by Emma Renshaw
My husband and I are three years into a mixed-faith marriage. We are Midwesterners who love to backpack. The backpack adventures started as a quip comment when he served as a bishop and asked what I wanted to do for a couples trip. I sarcastically replied, “Somewhere where a single phone call or text can’t make it through.” Two months later, we found ourselves on Ray Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon, without a line to the outside world and our first encounter with bears. It was a time when our faith was fully intact. The fractures were forming, but neither of us would anticipate the landslide of emotions that would bury us in the coming years as we learned to navigate a life where religion was no longer the foundational component of our relationship.
The heartache has subsided, and I wanted to share this analogy for those starting to embark on the mixed-faith journey.
He packs to conquer the mountain and the vistas. I pack for the flora – the windswept flowers and the delicate moss that grows above the treeline. I’ll allow him to self-pace when it’s steep, and he stays in earshot. When the altitude strains my Midwest lungs, he’s by my side, patiently waiting. Because we’re drawn to the mountain for different reasons (and we’re grossly different heights), we’re simply mis-paced. However, we both love the engulfing silence; therefore, the mountainside is ours together.
Sometimes I’m envious because he’s traveling in ultralight gear, but I can’t, not yet. As a woman, there is so much baggage, an identity interwoven with the church. I continue to carry my pack until I have the time, space, and courage to unravel it all. He can’t help with or force it; he can only provide patience and space when I’m ready.
When I thought I was finally ready to upgrade to ultralight equipment to match his, I realized my pack would always be heavier because I’m a woman. One day women’s backpacking equipment will be equal to men’s, there is progress, but I’ll always need warmer gear. Sure, it’s just a few extra ounces, but it’s a weight I can’t shed, and it shows on the steep pass.
I try a few new pieces of equipment, some work well, and some don’t. After a few more trips up the mountainside, I realize my old pack fits me better, and the heavier sleeping bag is the difference between the “worst night of my life” and ‘I can still feel my toes.” For me, it’s not all about weight; I need comfort.
In my faith life, I’ve found a home on the edge, a place where complexity turns into something beautiful and wild. It’s lonely and complex, but it also affords growth, empathy, and a more expansive view. It’s a space where I can sort my pack out and decide what is necessary and what is not.
We’ve backpacked together for eight years and married for almost two decades. Our kids joke when they look through our photos from the same trail; it looks like two different trips. We realize it’s the same with our faith, we now view through different lenses. It’s messy, unlike on the trail; there’s no map for mixed-faith marriages. At times it’s painful to see how faith deconstruction has altered our lives’ trajectory. This is not what we anticipated, not what we sought out, not what we were promised.
I do not fully understand why his faith shattered, and he does not understand how I still believe, albeit in a strange and unorthodox way. Still, we are learning to appreciate the beauty in the vistas and the intimate ecology of our views on faith and life. We made a verbal pact to keep the adventure going together. To learn, together. To grow, together. To experience, together. So we plan the next trip into an unexplored wilderness, knowing there will be challenging climbs to find breathtaking beauty and allowing space for each of us to have a different experience on the same adventure.
Emma is a mom of four and partner. She is an agricultural nonprofit director, lover of fields, woods and everything that grows within.
Photo: Wayfinding Through the Fog – The Presi, Mt. Washington