This posting discusses the experience of growing up in an extremely religious, closed community and later leaving to join the outside world. We’ll first discuss the Laestadian experience, and next draw attention to some resources from the experiences of some other groups.
This is intended to describe the “typical” experience of leaving, but since we know there is no such thing as one typical experience. There are as many personal experiences and stories as individual persons. Please forgive us if our description doesn’t match your experience.
However, one of our foundings is that problems we meet in the process of leaving laestadian community are universal and known by many others who leave any religious compulsory community (or such one non-religious). – Please be free to give your comment here, or by e-mail email@example.com.
Be brave enough to decide
Often you have considered it seriously for years what to do, to stay or to leave. You have experienced that it’s also difficult to stay but be opposed to some the doctrine and rules. Maybe you have tried to leave – and you came back. This yo yo phenomenon is familiar for us indeed. It shows how full of self-contradictory emotions, difficult aspects and stressing feelings the situation is. The loss of community can be very painful.
Whenever we leave a religion we give up the benefits that are promised to us by the doctrine of the Laestadian faith. Most of us will sooner or later replace it with benefits from some other belief system – or give up the benefit entirely. I suppose that it is more unlikely to totally loose the belief in the existense of a god than still continue to trust in God’s protection in the individual’s life. However, I don’t have any evidence on this.
We get from our growing and childhood in the Conservative Laestadian community is a sense of belonging and comfort as we are amongst familiar people who understand and know us.
Leaving the faith creates anxiety and fear because we by definition give up this comfort and feeling to belong into the group. In addition to this, leaving a religion is doubly scary because we give up the benefits, the benefits that are promised to us by that particular doctrine: eternal salvation, eternal life after the dead…with our relatives and friends, as well.
Thus, it is not surprising that this is a difficult transition to make.
You are uncomfortable and insecure because you have 18 years of never learning how to pursue hobbies, other than those approved by the church. People wonder how you can be this old and never have gone to a movie or danced or applied mascara. It is strange, but wonderful, exiting and interesting at the same time.
Exclusion as a church doctrine is one detail which is hurting hard you personally and in a very concrete way. They will share their private greeting with each other: “God’s Peace!” This greeting will not be shared with you anymore, if you do not attend their church. When you are together attending a family party they will say it to all of the community members present in the room, but not to you, if you are among them in the same room. Some of them would not even acknowledge your existence and avoid to be near you.
It happens, that one of your small cousins would say ” Gods Peace” to you, and then you will see that his mother pull him aside in front of you and tell him what he did wrong. Your name to all of your laestadian relatives is the unbeliever. Be prepared into becoming stigmatized and despiced.
Just the exclusion was one of the reasons why many of us left.
A life as my true self
Growing up in the Laestadian community, you feel a deep sense of warm belonging. (The sense of community and need for belonging seems to be very hot and wanted in our life.) There are strict rules, and these rules clearly delineate how you should live your life. You know exactly what is good and what is bad and strive to make your life conform to the rules, at least publicly.
You are thaught that the outside world is filled with atheists and dead faith churches. These people are on a lower plane of value because they are not part of the community. They, even the most honourable of them, are going to hell. You feel as if the community is a refuge from a cold outside world, filled with ravening wolves. The people who make up the outside world are not diverse and not individuals; instead they are an undistinguishable mass of people “in the world.”
There are many community mechanisms to keep you in the group.
The fear of those worldly wolves is drilled into your head from childhood. You fear losing your sense of community and belonging. You know that if you leave, you will be tarred as a rebellious sinner who wants to pursue just money, pleasure and easy, frivolous way of life instead of remain faithful to God and be satisfied with His grace.
Despite these incentives to remain, you decide to leave. Perhaps, the central tenets of the community no longer seem true. If the community is based on a lie, it becomes empty to you. Or maybe you are driven out from being constantly repressed in how you choose to dress, or your friend, a significant other.
Regardless of why you leave, the outside world appears to be a place where you can best live as your true self. Upon leaving, you feel the sudden loss of community.
As a typical Laestadian, the community was your world. You likely didn’t take part in outside social groups such as sports or student groups, and your friends were all from the church. Now, the community is gone.
In addition to losing the community, you lose the rules. No longer do you have a clear roadmap that tells you how to be holy and how to live your life. You must create this roadmap on your own. To decide what to follow you should know yourself – but you probably have not yet met your real authentic self… it is still coming, you just have to find and create yourself from the beginning again.
