When I’m asked about what it’s like to be in an interfaith marriage, one of the things that I’ll often say is that it feels lonely.
This is a fairly multi-faceted kind of loneliness. I sometimes feel lonely in the marriage. It can be hard to be in a relationship where you have different religious beliefs. There are aspects of my life where I feel less connected to my husband now that we no longer share a faith.
But I have also experienced a more profound loneliness in the Church. While interfaith marriage continues to be more common, it is rarely acknowledged in most church services. Small groups are often geared toward married or single people, but if you’re a part of an interfaith marriage, it can feel like you don’t fit in either group. Often non-believers are treated as a monolithic group, and as someone who cares about her spouse, it can be hurtful to see attitudes about how to “fix” my husband being offered without any effort given to know him.
I know that Jason as an atheist has similar experiences. Times where, in our almost exclusively Christian social and familial circles, he is the lone, “token” atheist.
All of this can lead to a sense of not having a place where we fit in.
And yet, when I step back, I can see how we are welcomed into one another’s groups.
Last night I attended the local atheist group with Jason. We met in a couples’ home, where we ate pasta with home-grown tomato sauce and the most delicious quiche I’ve ever tasted. We drank wine and talked about the Carl Sagan book that they were reading this month. Despite the fact that everyone in the group knows that I am still a Christian, I feel genuinely welcomed when I attend this group. I never have the sense that they’re uncomfortable with me being there or with my contributions to the discussions. I feel accepted.
A couple of weeks ago, Jason attended my church with me. Our drummer was unable to attend due to the weather, so they invited Jason to play the drums for the service. Despite knowing that he is an atheist, he was welcomed to participate in a way that he was able. He was given an opportunity to contribute his talents to the church, even though he does not share our beliefs. He was accepted.
There is something powerful about a sense of belonging. When our shortcomings, real or perceived, are known and we are accepted anyway, that is a more authentic expression of love than any words that can be said.
It is easy to tend toward exclusivity. When we exclude others, we can certainly build a community of like-minded people and that feels safe. We can feel as though we will be accepted, and if we make the cut, there’s an element of truth to that. When a group is exclusive, it does guarantee a certain level of acceptance, but it is limited in that acceptance.
However, when we choose to include those who are outside of our group in a truly welcoming manner, we open ourselves up to a much deeper acceptance. While it can feel great to make the cut, it is far more wonderful to know that you can belong even if you deviate from the party line. There is a much stronger sense of belonging that can develop when you know that you are accepted no matter what.
When Jason and I see one another being accepted by our respective communities, it gives us a stronger sense of belonging not just to the other’s group, but to our own. Knowing that the person that we love the most is accepted is one of the best ways for us to feel accepted as well.
It can feel strange to go into situations where you are the odd person out. Go anyway.
It can stretch us to embrace those who are different from us. Stretch yourself.
When we offer a space in which others can belong, we create more space for ourselves as well. Create belonging.