Thursday, August 10, 2017

Leila's Story, Part One

(Free says: This is the first half of a guest post. If you'd like to tell your story, use the form at the bottom of the page or send me an email. Thanks!)

Dear Free,

I just discovered your blog while aimlessly researching the OALC online. Thank you for this site, and for letting me tell my story, as even my friends cannot understand how I grew up. You can call me Leila (not my real name). 

I was born into an extremely proper OALC family in Washington State. My mother's mother and my father were not raised as members of the church; they joined as adults, and I am not primarily Scandinavian like most of the OALC. As a result of my Native American and Spanish ancestry, I do not look like the people I grew up around, and was often made fun of by my "Christian" friends -- who would say in a joking manner that I would never find a husband because of my dark hair. I always laughed it off but deep down, it planted a sense of being unattractive, and I struggled with my looks. 

I attended church every Sunday and was exposed only to those of similar faith, except in public settings such as school. From a very young age I was reserved, and preferred books to the company of others. I learned to read before kindergarten. While I was considered nerdy and weird, my friends accepted me because of my faith. As long as I can remember, I felt “different,” however, and questioned almost everything presented to me, but the fear of going to hell caused extreme guilt, and I became increasingly cut off from others. 

At age 13, I was sexually abused by an older male relative. I reported the incident to my mother, who took me to talk to a preacher. Of course, I trusted the adults around me as I had never known anything else. I was told by this church leader that the abuser had "asked for forgiveness," and I should find it in myself to forgive him. The subject was not brought up again — by my mother or the preacher. 

When the abuse recurred, I went to my mother again, and we went to the preacher, and I got the same advice — this pattern repeated itself again and again until I stopped talking about it altogether. 

The abuse and my increasing sense of alienation caused extreme depression to take hold. I devoted all of my energy to school and maintained a 4.0 GPA while isolating myself further and further from those around me. My depression deepened. Finally, the preachers advised me to see a therapist to "find it in your heart to forgive the abuser, for we all sin and all sin is created equal.” They believed my symptoms were the result of a guilty conscience.

After my first therapy session, I reported to my mother that the therapist recommended legal action and a reconsideration of my faith. Shocked, my mother called the therapist and said she had no right to speak poorly to a young, "mentally unstable" girl about her faith in God. She moved me to another therapist, and another after that, but they all had similar, unsatisfactory advice. 

When therapy “failed,” I was told to seek help from a medical doctor. My mother and a preacher accompanied me to the doctor visit, explaining my symptoms (without mentioning the abuse) and asked for me to be medicated. At age 14, I was prescribed high doses of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and antipsychotics.

This preacher was married to a retired nurse, a lifelong member of the OALC (some of you will recognize her by that description alone). After hearing of my depression, she "diagnosed" me with severe clinical depression, severe anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. I was told to turn my faith to God, and he would guide me through my “trial" of mental instability.

An important thing to add at this point is that my school work never faltered. I found comfort in my studies, and always enjoyed learning new things. Numerous teachers expressed their amazement at my mathematical and reading abilities. When they recommended I skip ahead a grade to be sufficiently challenged, my mother said no, on account of "mental instability." 

This so-called treatment continued for four years until I graduated high school and turned 18. By this point I had self-researched my alleged medical conditions -- and firmly believed myself to be sane! Shortly after graduating, I scheduled an appointment with a well-known Seattle psychiatrist and explained the entire situation. He offered to see me free of charge. Without telling anyone in my family or church, I drove the three hours north to Seattle to meet with him; we sat and talked for almost six hours. At the end of our session, he called my doctor, and expressed his concerns about my numerous medications, stating I showed no clinical diagnosis for any of my supposed conditions. 

I began the process of secretly weaning myself off of all medication. 

A year after high school, I applied in secret to an amazing university in California, which accepted me -- with a full scholarship on account of my high SAT scores and GPA. In most families, this would be a cause for celebration. When I gave the news to my mother, however, she suggested I talk with a preacher. I called a different one (not the nurse’s husband), and he said with absolute conviction that I should "stay close to home" and "remain close to your faith" to avoid the "dangers of the world" -- combined with my "mental conditions." Neither my mother nor anyone else was aware I had stopped taking medication.

I didn’t follow that preacher’s advice. 

While my mother cried, I packed all I could into my car and drove to California.

My new life had begun.

(To be continued.)

Thank you to anyone who reads this — feel free to leave comments or questions.

Leila

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Long Arms of Gällivare

Command Central for Firstborn/West Laestadian/Esikoiset/OALC
With news of widespread famine in East Africa, the calving of a giant ice shelf in Antarctica, and extreme weather after the globe's hottest year on record, the news of religious squabbling amongst a tiny portion of vast humanity is easy to dismiss. Unless you're affected by it, of course. 

Families are being wrenched apart, children alienated from their parents, loved ones shunned, the psychologically vulnerable isolated from critical support, for what, exactly? 

I will write more about Gällivare in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, my Finnish penpal (who will remain anonymous) has generously allowed me to post his correspondence below.  
Free,


Since the 1980s I have been observing the development from a distance — I guess much like yourself — which means my knowledge is uncertain and mostly based on second-hand accounts. Caveat lector.

As you know, a small group of Swedish Firstborn elders has adopted a role as a "spiritual central bureau" of the movement. While I do not know their number, or whether there have been splits among them, I am told that the Firstborn group in Sweden is in decline generally. There are fewer and fewer young people, some have left the movement, many moved out, etc. So it seems that this “core group of elders” in Sweden governs a flock whose great majority is abroad, in Finland and America.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the dispute in Finland (fermenting over perhaps 25 years) is the doctrine of this spiritual leadership in Swedish Lapland, considered the cradle of the movement. This same question has been a key element in the entire history of disputes and splits in the movement. The hassle started after the death of Laestadius in the 1860s, and in fact, the disputes in America played an important role in the splits that ravaged the movement in Sweden and Finland too, between 1880-1900, and later. 