You often feel resentment at having missed out on the many things you learn others did in their childhoods. You are suddenly eighteen or more years behind in learning the rules of how to behave in the wider world. You may find another church to attend or perhaps you just swear off religion entirely. You may like to concentrate yourself in everyday life and forget all the damned spiritual stories.
On the positive side, you learn the world has some decent people, and is not made up entirely of ravening wolves, as you were taught.
Nonetheless, the outside world often cannot understand your experience. Although they offer sympathy and express amazement when they hear your story, they cannot understand what you feel.
Some even go so far as to question why you ever left, thinking you simply succumbed to outside peer pressure to conform and denied your unique cultural heritage.
How they meet you…
Since you have left the Laestadian community, you will live your life like banished, judged in the ostracism related with your previous social life.
When you meet your family, you will meet cruelty and you try to understand it in your mind: What did I do to deserve to be treated so poorly, all I wanted was to belong, to have a family, but it hurts… I was not wanted, it is a surprise to them that I still have morals, and that I’m not pregnant out of wedlock and that I’m not addicted to drugs. But don’t you believers know, I’m a equal person too… All I ever wanted was to belong to a family…
You have to create an attitude, a mindset and get practical tools how you can protect yourself to get hurted and wounded by your family and the closest people. You have to find ways to avoid hard emotional injuries and damages when you meet them.
Thousands of similar and even worse experiences…
The Internet has provided ways to share experiences and help for people who would like to leave their strict religious movement. There are available personal stories, discussion forums for peer-help groups and sources to support to survive in the leaving process. It is good to know that there are many others out there like you.We mention here some of the most useful sources. Please let us know when you know more.
Learning to live free blog (OALC)
Hakomaja: information archive and discussion forum (in Finnish)
Steps to get rid of Conservative Laestadian movement: Askeleet irti SRK-Lestadiolaisuudesta (in Finnish).
Laestadians are not the only ones to go through the feelings of leaving. Another group to experience these feelings are e.g. people who left the strict, closed form of Judaism known as Hasidism .
Like in the Laestadian community, there is also a strong sense of community in the Hasid community, but there is also fighting for power and factionalism.
Also the groups of the Amish and Mennonnites has similar doctrines and rules as laestadians, some even crueler ones. The process of leaving tose communities is prevalent.
When the Amish leave, they often experience social ostracism as bad or even worse than what some former Laestadians experience; e.g. Saloma’s blog.
Being authentic – You’ll survive and see the wide world
From the experiences of the former Hasid, Amish, or others, former Laestadians can realize their experiences are not unique and are often easier than the experiences of many from other similar groups. Former Laestadians are usually able to earn a living in the wider world and can eventually re-define themselves as successful and free, even if worldly.
By reading those experiences you will learn that while others may not have had identical experiences, many people (especially racial and sexual minorities) have also experienced being a “stranger in a strange land.”
You find that your understanding and empathy for the dispossessed makes you a trusted friend and natural advocate.
Having found the courage to leave, very little can frighten you, least of all the social opprobrium of others. You are confident and able to connect easily with people regardless of socio-economic barriers. You have a high regard for reason, honesty, compassion, and inclusion, and attempt to model these values in your relationships. Your intellectual and spiritual curiosity never allows you to stagnate. You find life rich and exciting.
While sometimes you are nostalgic for the close-knit community you left, you find incomparable satisfaction in being authentic, and in being a citizen of the world.
* * *
Authors: the extraordinary fine text and background info by Rhyming Blue, modified and completed by an ad hoc group of ex laestadians - Our warmest thanks to you, Rhyming Blue, and the beautiful blog Learning To Live Free!
* * *
Please be free to give your comments here or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anonymous: I left the Conservative Laestadian movement
Edward Dutton: Conservative Laestadians in Oulu
Leanne Waldal: How does “sweetie” become shunned? (On ostracism after leaving Leastadian church; also interesting comments)
Anonymous: Vanhoillislestadiolaisuudesta irtaantumisen tunteet (Emotions within leaving Conservative Laestadianism, written by a young man who left the community in 2009; in Finnish)
How to Leave the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church (Useful guidelines for people who consoder to leave Conservative Laestadian community, too. This model has been a starting point in planning those steps in Finnish.)
