As they shuffle into their place of worship, they greet each other, catch up on news of the week and begin their service. But inside no prayers can be heard, no pews can be found, no songs are sung. The place that they are meeting is not a church.
Here, at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, the scene inside the "zendo" is different. Members silently meditate, sitting cross-legged atop round cushions on the floor, and end the service with "sutra" chanting.
Although Christianity reigns as the most common religious worship in the area, the Japanese practice of Zen Buddhism, based on sitting meditation called zazen, is gaining popularity in Western cultures and in Chapel Hill.
"I think that people are curious," said group member and zazen instructor David Guy. "They want to learn how to meditate. Zazen is the practice of being present in your experience, the experience of body and mind."
Teacher Pat Phelan said the Zen group hasn't had a problem finding its place in the area's diverse religious scene. "We have seen a lot of growth," Phelan said. "When I came in 1991, there were eight members. Now we have over 45 full members and give instruction to about 150 people a year."