This I Believe

Hanna - South Hadley, Massachusetts
Entered on March 9, 2007
Age Group: 18 - 30

In my memory, the bedroom settles. There is the sound of shifting bodies and rustling blankets. Mom begins the prayers and we recite them with her, eight quieter voices, eight pairs of hands folded. We finish the Lord’s Prayer, and say it again in Finnish. “Isä meidän, joka olet taivaissa,” we recite. Our parents close the door, and we fall asleep to a room full of breathing.

Such was the introduction of Lutheran Laestadianism into my life, a sweet prelude to a much trickier theme. I grew up believing all of the tenants espoused by this essentially fundamentalist faith, from no birth control to no Halloween.

It was a hard life, hard explaining to my friends why I couldn’t attend their parties, hard to be denied even a symphony orchestra concert. But at the same time, I got by on the feeling that we were right. I took pride in what was special about our family – our musical talents, our constant reading, our love.

So it was difficult when I went away to school on the east coast. It wasn’t as if I had never thought that maybe the church was wrong, but now I was far away from the watchful eyes of the believers, free of the perpetual Laestadian presence.

And I changed, secretly. I bought CDs and mascara, went to the movies. But I couldn’t tell anyone. Yet it began to bother me more and more, these two lives of mine. But I was terrified to let anyone know that I had concerns with the church doctrine, that I was doubting even the main tenant of the faith, the ritualized forgiveness of sins.

It was, of all days, Good Friday, when I made up my mind. My father, a minister, was preaching. Isaiah 53:1 – Who shall believe this report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? I realized then that I knew I didn’t believe. But where did that really leave me? All I knew was that I wanted my family as I remembered them, the ten of us, eating at the big wooden table, banging our cups in rhythm to call Mom down to eat. How could I leave the church when it meant turning away from my family?

I have the right to not believe, I told myself. I have the right to be loved without believing. I have the right to my family. Ingrid-Hanna-Helena-Ian-Noah-Darius-Sonja-Zara, I whisper, knowing we always belong just like that, in that order, our own permanent, pure litany. I will not let any God take them from me. And for the first time, I knew I could go to my family and tell them, I can’t be in this faith anymore.

Back in the sanctuary, the heads around the church stirred. Next to me Zara reached for the songbook and opened it. I pulled her to me and kissed her head. Her hair was warm from the sun, and smelled like mine.