. She became a church visitor for the Center Church in New Haven, worked in a sewing store, cared for her elderly parents and volunteered for United Way.

In 1992, Cathy Corman, a new mother of triplets, needed someone to lend a hand. She sought help from a volunteer program for seniors, and the program's director suggested Alter. Corman was skeptical when she was told that Alter had been a Christian missionary.

But Alter came highly recommended, so the new mother decided to give her a try.

“In walked this white-haired, upright 72-year-old,” Corman recalls. “She promptly took one baby from my arms. … It was just instant love between the two of us.”

A freelance journalist with a doctorate in American studies, Corman has traveled to India with Alter and is producing a documentary titled “In the Midst” that examines the lives of Alter and other liberal Presbyterian missionaries.

Connecticut College Magazine

This page maintained by College Relations <>
General Feedback
Copyright © 2017