Seeking company, finding community

Bored of the beach, a tourist attends a local church service.

Andy Clark/Reuters
Children head home from school near st. George’s, Grenada.

As I sunned myself on a secluded, white-sand beach in rural Gren­ada, literally lounging under a coconut tree, one thought continually crossed my mind: "I'm bored."

When I'd planned my holiday in New York City, the concept of plopping down on an isolated Caribbean beach for a week with my family appealed, but after a day of building sand castles and watching the waves, I missed meeting locals, shopping at crowded markets, hearing new music, and eating street food. I crave hubbub. Being at one with nature just didn't feel natural.

To cope with my cove-side claustrophobia, I spent a Sunday morning singing, swaying, and Hallelujah-ing with the congregants of the Ebenezer Pentecostal Tabernacle.

Attending a religious service in a foreign land offers travelers – whether they are evangelical Christians, avowed atheists, or, as in my case, an agnostic Jew – a window on an unfamiliar society and the chance to transcend the servile relationships common at resorts. In a worshipful setting, artifice tends to erode.

Before visiting a new house of worship, it makes sense to conduct a bit of intelligence. Some conservative mosques, for instance, ban non-Muslims. But the proselytizing Pentecostals of Grenada, I had heard, welcome strangers. Not that the spare, one-room church with a corrugated metal roof gets many visitors. St. Peter's Basilica, Ebenezer Tabernacle is not.

Still, I worried about being the only white face and non-believer in the room, so I slipped into a rear pew by the exit in case I detected any icy stares. But several of the parishioners walked right over and shook my hand.

"What assembly are you from?" asked one woman with a James Brown wave of black hair. "I'm not a member of a church," I admitted. She gave me a wide smile, as well as a green hymnbook.

I apparently had arrived in time for Sunday school. The teacher, a 30-something woman in a black dress with a purple sash, stood in front of a lectern emblazoned with a chrome cross. At times, she strained to be heard over blasts of dance hall reggae from passing cars.

The lesson, I later learned, is known as "the law of the garbage truck." A garbage truck nearly caused a major accident by cutting off a taxi. Despite being at fault, the garbage truck driver screamed at the taxi driver. But the taxi driver smiled and drove on. The passenger in the taxi wondered why the driver did not yell back.

"Many people are like garbage trucks," the taxi driver explained. "They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it, and if you let them, they'll dump it on you. When someone wants to dump on you, don't take it personally. Instead, just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on."

After the parable about turning the other cheek (advice worth keeping in mind on a Caribbean island or city streets), the teacher handed each congregant a slip of paper with a Bible verse written in red ink. Each parishioner stood, Alcoholics Anonymous-style, read the verse aloud, and spoke about its real-life relevance. Topics ranged from the benefits of patience to the dangers of gossip.

A large, elderly woman wearing a black hat and thick glasses asked the teacher to read her assigned verse because "my eyes are not right."

The passage extolled the virtue of forgiveness, and the woman shifted in her pew. She admitted in a quiet, vulnerable voice that did not match her frame how she finds it easy enough to forgive but extremely hard to forget. When wronged, she carries a grudge.

My turn came. I was meant to discuss Ephesians 4:22-24, which I later found out commands the faithful "to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires." But I did not have a Bible on hand, only the hymnbook. I felt like a sixth-grader unprepared for a pop quiz.

But I wanted to contribute something more than a few dollars for the offering plate. I owed it to my hosts to participate. I stood and said that the Bible often deliberates about the meaning of beauty. As does modern society. We typically define beauty as a gorgeous beach; a sleek, new car; or a fancy mansion; but I saw beauty before me in the sense of community I was witnessing.

Much to my relief, I heard murmurs of approval from my new, albeit temporary, neighbors. Soon the Sunday school teacher asked us to join hands and pray.

I remain a steadfast secularist and still consider bagels with smoked salmon and a schmear as my Sunday ritual, but as I bowed my head and clasped hands with my pew mates on the right and left, I had enjoyed a religious experience.

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