Before her retirement, my friend Betty Ann worked for the tourist development council of my hometown. She was the convention and visitors director. God must have a sense of humor. Let me explain.

As she and her family unpacked in the sprawling metropolis that isCalhoun,Georgia, it didn’t take long for her new neighbors to arrive with the welcome wagon. Betty Ann was asked the normal “get-to-know-you” questions which basically consist of “Who’s your mama?” and “Where do you go to church?”

The answer to those two questions pretty much determines one’s fate in the small country towns of the Bible Belt. Betty Ann’s answers made her a strange animal indeed.

First, she and her family were not from here; “here” being inside the confines of theGordonCountyline, established 1850. Anyone outside those boundaries was a foreigner. Betty Ann was a sojourner from points far above theMason-Dixon Line. Yes, she was a Yankee.

Second, Betty Ann didn’t have a “normal” last name like Greeson, or Carson, or Wilson. No, her last name was Surdykowski. It didn’t matter that she was born with the last name O’Reilly. Her husband had “ski” on the end of his name. She was Polish.

As the gals from the welcome wagon headed for the door after their first visit, they were in deep contemplation over this new woman in town. One turned just before crossing the threshold and asked, “I have one more question. Are you also…Catholic?” Strike three.

That’s right. Betty Ann Surdykowski, director of tourism for a town whose premier annual event is a Civil War reenactment, was a Yankee, Polish, and Catholic. God is still laughing at this most un-Southern trifecta.

But hey, the town gave Betty Ann a shot. I’m glad. We found her to be a lovely woman: Smart, funny, well-connected, a wife and mother. Everyone came to know this about her. Our lives were greatly enriched because she dared to journey into the hills ofAppalachia.

In the Good Book Jesus said, “Do not judge others and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others.” Why does he always complicate our lives with sayings like these? And more than complicate, this strikes at the heart of what we do best: Critique other people.

You know it’s a favorite pastime, and we all participate. We do it at the mall, the theater, the beach. We call it “people watching.” As the public parades by we sort them into categories like dealing cards.

We look at the color of their skin, the number and location of their tattoos or piercings, the ethnicity of their last name, their nationality, neighborhood or religion. Then, we are able to pigeon-hole them rather quickly, and draw the lines that separate us.

“Oh, I’m not judging others,” a good Christian might say. “Jesus said we would know people by the fruit they bear. I’m just a fruit inspector.” A fruit inspector, you say. Since when did God authorize us to make the management decisions?

There is enough separation in the world: Democrat versus Republican, Christian versus Muslim, White versus Black, Male versus Female, North versus South, East versus West, Haves versus Have-nots, Protestant versus Catholic. The church is called to a different kind of existence.

The church is united not by race, color, creed, nationality, ethnicity, or socio-economic standards. We are united by the body and blood of a crucified and risen Jesus. The New Testament church was and remains the only society in which rich, poor, slaves, masters, hungry and the full could come together as equals without prejudice.

Without prejudice? What would that world look like? A world without narrow-mindedness, bigotry, or intolerance; a world that does not size up others based on the town of their birth, the accent with which they speak, or the shape of their house of worship: That world would look a whole lot like the kingdom of God.

Our neighborhoods are filled will Betty Ann Surdykowskis – people we think so different than who we are. Give them a chance. You will find they aren’t that unusual after all.

You will find new friends. You will let go of some of the prejudices that have kept your world so small. And you just might enjoy a slice of how things were made to be.

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