The following Sunday, it was impossible to leave the house without being noticed or getting snide remarks from the family. Subtlety had never been a talent of the seven McLancy kids. Liz and Jackie entered the kitchen that morning, dressed for church in dull ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved sweaters, braided hair, and scarves fastened to their heads. The moment they entered, their siblings started with the comments.
“What the hell are you guys wearing?” Eva asked, while the rest stared at their oldest sisters in a mix of amusement and confusion. Their mom shot Eva a warning look, but didn’t say anything.
“It really shouldn’t bother you,” Jackie retorted, reaching for the cereal box.
“Milk?” their mother asked, offering the jug.
“It comes from a cow.”
“So you just eat your cereal dry?” Andi said, looking at her cereal bowl like it was the most unimaginable thing to eat dry cereal.
“At school, I use soy milk. So if you had any soy milk, then, no, I wouldn’t eat my cereal dry.”
Liz stared at her sister, feeling more uncomfortable as the conversation continued. She had never seen Jackie be quite this set on something, or take this kind of tone with their family.
“What are those stupid things?” Eva snorted, reaching across the table to flick the end of the pure black scarf on Liz’s head, which was responded to by a slap on the shoulder. Tommy, who apparently found this to be an entertaining game, flicked the end of Jackie’s green scarf.
Calmly, Jackie recited, “‘Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.’ First Corinthians, chapter eleven, verses four to six.” She stood, picking up her purse and keys. “Besides, I don’t have to defend my choices to you guys.” She looked at Liz expectantly. “Let’s go.”
The family watched with wide eyes as the two girls walked out of the house. Liz only glanced back once, before her older sister grabbed her arm and guided her into the car she had borrowed from their parents.
Liz found herself getting more nervous and more excited with each passing minute as they drove to the church. She tugged at her scarf. “So what is the point of this thing? And can you explain without some complicated Bible verse I don’t understand?” she asked.
“Stop playing with it,” Jackie said, smacking Liz’s hand away from the scarf. “It looks fine. And it’s just what we wear. It’s a modesty thing. Shows humbleness. And the colors are for rank—the lighter the color, the higher the rank. All visiting and un-baptized people wear pure black ones.”
“Rank? What is this, the army?”
Jackie rolled her eyes. “Rank tells us who deserves the most respect…and who hasn’t come quite as far yet.”
Liz raised her eyebrows, trying to process this. That seemed strange for a church, but then again, this didn’t really sound like any church she had ever experienced before. “What do the men wear, then?”
“Stoles,” Jackie answered. Just then a wide smile came over her face and her eyes brightened. She pointed ahead. “Look, there it is!”
At the edge of the suburban town, just where the empty country began, a large, elaborate church rose above them. Its steeple was topped with a white cross wrapped with a rose—much like the cross hanging around Jackie’s neck. There were tall, stained glass windows in the largest section of the church. Attached to one side was a long, tall stone wall that wrapped away from the church and beyond Liz’s range of vision. Just off the parking lot was a strong steel gate, through which Liz could only just make out some small white structures. She shook her head, deciding that whatever was beyond that gate was none of her concern, and focused her attention instead on a sign staked in the front lawn, reading:
The Children of the Rose
Central Church and Colony
“And let them make me a sanctuary;
that I may dwell among them.”
Liz clenched her fists and clicked her teeth—a nervous habit. Jackie noticed and gave her sister’s arm a comforting squeeze as they walked up to the front doors of the church.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “All the church members are very welcoming to visitors.”
By this time, they had joined the wave of people entering the church. They walked through the front door and found themselves in a vast atrium; carpeted floors, high ceilings. It clearly doubled as a reception and mingling area.
“Jacqueline!” someone cried from one corner. Liz and Jackie turned to face the girl hurrying toward them. She looked to be around Jackie’s age—nineteen or twenty, maybe—and was wearing a lighter green scarf. A braid of dark blonde hair ran halfway down her back, and she wore a pair of black-framed glasses. “Is this the famous sister of yours we’ve heard so much about?” the girl asked, looking and smiling at Liz.
Jackie placed a hand on Liz’s shoulder and also smiled. “Heather, this is my younger sister, Elizabeth McLancy. Elizabeth, this is one of the friends I was telling you about, Heather Johnson.”
Heather held out her hand, and Liz shook it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth. Welcome to our church.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Liz answered.
“The rest of the gang is over here. Come on. We can all find seats together,” Heather scuttled back through the crowd. Jackie and Liz followed.
“You told people about me?” Liz whispered to Jackie.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Jackie said with a shrug, but she wouldn’t meet Liz’s gaze.
They approached a small group standing against a wall. There was one more girl, who was wearing a scarf like Jackie’s, and two guys. They all looked to be around Jackie’s age.
Heather grasped Liz’s arm, clearly taking charge. “Guys, we have a visitor to our group today. This is Jacqueline’s younger sister, Elizabeth.” Heather turned to Liz and motioned to each person as she introduced them. “
this is Scott, this is Peter, and this is Jennifer. She’s a little shy.” Elizabeth
Jennifer’s eyes widened. “I am not shy!”
“I think I speak for all of us,” Peter cut in, “in saying it’s a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth. Will you be sitting with us?”
Liz glanced at Jackie, who was still looking everywhere but at Liz, and shrugged, “Sure, I guess so.”
The group collectively smiled. Liz had never seen a group of people whose actions and words were so in sync with each other. Outside of boy bands, at least.
“Great!” Heather said, clapping her hands. “Let’s go find a good seat. Pastor Simon is preaching today.”
The group hurried across the room to where there was a set of large white double doors, with a plaque hung above them, which read: O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. ~Psalms 95:6. Through the open doors, the giant sanctuary ceiling rose up above them, ending in a point. Rows of cushion-less, straight-backed pews lined both halves of the massive room. They looked like they had come straight out of the Puritan times. Stained glass windows, many with pictures of Jesus or Pastor Simon or roses, glowed brightly in the morning light. An altar and giant cross sat at the front. A large podium stood in the middle, raised above the pews. The congregation easily filled the massive room. There were varying ages—some people looked as young as Liz, if not a couple years younger, while some looked to be in their forties or fifties. Everyone was either whispering to their neighbors or praying. Each person looked excited to be there, with the exception of a few girls who, like Jackie, wouldn’t meet anyone else’s eyes. Liz, on the other hand, kept glancing around nervously.
“Relax,” Jackie whispered, keeping her eyes on her lap. “No one’s judging you. Just enjoy yourself.”
A loaded silence fell through the sanctuary as everyone turned to watch the progression of a tall, middle-aged man make his way down the aisle toward the podium at the front. He looked very official, in Liz’s opinion. His white robe reminded her of what she’d seen ministers wear the few times she’d been to church with her family, and draped over his shoulders was a white stole embroidered with many bright red roses. He smiled at those watching him as he walked down the aisle. Liz thought he had a friendly face and she was deeply impressed by his talent of looking at each individual in the sanctuary, like they were all equally important to him.
“That’s Pastor Simon!” Heather whispered excitedly to Liz. “He’s a great man. Wonderful speaker. Easy to talk to.”
“Good morning, Children,” Pastor Simon spoke in a resounding voice.
“Good morning, Pastor Simon!” the congregation responded energetically.
“And a good morning it is indeed, for this is a day of God!”
Liz widened her eyes at the excitement behind the voices of the congregation as they responded and, again, she was amazed at the abilities of such a large group of individuals to act exactly the same. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jackie had finally focused on another person. Her sister now only had attention for Pastor Simon.