When I told my best friend that my husband's job was moving us from the liberal Greater Seattle area to conservative central Washington, she offered me a warning: “Don't tell anyone that you're Pagan. And make sure your kids know not to talk about it at school.” She had experienced harassment in the same city we were moving to as an adolescent for the same reasons, and she was concerned that my children would face a similar issue.
My mother and mother-in-law, who both loosely identify as Christians, voiced their own opinions: “Don't go around announcing that you aren't religious,” and “If anyone asks which church you're going to, just tell them you aren't sure yet.”
Their concerns were genuine, their warnings from the heart. But I had hidden myself from my community once before, and it had cost me, and my children, dear friendships.
So, it was with a churning stomach that I watched the meeting time of a walking group in my new town slowly slip past. The baby squirmed in the carrier against my chest as my two boys ran along the terrace that overlooked the river. Despite the chill, I began to sweat. Had these women looked at my Meetup profile and decided they'd rather not meet me? Was my first attempt at making friends for our family in this new town going to be ruined by my refusal to hide the fact that we were different?
I have seen, and been the recipient of, religious prejudice online. The fierce and piercing kind that leaves you feeling like less than dirt, because whole communities feel that you are not only damning yourself, but you are taking your kids down with you. How pathetic you are. How inhumane.
Return to God. You'll burn in Hell.
Let Jesus into your heart. May God have mercy on your poor children.
Fire. Damnation. Brimstone. All things that unrepentant heathens like my family and I should expect to endure in the afterlife.
I have played the game: Get to know someone, invest yourself in them, watch your kids form bonds to their children. See the promise of a great friendship only to have it whisked away in a fit of intolerance. The person I am, the people my kids are, suddenly not good enough for these people because our values, while similar in theory and execution, don't come from the same book.
I am not going to let that happen again.
Now, here we are. My Pagan/Atheist blend family trying to assimilate into a community so different from the one we left, I am no longer sure that there will be a place for us at all.
Our walking companions finally arrived, apologizing for being late. Children are good at making the simplest tasks take forever. We introduce ourselves, I wrangle the boys into the stroller, and we begin our walk along the river path, quickly falling into easy small talk.
But, I feel the pressure. The knowledge that at some point I will be outing myself to these women who I just met, who I am putting my hopes upon for acceptance in a place where everyone has told me to expect none. It seems that I have lucked out, though, as the three of us women seem to have much in common aside from motherhood. I cast out, asking about the other women in the group, wondering how active they are, if the group is relatively tight.
A hesitant answer: “They're okay... but a lot of them are pretty religious.”
“Yeah, we've heard there's a pretty strong religious community here,” I reply.
“It's kind of hard to get in with them. They can be pretty cliquey since a lot of them go to church together.”
And here it is, the moment of truth, “Well, we aren't religious, so church isn't our thing.”
I waited for the slew of preachings, but it never came. Instead, I discovered that I had met, in all likelihood, the only two other not religious mothers in the group. Our camaraderie immediately resumed, and the message I sent to my husband after our walk was one I never expected to send: “We're going to be OK here.”
My relief was short-lived as we searched for a preschool for the older of our two sons. Public schools were solely for those under the poverty line, or those who have learning disabilities, neither of which is our son. After a discussion with the school district, it was clear that our only option would be a private preschool at one of the many churches in the area.
Once again, I prepared myself for rejection. I had seen too many news stories about private schools singling out students or families whose faith didn't align with their teachings. We filled out all the boxes, signed all the forms, and, despite all warnings to keep our minority status on the down low, marked our religious preference as Other/Unaffiliated.
I waited for the call saying that our son would not "be a good fit" or some other sugar-coated way of saying that our family was not welcome because we did not conform to the church's teachings. Once again, what I anticipated never happened. Instead, each morning when I dropped him off we were treated with a smile and a hello, his teachers offering him and me the same amount of attention and respect as the rest of his classmates and their parents. We made friends with a few other families, at least one of which knows our religious status and has stuck with us anyway.
The final daunting hurdle in our assimilation into this new community was my husband's co-workers. If they don't accept us, will my husband forever be ostracized from his peers?
It was easy to fall in with them. We were invited to participate in their communal gatherings from day one. The kids made fast friends with the other children, my husband was dubbed a brother, and I was offered warm hugs and gestures of welcome.They wanted to know everything about us, and I thought about hiding our potentially controversial quality. Maybe I should just keep it to myself. Maybe, if we become friends, it won't matter as much when they find out later.
But I wasn't about to let my doubts bully me into hiding what makes my family tick.
There were no gasps of shock, reprimanding tsks, or proclamations of damnation when I stated that I preferred to worry about the Earth before the afterlife. Some nodded, some announced that they were the same, and others merely moved on to the next question.
And I finally felt safe.
At a time when the Internet brings stories of radical intolerant behaviors straight into our homes, it is easy to fear what others will say and think about those of us who are different, whether in religion, race, or sexual preference. It is easy to forget that our communities are made of people, and people, in the grand scheme of things, are inherently good and eager to welcome new neighbors into the fold.
Since those first initial months, we have been introduced to more people, and have even started calling a few of them friends. It is with a light heart that I can say that revealing my family as Pagan/Atheist has failed to harm any of these blossoming relationships.
I may even go so far as to say that it has helped further a few of them along.