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I moved to small-town Ontario and got an attitude adjustment


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I recently moved from the largest city in Canada to a town with the minuscule population of less than 6,000. With uncharacteristic eagerness, I said to myself: "Okay, let's get to know this town and let it get to know me."

It wasn't long before I began getting nods and hellos of recognition, and I enjoyed the almost instant sense of familiarity. But I wanted to find some like-minded people – organic, artistic, writers, people who lived their lives with a creative bent.

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The local art gallery seemed a logical place to start. The owner and I hit it off, finding no end of topics to discuss while I admired the chickens in her in-town backyard.

I spotted a poster for "Pecha Kucha" to be held in the library on Thursday, and the tickets were to be purchased at her gallery. "What is pekoe koochoo?" I asked, struggling with the unusual name.

"It started in Japan," Louise explained, "with architects. They wanted to be able to show their peers their latest projects, but would talk about them endlessly for hours. So, someone said let's pick a night, and here are the rules: You can show 20 photographs, but you can only speak on each one for 20 seconds."

I headed to the library on Thursday night. Downstairs, about a dozen people were gathered in a large room set up with chairs and a laptop for power point presentations. Oh, and coffee, butter tarts and chocolate macaroons. The evening was off to a good start.

I scanned the room, wondering where to sit. I saw a man in a turban sitting in his own row. I thought: "I'll show that I'm from a big multicultural city and go and sit beside him."

We introduced ourselves, and Sher said he'd be doing a PK tonight, his second. Further into our small talk, he revealed he lived in an old church; perhaps I would like to see it some time?

The talks began, and they were truly wonderful. There were polished speakers from the local Toastmasters club; a woman in a wheelchair whose story garnered applause despite all her pictures being in the wrong order; a nine-year-old girl. All provided fascinating glimpses into strangers' lives and imaginations.

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When the evening ended, Sher asked if I'd care to join him for chai and see his church. I agreed without a moment's hesitation. "We can walk," he said. And we did, literally five minutes from the library on Main Street.

I think I gasped aloud when I saw the stunning yellow-brick building. "First Baptist Church" was still emblazoned above the entrance doors. We went in the side door of a rather large addition. As we entered the inner sanctum, I stood still, enveloped in a sense of hallowed peace.

The graceful space with its soaring ceilings was complemented perfectly by Sher's beautiful woodcarvings, eclectic furniture, original paintings and large, inviting cushions.

As we supped our chai, the conversation danced from one topic to another: his Sikh background, my farm. We suddenly discovered we both shared a fascination for Mennonites, who were rife in the area.

Sher told me he had befriended a Mennonite who had left the fold. He told the man of his interest, and this fellow offered to show him the community he had lived in.

If you have never passed a Mennonite church on a Sunday, it is truly a sight to behold, with scores of black buggies tied to hitching posts outside. A scene surely from a hundred years ago.

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"May I go in?" Sher asked. "You can," his friend said, "but I'm waiting in the car."

I clapped my hands in delight. "You are so brave!" I exclaimed.

"Oh wait," he said, " it gets better."

He told me he opened the door and stepped inside the church. The sermon stopped and 400 eyes turned to look at him.

"Picture this," he told me. "I am wearing sandals, shorts, a T-shirt and I have a turban on my head."

I was laughing with great glee.

A man near the back got up quickly and spoke to him: "Can I help you?"

"May I sit down?" Sher asked simply. "Of course, of course!" replied the man, and Sher stayed for the whole service.

Since then, he has become friends with many Mennonites. If he attends a sermon now, they will switch from German to English solely for his benefit. He has taken two Mennonite couples to experience authentic Indian food in Brampton.

I asked him if he had been in a buggy, and if so what it was like.

"Absolutely terrifying," he said. "I have never felt more vulnerable in my life."

He has a couple of close Mennonite friends now, and once a week or so Noah will call him and say, "Sher, are you home for a coffee?" And if he is, Noah will bring over a couple of coffees and they will discuss their lives, which really isn't so different after all.

At home alone, later that evening, I reflect on my good luck.

How I, a single lesbian woman newly moved to a rural small town, should sit in a 130-year-old First Baptist church and listen to Sher, wearing his turban, tell me how Noah in his straw hat, black pants and suspenders, will come visiting with Tim Hortons' coffee in hand.

And I think to myself: "Yes, this is Canada."

Jennifer Hart lives in Mount Forest, Ont.

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