I guess I’d call it a guilty pleasure of the travelling life: Spending a few weeks in an area feels like we’re standing on our tiptoes, leaning over the windowsill of a private residence and peeking through the curtains to get a glimpse of what really goes on inside. 

The people on the inside have a system. They know how life functions in there: the order, the unspoken rules, how relationships are worked out. As outsiders, my husband and I don’t have this information. We observe and try to make sense of what we see.

Some places look like ones we’ve seen before, so we anticipate, and generally, our assumptions are confirmed. 

Then there are places that make us take several long blinks to try and figure out if what we thought we saw was actually there. And sometimes we’re still not quite sure what we saw. 

Beside each other but not together

Two paths diverging in sand - When separateness reigns

One place that made us second-guess our perceptions was a small town that seemed to be made up of two distinct towns running parallel to each other, yet sharing the same space. There were rules we didn’t know about as we peered in through the curtains. But they must have been there, embedded deep within that society, because we saw their effects everywhere we turned.

When we went to the grocery store, there was one kind of people walking together in small groups and another group walking with their own kind.

When we went shopping, there were clothing stores for one kind of people and separate stores for the other. 

And when we went to church to fill our hearts with fresh words to think about, we found that we could do it with either one group or the other. Nowhere in that town was there a place where we could go to church with both groups mixed together. So we joined one group one Sunday and the other on the next. And what we came away with after both of those Sundays gave us even more to think about. 

Following the rules

The first Sunday, we went to a church where all the people looked like us. We were welcomed politely, were asked a few cordial questions and were directed to sit quietly in a pew and wait for the service to start.

Once it did, we were told when to stand, when to sit back down and when to shake hands with the people around us. There was a time for us to sing, accompanied by an organ, and a time for us to watch men in buttoned shirts and women in dresses sing (while holding binders of song sheets in front of their smiling faces). 

The pastor preached. He used a current movie to draw out points about looking for God in our lives. The idea that God is real and personally involved in our lives was the core of his message.

The service ended, and a couple of people asked where we were from and what brought us to their town. They introduced us to their families and then recommended a place we could try for lunch. 

Breaking the rules

Church with door open - When separateness reigns

The next Sunday, we went to a church where no one looked like us. We had crossed the line, broken an unspoken rule. We were the outsiders who didn’t understand the order. We’d been around long enough to know it was there, but not long enough to comply with it.

We were the outsiders who didn’t understand the order. We’d been around long enough to know it was there, but not long enough to comply with it.

Even though we’d come a few minutes late—to try and inconspicuously find a seat at the back—the service hadn’t yet started. There was only a handful of people there. No chance of entering unnoticed. 

A woman came running from the front, grabbed us, brought us in close for a hug and told us how glad she was that we were there. She showed us where to sit and scampered off to set up a podium and attach a mic. 

A few minutes later, the singing began, accompanied by a very focused drummer and an incredibly enthusiastic keyboardist. I looked around and counted 20 people, including children, but it sounded like there could’ve been two hundred. They sang, clapped, raised their hands and cheered, and we sang and clapped along. 

We were told when to stand and when to sit back down. When it came time for us to greet the other people around us, hugging and saying “I love you”—even to the two people who didn’t look like them—was how they did things. So we greeted those around us in the same way.

The pastor, we realized, was the woman who’d first run up to us. She preached. She used her own experiences to point out how she saw God in her life. The idea that God is real and personally involved in our lives was the core of her message. It sounded very familiar!   

The service ended, and the pastor ran to us again, asking us all kinds of questions to get to know us better. She introduced us to her family and took a photo with us. She invited us to come back and spend another Sunday morning in their midst. 

A wish from the outside

We’d been granted a view through the curtains into a place we couldn’t explain. We’d seen two groups of people with their own ways of doing things, living side by side and yet so very separately.

We wanted to invite the people in that town to step over to the outside and stand on their tiptoes with us. We wanted them to look in through the curtains like we were doing so they could see what we were seeing: that rules are meant to be broken, and that the only way to work out relationships is by doing it together. 

I bet if they dared to cross that invisible line and sit under the same roof on a Sunday, each group would find that the message delivered by the other still sounded familiar.

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image 1: PublicDomainPictures.net; image 2: Pixabay

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