Burst Open the Bubble of Shame
By Janne Salomaa

Helsingin Sanomat (daily newspaper) July 16, 2015
English Translation: Harry Siitonen

[Photos that were reduced may be viewed full-size by clicking on them.]

Conservative Laestadian Meri-Anna Hintsala has, against the teachings of her church, become a pastor, and defended contraception, as well as homosexual rights. Still she doesn’t want to offend anyone. On the day of Salomaa’s newspaper interview Hintsala received dozens of e-mails. This happens every time she talks publicly. Her thoughts do not please everyone. She defends contraception, the existence of female clergy, and gay rights. Some of the replies are beautiful. Some of these have been thank you notes from Laestadian women theologians. Some are following Hinstala’s example of considering the ministry themselves. Positive replies have also come from sexual minority Laestadians whose experiences Hintsala is considering for her doctoral dissertation.

“Many have said that they have gotten the courage to talk about their identity to those close to them,” Hintsala observes. But then there is the downside in responses to her. These messages call her an “ugly feminist” who is hurting the reputation of Laestadians “by always fulminating about the same things.” The latter critics have banished her from the “Kingdom of God.” Ostracizing a Laestadian from her community is the worst possible punishment.

Meri-Anna Hintsala is one of thirteen siblings. During her childhood her family went three times a week to services to listen, pray, and sing hymns of Zion. Hintsala was the family’s oldest child and often tended the younger children. During the summer her playmates were uncles near her own age.

Another kind of world opened up for her at the Elimaki library. She devoured all kinds of literature. At times she was so absorbed in a book while bicycling that she’d hold the handlebar with one hand and with the other her book. Hintsala was most interested in novels, stories about the oppressed, and women’s rights.

“The subordination of women and girls in other cultures made me angry. I thought that nevertheless in our own culture women voluntarily allowed themselves to accept that role in their family lives.”

In addition to books, school gave her an insight into social issues such as sexuality. Rarely when this was discussed in the Laestadian Youth League was its tenor anything but judgmental. Masturbation was a sin. Sex outside of marriage was a sin. Homosexual liaisons were a sin. The viewpoints in school were different and felt more natural to Hintsala.

“I thought even then that sexuality was more about factuality and identity rather than a matter of spirituality.” Although the Youth League’s moral preachings occasionally felt questionable, Hintsala still experienced Laestadians as her spiritual home and did not rebel. Even as a new university student, she believed in following her community’s traditional path, accepting motherhood of a large family and volunteer work in the Laestadian peace organization. Her parents nevertheless supported Hintsala’s continuing education.

“Father said with a glint in the corner of his eye that it pays to study so much so you won’t need to work outside.” Hintsala began her theological studies, allowing for possible interruptions to be able to start a family. However, her studies swept her along with them. She received her master’s degree in four years, although she bore two children during her student years.

Then Hintsala pursued more master’s thesis work. It changed the direction of her future. Her dissertation subject were the closed internet columns in which she had taken part herself. Through them she sought testimony which included the ability to be the mother of a large family.

“I asked them how they saw their own future: Most of all it was about exhaustion and restrictiveness. Many a mother broke down in tears.” Hintsala then decided that she herself would not become the mother of a large family. Instead she would become one of the first Conservative Laestadian women who would publicly oppose the movement’s ban on contraception.

“I thought that if no one else spoke of these women’s experiences I need to bring forth the issue.” Since then the Laestadians’ position on contraception has been discussed a lot. In the spring of 2009 the Human Rights Commission testified that the contraception ban violates human rights. Hintsala says that because of this public criticism the movement’s leadership during the past few years has been cautious about discussing its position on contraception.

“The old teaching according to which all forms of contraception are a sin has not been overturned although in practice people act differently.”

The second time when Hintsala chose her own path was when she was ordained as a pastor. Although Finland has a good 100,000 Conservative Laestadians who belong to the Lutheran Church, the movement opposes women’s clergy. When the news spread of Hintsala about to be ordained as a minister, many in the community pressured her to change her mind.


Two weeks before her ordination, Hintsala received a call from the Espoo Conservative Laestadian Peace Commission that the future church woman could no longer be a volunteer for the organization’s Youth League.

“At times, it seemed as if I had been scrubbed with a wire brush.” Remembering these pressures does bother her. But she also indicates that she received support from other Laestadians.

“Many have later apologized about their remarks about me. Laestadians are basically peace-loving people. I don’t want to anger anyone myself.”

Why has she then placed herself against her community’s traditions?

“To overcome my own fears and to raise my own self-esteem is a staggering process. I also want to change things. This demands involving one’s self in the mix. I hope that in the future those Laestadians who long for change in the movement, or feel a calling for the ministry, will have it easier than it’s been for me.”

Her next conflict is already underway. Hintsala is currently writing a dissertation about Conservative Laestadians’ Internet discussions. In her master’s thesis work, besides the central theme of contraception, she has chosen another sensitiva subject: Sexual minorities. The dissertation’s subject matter considers about 400 articles that deal with gender and sexuality. About a third of these have been written by Laestadians who belong to sexual minorities.

Many of them keep their tendencies secret, others again have left the movement. Although Conservative Laestadianism doesn’t consider homosexuality as a sin, “homosexual acts” are considered as such.

“A family member who reveals their gayness is told that ‘just be what you are but don’t make a big deal about it.’ This is not clear approval.”

Hintsala approves sexual equality in marriage laws and is ready to marry gay couples if the Lutheran Church allows clergy to do so. “The bubble of shame must be burst open. I want homosexuality in the world of religion to be understood as a part of human diversity, beautiful, and a good thing in which there is no shame.”

In her mind shame in homosexuality in the religious community is caused by denial. “What is feared most is the issue of shame, not the issue of homosexuality.” Hintsala’s antidote to shame is education, That’s why she wants in her research to expose taboos.

“Everyone in my mind is a homosexual in the sense that almost everyone in some phase of their life has had experiences with “otherness.” Hintsala’s own sense of “otherness” is connected to her Laestadians. As a child she lived in many different communities in which Laestadians were a small minority. Now she feels herself occasionally a stranger in her own mode of Lestadianism. “Lestadianism to me is like a childhood home from which one needs to grow up.”

Hintsala doesn’t go regularly any more to Laestadian services but still observes its communal traditions like the songs of Zion and classical music but doesn’t watch television.

“I do watch serials on the Internet, but the living room is a place for conversation with other people and not to stare at the tube.” Hintsala does participate in the annual mass national summer service of the Lestadians in Finland. She senses herself welcome at such occasions despite her female priesthood and her divergent opinions. and if some Laestadians say she no longer belongs to the Kingdom of God and is a non-Lestadian, this does not bother her any more: “No one else can say whether I’m a Laestadian or not.”

Editor’s Note, Meri-Anna Hintsala lives in Espoo, Finland with her husband and three children. At this writing she is 32 years old.

Translator’s Note: The Conservative Laestadian Church is a fundamentalist branch of the Finnish Lutheran Church and has worshippers mostly in the Nordic countries and North America. It was founded by a Swedish preacher Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–1861) in 1844 in Sweden. Wikipedia is a good source of information about it.

Harry Siitonen, in Berkeley, California, September 28, 2015.