Nuoret jättävät vanhoillislestadiolaisuuden - suuri syntyvyys ei kasvata jäsenmäärää (The young generation leaves Conservative Laestadianism – number of members doesn’t grow despite the high birth rate; in Finnish)
NYT-liitteessä: Miltä tuntuu luopua uskosta? (An interview in NYT Magazine: How did you feel to leave the religious community, in Finnish)
Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence (a review of The Guardian)
Syntinen ja sairas: Äiti tyttärelle: “Kun lapsi kieltää uskon, se on pahempi kuin lapsen kuolema.” (Mother to her daughter: “When you leave it is worse than you were dead”, in Finnish)
Vanhoillislestadiolaisuus ja Jehovan todistajat: eniten hengellistä väkivaltaa (A research on religious violence, in Finnish)
The Laestadian Lutheran Church, the sister organisation of the Conservative Laestadian community in Finland (SRK ry.)
is a conservative Lutheran revival movement which was started in the middle of the 19th century and is named after the Swedish-Sami botanist and preacher Lars Levi Laestadius. The doctrine is characterised by Pietistic and Moravian influences. The term “Laestadian” is used as an umbrella to refer to all churches and groups with a clear succession of belief from his teachings. Different groups follow his ideas in various degrees, and they have created more or less strict lifestyle rules (what is considered a sin). The number of Laestadians worldwide is estimated to be between 144 000 and 219 000 (Wikipedia).
Laestadians are the largest revival movement in the Nordic countries. The biggest groups live in Finland with about 130 000 members. In Sweden they are thought to number 10,000 – mostly found in the north of the country around the Torne Valley. Laestadian movement has churches and congregations also in the US and Canada.
The deeply conservative faith broke into three branches – The Firstborn Laestadianism, Reawakening, and Conservative Laestadianism - in the beginning of the 20th century. The groups are shattered again in the 20 Century, in Finland and other countries, and today is counted 19 Laestadian groups but about 15 groups still active. Some Laestadian groups, e.g. the Conservative Laestadian congregation in Finland (SRK ry.) consider themselves the one, true Christian church, and preach that all other Christian churches (including other branches of the Laestadian tradition) are not true Christians.
Conservative Laestadianism in Finland is the biggest Laestadian group. It is also the biggest revival movement inside of the Church of Finland, with about 100 000 members.
In fact, it is quite strange that the Conservative Laestadian revival movement works inside of the Lutheran church, for it’s excluding attitude towards the other memebers of the national Christian church. The priest who get their earnings at work for the curch of Finland would not say this openly in the sunday worship in the church that the other members in the congragation are not true Christians to be saved. But afterwards they teach this when they preach in the Laestadians’s meetings at local “Rauhanyhdistys” house.
Conservative Laestadians’ central management is The Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations (SRK ry.) leading 188 local “associations of peace”. The local congregations have over 34 000 members. It is not compulsary to formally join the association.
The community will grow rapidly in the next decades in case that people will stay in the Laestadian faith. Today there are over 50 000 children and young people (under 18 years) growing in the Conservative Laestadian families in Finland. As the movement is so big today, it has remarkable power and influence not only in the church but also at the political, public administrative, religional and cultural level in Finland, and also in the national media. Especially in the northern Finlad are towns where there everyone who’s anyone is a Laestadian. The future will show how the active young Conservative Laestadian’s generation will act and influence in the society and in the national church.
Laestadians are taught to consider a sin television, cinema and movies, dance, rhythmic music, performing arts such as concerts, theatre and opera, also alcohol, hair dye, make-up, ear rings, birth control, premarital sex, divorce and homosexual relationships, and many other sins (list of sins in Finnish). Especially in the Conservative Laestadianism the believers have to follow those lifestyle rules, or “providential advice”, or “congregation’s advice” as they modestly call them, decided by the preachers and the Central Committee of the SRK (those rules doesn’t include the Bible nor the Lutheran Catechism).
Laestadian asceticism is distinguished from many other fundamentalist Christians in that just few of the norms are officially “proscribed” openly, banned by any official decision. Actually, in Finland justa bans of birth control, television, singing in choir , working as performing musician and concerts are results of the official decisions of the management of the Conservative Laestadian revival movement. (The Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations).
Rather, Laestadians do control eachothers themselves, they are on the look out for eachothers, and they employ a reinforcing system of social feedback to encourage abstention of the banned behaviour. The ultimate threat is ostracisism, i.e. segregation, exclusion from fellowship in the common congregation. The board of the congregations maintains this social control in keeping with the beliefs of the church.