There are very interesting historical records of early kingpins in the first decades of the Laestadian movement in America, e.g., Korteniemi, Roanpaa, Takkinen, and Heideman, of the traveling missionaries, and correspondence between Lapland and United States. Juhani Raattamaa (1811-1899), the companion of Laestadius, his main apprentice, and next in the line of authority, worked hard to maintain unity, peace, and tolerance. Already by 1900, however, disputes had fractured the movement.

In Finland there was a growing faction in the congregation who saw the “Overseer Board” as a questionable and unhealthy configuration. They grew in number and discontent when the spiritual tone of the elders changed following the death of the well-known and influential preacher Gunnar Jönsson (1905-1982), who was a broadminded, wise person with a vision that challenged some of the old, fixed, idiosyncratic ways of thinking. There was a gradual backlash and shift toward a strict, “anti-modernist” doctrine, in search of an old, untarnished Christianity with distinct separation from the normal average “worldly” life.

These elders have been the prime agents in fomenting the split in Finland from the Lutheran Church. Their advice was appreciated by many of the preachers and followers in Finland, and resulted in their setting up their own sacramental practices of communion, baptism, marriage ceremony, etc. in 2016-17.

The famous June meetings in the city of Lahti were organised in two separate locations this year (crowds about 4000 and 900 respectively).  http://www.sakramentit.fi/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/20170626_ESS_Juhannusseuroista.pdf

The American OALC structure, with small local congregations independent of the Lutheran State Church, has become – or so it seems — the idealized model.

I have heard that in Norway, splits of a similar nature to Finland’s have occurred in recent decades as well. I think it would be increasingly important and interesting to track the stories of people in Sweden (and Norway) who have been through similar experiences, and personal histories of distancing from or leaving the insider circles.
What makes these phenomena perhaps less interesting, however, is the fact that such disputes, quarrels, mutiny, and oppression of “wrong opinions” seems to be a prevalent feature among ALL groups within Christian religion (Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Adventist, Pentecostal movements …. to name a few). 

I  imagine that Jesus would be sad, furious, and frustrated to come and see the havoc.

****

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Laestadius in a Top Hat

"The Minister Laestadius preaching" by François Auguste Biard, a member of the 1838 French research expedition on which Laestadius served as an expert on local botany and Sámi mythology. 

Since going online back in the Dark Ages of dial-up internet, I've made a hobby of searching for posts about Laestadianism, but I had never seen, or even heard about, this painting until reading an article by Anne Heith (professor at Umeå University, one of my favorite researchers) that popped up in my inbox. Turns out the painting wasn't acquired by the museum until 2002, so I'm only 15 years behind the ball.

I've excerpted Heith's article below, but follow the link to enjoy the entire thing; she is readable by us nonacademics (unlike many of her peers) and always interesting. Create a free account at Academia.edu to follow her there.

From Situatedness and Diversity: Representations of Lars Levi Laestadius and Laestadianism:
Today, Biard’s painting belongs to Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø, where it is displayed with other more or less exotified images of the Sámi and the northern landscape. In the painting, Lars Levi Laestadius wears a top hat of the kind worn by the higher social classes at the time the painting was made. However, it is unlikely that Laestadius would have worn a hat like that when preaching to the Sámi and Finnish-speaking people in traditional Sámi land. It is well known that Laestadius lived in great simplicity, condemning worldliness, using vernacular language in his preaching, which was seen as vulgar by the social elite. For example, Laestadius frequently used expressions like ‘the devil’s piss’ for alcohol (Heith 2009: 342–361).4 Described with terminology from postcolonial and indigenous studies, Biard’s painting presents an outsider’s view (Smith 2008: 60; Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 2007: 154–158) of Laestadius, the Sámi and the northern landscape.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some Cages Don't Have Bars

A guest post by a friend:

I learned tonight a cousin, near my own age, was found dead, evidently of an overdose. I saw him only once in the past thirty years; our lives diverged long ago. I know few details about his life except this: that while I was wrestling with single parenthood, disability, and a return to university, he was wrestling with a severe drug addiction that no one would talk about, much less deal with, in our Laestadian (Old Apostolic Lutheran) family.

Why the silence?

Why the negligence?


Monday, July 03, 2017

What Age is Too Young for Marriage?

The Elders of the Firstborn (OALC) have arrived from Gällivare and are crossing the United States from east to west, holding meetings -- morning and evening -- throughout July and August.

According to a member of an online support group, new rules regarding "Christian" weddings were recently shared, including:
  1. No engagement rings. 
  2. The engaged couple must wait until married to sit together in church.
  3. Wedding rings must be simple bands.
  4. No wedding dresses (preferably a skirt that can be worn again).
  5. The skirt should not be so long that it touches the floor.
  6. The bridal party will not walk up or down aisle. 
  7. The bride and groom will walk down the aisle only after they are married.
  8. No food at wedding receptions.
This illustrates a practical function of the Elders' meetings: to reinforce visual markers of faithfulness (faithfulness to the preachers, not the gospel) so members appear separate from "the world." (An equally important function is to retain members through intermarriage. Out-marrying is taboo, so these large gatherings are opportunities to meet non-relatives. Youth are encouraged to travel out of state to attend).

Suggested addition to the rules: