Familiar faces, long unseen but not forgotten or forgetting, smile and nod toward me with friendly recognition. The extended hands are shaken with Hey, – ! fitting tidily in place with a remembered name where God’s Peace used to be. I respond to the polite questions about what I am up to these days with a deftness that improves as the evening progresses. All writings and publications go unmentioned.
They’re probably as nervous as I am, I remind myself at first. Soon I am not so nervous anymore and I think that perhaps they never were, either.
Standing beneath ceiling tiles I helped to glue up, on carpet I used to clean when my committee’s turn came, our brief conversations hop brightly across silent waters of unspoken things via lilypads of neutral topics. My eyes and those of a one-time brother or sister in faith lock and linger and take in the measure of the years as we talk of children growing up in our homes and moving on. Then another face slides into view and smiles, and I nod and wave my way to the next exchange of updates and memories.
These are the people of my first forty years, my friends and travel companions when I was on the way and the journey alongside them through a dark and sinful world. Now I am part of that world, an outsider, here as a visitor in a place that used to be mine, too.
It actually hurts that they are so friendly, that they remember, that they seem to mean it when they say it’s good to see me. It was good to see them, too, but it brought renewed awareness of a hole inside that will likely never quite be filled.
There’s not a God- or Jesus-shaped hole in my heart, but a people-shaped one. It’s them I miss, not some demanding, unpleasant, shape-shifting superhero characters 1 who faded from my consciousness far quicker than the flesh-and-blood people who gathered there with me, week after week, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.
I sing along with them, enjoying the music and our making of it but baffled that I’d ever believed the words I remember and see in the book held in my hands. Somewhere in those thin pages are the words Sing O people of the Lord, praises to the Lamb of God, and I am no longer one of those people. I will not be here next Sunday, or the one after that.
I’ve already done my time in these pews, listening to sermons with critical commentaries about them running through my head until one of my little kids would mercifully start to fuss and I’d have an excuse to get up for some air. Mine wasn’t much different from the experience of Father Michael Paul Gallagher, who listened to a Gospel reading at Mass while doubting (for good scholarly reasons!) that the red-letter words of the text ever had been actually spoken by Jesus. He found it “an alarming and lonely experience to be there with my community, and yet to feel cut off from the core of why we were gathered there.” 2
Does it even matter to these people, I wonder, seeing them all warmly surrounded by parents and spouses and children and lifetime friends, whether it is true? Some of them do realize that it’s not, at least not all of it. But there they are, just the same.
Therapist Calvin Mercer observes that fundamentalists “tend to avoid new experiences by remaining isolated in their fundamentalist networks, thereby avoiding the various novel influences that flow into an emerging identity.” 3 The ideal for the group is that “the fundamentalist Christian can live his or her life inside a protected cocoon constructed in a form consistent with fundamentalist ideology.” 4
The sheltered community–God’s Kingdom, in Laestadian parlance–is paramount. Everything and everybody else is of “the world,” sinful, dangerous, and generally to be avoided.
The fundamentalist does not stand alone. The fundamentalist exists in and is supported by a social network that usually includes a religious community and, often, a biological family as well. The church or campus group that serves as the primary social group for the fundamentalist provides not only social interaction and support, but also ideological training.5
Perhaps nowhere else in American religion is this more harshly true than the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of Mormonism featuring polygamy and hard-line control of members under a strict morality code. Everything around you is of, and dictated by, the FLDS. It is your entire community, both physically and spiritually. When you leave the FLDS, you literally get out of town. And you certainly don’t go back for friendly visits like the one I had.
Brenda Nicholson told me that leaving the FLDS was the hardest thing she’s ever done. “I knew that once I walked away, it was over. My family, friends, community–everyone and everything that had been a part of my life would be gone. I knew the drill.” She had been well schooled in the protocol from the old-time Mormon prophet Brigham Young: “Leave apostates alone, severely!”
Now, she would “be looked upon as apostate. A traitor to God. And worse, I took my children with me and now I had ‘their innocent blood on my skirts.’” Even so, she said, “I knew I had to do it. My conscience wouldn’t permit me to stay. If nothing else, I had to leave to protect my children.”
I asked her how it felt leaving the community behind.
In many ways these last few years, since we left, have been very lonely. It’s like starting over alone in a strange world. I can’t say what the future may bring for sure, but it’s very doubtful I’ll ever be part of an organized religion again. I had enough of it. I know how to love, and I do so freely now. I have met some amazing people and gained friends within the educational community. It has changed my life for the better. It’s not the same as family, not quite, but hopefully someday I’ll have both.
She misses family and the feeling of belonging, but added, “I don’t miss the oppression and sadness.”
A woman I know who left my old Laestadian Lutheran church doesn’t miss that part, either. Nor does she seem to have even the nostalgia I sometimes get for the community. She’s only felt relief about leaving so far, she said.
The communities that I have found outside of the church fulfill something deep that has been missing in my life for a long time. It is me as an individual they embrace! Not my line of genealogy, not how many kids I have, not who I’m married to but me and who I am!
Her new friends, she said, “share my passions in life! My true passions!” She has chosen them, rather than merely having them handed to her as “friends by default.”
That night of my visit, I found myself lingering around the foyer of the church, soaking up the warmth and evident goodwill from people I hadn’t seen for years yet quickly felt at home talking with again. But this former sister in faith said she “scooted out as fast as I could” from one recent LLC event. “It’s been hard for me to get past the angst of how they view me, and the exclusivity of it all still really annoys the heck out of me! I still feel comfortable around my old friends, but I do feel that I can’t truly be myself without a few cross-eyed stares.”
Someone else I know, a brilliant amateur scholar of things biblical who studied his way out of faith but hasn’t made a clean break of it yet, considers himself “still fairly good friends with people from my former church community. Some of them know that I am no longer a believer, and several even know why.” A few of them he suspects “are even harboring serious doubts themselves.” He hasn’t resisted going to church, because his “wife is comfortable in a church community.” They are currently doing a bit of church shopping, not having found one where they both feel at home.
His wife knows that he is “not a believer,” he said. (We’re not talking about Laestadian “believers” here; my friend is from a majority black church hundreds of miles from the nearest LLC congregation.) Fortunately, though, she
is fine with it. She’s known for a little while (spouses are usually clued in). She has been very inquisitive and interested in why I no longer believe, and she understands intellectually–but she can’t get past the Pascal’s Wager mentality with regard to her own faith. I don’t push it. She hints that she respects my willingness to be “objective.” It has been such a relief! My mother-in-law knows too. And she doesn’t seem to care.
Hopefully they can find a church with songs my friend will find a little bit less creepy. “It’s all about ‘I am nothing . . . I am a wretch without Jesus,’” he complained to me. “‘My life is meaningless without your love, God.’ And all the songs that glorify the blood spillage on the cross. That stuff is psychologically crummy.” I’d thought about that a bit, too, as I belted out verse after verse along with my former brethren. And we never even got to the song with that part about being drunken with the bridegroom’s love.
Remember, it’s a Trinity. The Fantastic Three? ↩
Quoted in Ruth A. Tucker, Walking Away from Faith: Unraveling the Mystery of Belief and Unbelief (InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 131. ↩
Calvin Mercer, Slaves to Faith: A Therapist Looks Inside the Fundamentalist Mind (Praeger, 2009), p. 30. ↩
Mercer at p. 152. ↩
Mercer at p. 150. ↩