I've been missing being among many men who wear beards and women who wear veils, who dress distinctively and who maintain a life that is somewhat distinct from the majority in our town. Yes, I have been away from Luton over two weeks now, and I miss my Muslim friends.
But the last two days have made up for that.
We've been spending a couple of days in northwest Indiana in the US where there is a large number of Amish people, and other related Christian groups who live simply and preserve a somewhat distinct way of life to the majority of society. The Amish and their Mennonite cousins have always fascinated me, and since I spent a very happy three days staying with an Amish family a few years ago they have inspired me.
But they look so different. I sat looking around me this afternoon as we found ourselves at a pony auction, with all kinds of associated activities, and I sneeked a picture of the group sitting opposite me. (They don't like having a picture taken but a general shot like this was OK.)
Take a look at the picture. Maybe click on it to enlarge it and study faces. What does the men's hat and beard or the woman's traditional bonnet say to you? What do the men's braces and baggy trousers, the women's modest dresses and sobre colours say about them? And behind the clothes lies a culture that does not tolerate drunkeness (and rarely drinks), that maintains very conservative sexual ethics, and does not use cars or electricity. They are easy to misunderstand, to criticise, to dismiss as irrelevant.
Yet from my three days among them, asking so many questions I must have driven my hosts mad, I found them to be a joyful and deeply faith-filled people. Their choice to live out their Christian faith emphasising a relatively simple lifestyle, a strong commitment to community, and a rejection of violence and war and commitment to peace was a deep source of inspiration to me. These are the treasure I found among those often called "the plain people."
Its easy to miss the point. The Amish have most recently been shown in the UK through a Channel four series, "The World's Squarest Teenagers" (you can see fragments on Youtube and follow the associated pages). To those who were around to see movies a generation ago, Witness was our first sight of these people. Watching either its easy to mock. But many find the way of life and faith, even as portrayed by Holywood, touches them and leave a mark deep inside.
I could write much more about these dear people. My journey as a peacemaker has been marked by the teaching on peace of the Mennonite believers who went before. But for now to do so would be to miss the point of my afternoon's reflections. I am challenged once again to look behind the beard and head covering, beyond the behaviours that are different, and to not let difference get in the way of relationship.
And that is the challenge I must take home with me.