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This religion reporter’s secret weapon? Nonreligious friends

I’m a religious person who writes about religion for a living. I’d be lost without my friends and loved ones who don’t attend church

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

If it were up to my now-husband’s friends, he and I might never have met.

Now before your imagination runs wild with visions of long-simmering grudges, let me clarify that their early concerns had nothing to do with my actual personality, appearance or behavior. Instead, they were anxious about the match because of their assumptions about my faith.

Mike had told them after we connected on OKCupid that I wrote about religion for a living. They assumed that meant I was religious myself (true) and that I was looking for a partner who shared my commitment (mostly false).

Mike, a lapsed Catholic turned vocal atheist, didn’t seem to fit the bill, so they wondered why we’d even bother meeting up. Thankfully, Mike went ahead with our date, and we’ve been defying their expectations together for the past eight years.

Looking back now, I don’t blame Mike’s friends — who are now my friends, too — for questioning whether our pairing would work out. On paper, it does seem odd for someone who reads and thinks about faith all day to match up with someone who’d mostly left the world of religion behind.

But what that paper is missing is how much we appreciate learning from each other. Mike is always interested to hear about my latest article project, and I’m always seeking his insights on how to turn a faith story into something even nonreligious readers would enjoy.

When I met Mike, my social circle was dominated by people who, like me, proudly refer to themselves as religion nerds. They either attended church regularly themselves or had a graduate degree in religion or worked for a faith group (if not all three).

At work, I struggled to write for a general audience because I obsessed over what my highly religious social circle would think. I wanted my friends to believe I sounded smart, instead of wanting Deseret News readers to enjoy learning about what I’d reported.

Finding Mike shook me out of that headspace and gradually made me a better writer. Although I’m still guilty of being really nerdy sometimes (especially in this newsletter), my work now is better connected with the interests of people who didn’t go to divinity school or get ordained.

Later this week, partly in Mike’s honor, I’m doing a short presentation at Religion News Association’s annual conference in which I’ll make a case for religion reporters to have nonreligious friends (and/or spouses).

Although it’s meant to be a light-hearted speech, I am serious about convincing my colleagues to rethink who they go to when they’re looking for article feedback or story ideas.

Eight years ago, the first date that my husband’s friends were skeptical about not only changed the course of my personal life, but also my career.

After reading the first draft of this essay, Mike wanted me to add that our relationship has shaped him in big and small ways, too. Most notably, having a child (and having a religion nerd for a partner) has reopened his internal debate about faith, and he’s spent several Sundays in church in the past few years.

Fresh off the press

College DEI offices are falling out of favor. Are faith-related programs at risk?

Texas Tech coach resigns after Bible lesson drama

Jaxon Kohler, a Michigan State Spartan and Latter-day Saint, says faith fuels his basketball career

Term of the week: Kingdom Hall

Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to their place of worship as a Kingdom Hall, rather than a church. That’s because the faith group believes church should be used as a noun for a group of worshippers, not for a building, according to The Associated Press.

Last week, tragedy struck a Kingdom Hall in Hamburg, Germany. A former congregation member opened fire on a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, “killing six people and injuring eight before taking his own life,” The Associated Press reported.

To learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and around the world, check out the Associated Press’ full explainer.

What I’m reading...

To bring more people into Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, the Rev. Chad Kirchoff made a bold move: He converted a kitchen and some Sunday school rooms into a community gym, and then allowed people to come work out with the provided equipment for free. Today, high school students are among the gym’s visitors, according to the Star Tribune. “This is a nice place to go. There’s a lot of good people here,” one 15-year-old gym user said.

Renovations continue on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2019. One of the key parts of ongoing construction is to figure out the acoustics of the new space; Notre Dame was once known worldwide for its soundscape, according to The New York Times Magazine. The online version of the article includes some very cool music clips.

Scholar Paul Miller recently wrote a thoughtful column for Christianity Today about persistent confusion regarding the definition and application of the term Christian nationalism. If you enjoyed my newsletter on the topic, please check out his piece.

Odds and ends

As I noted above, I’ll be in Washington, D.C., later this week for Religion News Association’s annual conference. Follow me on Twitter to see updates from this year’s panels, which focus on everything from the future of religious institutions to abortion politics.