I’m not a religious person, but I do believe that things happen for a reason. And I’m certain that Michael Jon Halter – and the rest of his amazing family – came into my life for a reason.

My family doesn’t attend church, and my attitude around religion was “to each their own” until I attended horse camp when I was ten. The camp’s owner learned that I wasn’t religious and dragged me into her office every night for a lecture about Hell – and told me I was headed there if I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my savior. She made me miserable. Right then and there, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with religion. While on disaster assignment with the Red Cross in Tennessee 13 years later, the kind-hearted Southern Baptist volunteers discovered I wasn’t religious and delivered a lecture that was not dissimilar to the one I’d received at horse camp. I hit my early twenties with no real positive experiences with religion or religious people, and developed and nurtured a sizeable chip on my shoulder.

I met Michael Jon Halter in November of 1999, and went to see him in Boise that December, where I met his parents, Dave and Norma. I still can’t explain why I chose to go to the party where I met Mike, and how on earth we made it through two rollercoaster years of dating long-distance. But falling in love with Mike – and with his family – has changed my thinking about so many things.

The Halters knew from the beginning that I wasn’t religious. They knew that I was loud and opinionated, that I didn’t cook or clean, and that I’d probably never convert to Catholicism like the three other “out-laws” did. They respected my wishes and talked with Mike about religion and faith, but never talked with me about it unless I initiated the conversation. The Halter family says grace before every meal, and they never once commented on my choice to not join in the prayer (even when I knew it by heart). When they come to visit us in Seattle, we don’t say grace, and they never say a word. At Christmastime, I stay home while the entire family goes to church; they respect that church just isn’t my thing.

Mike describes his mom as being “just like June Cleaver” – everybody’s favorite mom who had trays of nachos for him and his friends after school. Norma can find something nice to say about everybody and she brings out the best in the people around her. She always assumes positive intent and it’s tough to be cranky or negative when you spend time with someone like that. Everyone who meets Norma falls in love with her – she’s a warm hug, a thoughtful friend and the kindest person I know. She’s a truly beautiful person, in every way. We see Dave and Norma four or five times a year, and after each get-together she texts me to let me what a great mom I am – and how much she loves me. When you’re muddling along as a parent like I am, often wondering whether you’re doing the right thing, those kind words mean everything.

Dave is the best father-in-law a girl could ask for and my partner in crime. He’s not demonstrative in his affections, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who loves as deeply as he does. Dave and I hit it off from the very beginning – we’re both opinionated and direct. When Mike and I traveled in Germany and Switzerland with the Halters, Dave and I sat outside and bonded while Norma and Mike shopped. Dave reads constantly, asks lots of questions and forces you to think about why you believe what you believe. He’s logical, fair and kind – and strives to understand people and what drives them. I once asked Dave what he thought would happen to me when I die, since I’m not a believer. He said, “Well, I don’t know. But I can’t imagine that a person as loving and wonderful as you would go anywhere other than Heaven.”

Of course, I’m grateful that Dave and Norma decided to have four children – since Mike was lucky #4. But I’m just as lucky to know Todd, Stephanie, Kristine and their spouses. I now have six incredible brothers and sisters-in-law – and five nieces and nephews – who I love with all my heart.

You know, it’s hard to hang on to all that skepticism about religion with people like Dave and Norma Halter in my life. I met my match in Michael Jon Halter – but I NEEDED his parents to teach me about love, tolerance and faith. It feels like our worlds collided – and I needed them just as much as they needed me (to get their youngest son out of their house).

Two Christmases ago, Norma took the time to talk to Cassie about the meaning of Christmas, and about Jesus. Cassie was fascinated and talked about wanting to go back to Boise to see baby Jesus. The old me would have been furious. The new me was delighted to hear them teaching her about what they believe. Faith is the foundation of the Halter family. And they’re a family based on love, kindness and acceptance. I’ve found a second family who loves me exactly as I am, and challenges me to be my best self.

We’re in Boise for the holidays now, and when we gather as a family before meals to say grace, I join in the prayers. Last night, I caught Cassie watching me as she tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer. I’m so grateful that my daughters will receive such a wonderful introduction to all the good that religion brings to people’s lives from Dave and Norma. I can only describe them – and the special relationship we have – as a blessing.

Here’s to wishing the world’s best in-laws a very Merry Christmas. When I think about what I’m thankful for this holiday season, the two of you are at the top of the list. I love you both, so very much…