Fifteen years after glasnost and perestroika opened the borders to Christianity without and within, I'm looking for God in Russia.
Can he be seen wandering amid the broken beer and vodka bottles around the monuments of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, bottles thrown by young people wanting something more? How many residents of Moscow's ubiquitous skyscrapers thank him as they see the wind moving through the tall leafy trees that save their lungs from suffocation by smog? Is he more alive than I'm able to comprehend to gold-toothed babushkas kneeling for the duration of long Baptist church services, praying for permits to build sanctuaries?
One of the most bizarre places I find the indelible fingerprints of grace is a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Moscow. Here, East meets West, modernity meets history, ceremony meets informality, and the Jesus who said give to Caesar what is his meets the Christ who called the religious establishment a brood of vipers.
The small living room—about 12 by 15 feet—has been transformed into a sanctuary. There's an altar by the balcony and side altars with icons of Mary and the child, and Christ. Incense wafts in the air. Five bearded priests are wearing festive robes—crimson, gold, turquoise. They are about to ordain a young man.
The schismatic Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in May 2000, has two dozen priests and several bishops, and not many more parishioners. They meet in private spaces because they don't recognize the Moscow patriarchate, which in turn doesn't recognize them. Not registered with the state, they can't own a building.
Glasnost made way for the group's moral badge of honor—or dishonor, depending on who's talking—when in 1991, Fr. Gleb Yakunin dug up in the newly opened KGB archives evidence that many bishops and high officials either came to the Orthodox church as atheist KGB agents commissioned to infiltrate it or collaborated to keep their posts. Many of them remain in power today. Some of them have even become Christians! Even so, Yakunin, who is present at the ceremony, tells me he and his followers "refuse to work with the bishops in power today who during the Soviet era did not protest the closings of the churches ordered by secular powers."
As the ceremony starts, the interpreter and I decide to rely on my atrophying Russian instead of having his whispering disrupt the ceremony. Dulcet chants fill the room, drowning out the noise of traffic coming from outside. I recognize some phrases sung repeatedly, with a calming beauty, throughout the service: Khristos voskres—"Christ is risen"; Gospodi pomilui—"Lord, have mercy"; and Voskresenie—"Resurrection." I worship along.
Everyone's facing east, the traditional direction of prayer in the Orthodox church. But this orientation turns the balcony into a holy of holies, so the situation is ripe with irony for anyone who sees through the sheer drapery McDonald's golden arches and a neon sign that says "World Trade Center." Other signs of modernity intrude on the liturgy as the priests themselves whisper freely and occasionally laugh; sometimes there are three conversations going on. Occasionally they answer their cell phones, talk, and then go on with the liturgy.
I like this group, especially when one of the priests tells me he's a fan of Philip Yancey's. But I wonder: What self-respecting Russian Orthodox would choose to go to church in a small apartment? Who would have the discipline to overlook the idiosyncratic and concentrate on the timeless? And if one has that capacity, why wouldn't one just go to a registered Orthodox church, where, too, Christ can be found?
The thing is, to be of good use in Russia these days, evangelicals have to work with—and sometimes within—the Russian Orthodox Church. But winning souls—or even just being considerate of souls—is tricky.
Christianity in Russia is a much tougher sell than it was during the elation of the early '90s, when, as a charismatic church's pastor told me, one could preach on a street corner one day, invite people to church, and the following Sunday see almost everyone show up for a service. While heartfelt Christianity, especially that of the evangelical sort, is much more influential and prevalent than the official numbers give it credit for, people are more suspicious of the gospel. The social conditions that had flung the hearts of Russians open to the gospel—rejection of Communism, an excited curiosity about democracy, a grateful embrace of globalization and, with it, Western ideas, including Western-style evangelicalism—are no longer here.
"Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it," writes Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2006). "Now it has left that orbit entirely: Russia's leaders have given up on becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centered system."
There are at least two reasons for this newfound gall: oil and natural gas. For now, the fortune these fuels earn covers over—or distracts foreign investors from—the country's multitude of social sins: lack of medical and education reforms, widespread corruption, the fastest growing rate of HIV infection in the world, recklessness toward the environment, dreadful abuse of many of Russia's 700,000 orphans, homelessness of 1.2 million children, terrorism, favoritism toward the Russian Orthodox Church, anti-democratic tactics from the days of Communism, disturbances and hate crimes committed by the country's 50,000 skinheads, xenophobia, and religious discrimination.
Throughout Russia, fresh flowers adorn the often renovated or recently polished monuments of Stalin and Lenin. While many Russians in their 20s and 30s seem focused on material pursuits, their older compatriots tell me that they long for the good old days of Communism. Why? Order, they say. Stability. Knowing "that our children won't blow up at school," said a group of women I spoke to in Beslan, the site of a school siege by terrorists, which took 344 lives. Everywhere you look, as Peter Baker and Susan Glasser describe in Kremlin Rising, Soviet retro is a part of the landscape. Russian is in; foreign is out. The new architecture echoes Stalinist style. It started in the late '90s, when Nasha Pizza ("Our Pizza") kicked the butt of Pizza Hut. Is it just a sentimental streak of the Russian soul? What if the admiration of everything Western genuinely needed a correction? That may be the case. I'm afraid, however, that the Soviet nostalgia epitomizes not just a simplistic desire for a return to the stability of the Communist era, but also the resurgence of nationalism with xenophobic undertones. This is ultimately bad news for Russia's 1.5 million Protestants.
One reason foreigners fell out of favor with Russians is that the anti-Russian "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan were infused with Western money. Quipped Stephen Kotkin, director of the program in Russian and Eurasian studies at Princeton University, in The New Republic last May: "Receiving Western money may be criminal, but being independent is really unforgivable."
So legislators quickly passed a law, which came into effect this year, to impede the foreign sponsorship of religious nonprofits and churches. Human Rights Watch called the bill, which makes ngos subject to strict registration procedures, "an unprecedented assault on the work of human rights groups."
What the law means is that nonprofits' bank accounts are monitored by the state and must be financially independent from—in Putin's words—"the puppeteers from abroad."
A director of a school that trains evangelical church leaders in a part of Russia (whose name I'd better not give) says this: "The new law means that we cannot receive funding. Meaning, we receive 60 to 70 percent of funding in cash only." Then he adds in a hushed voice—his office isn't bugged, right?—that he recently got a call from the Federal Security Bureau (FSB, formerly known as KGB). They wanted the list of the school's supporters and the backgrounds of the teachers. "We gave them the info that we considered safe," he says.
Another area where the Russian authorities vigilantly monitor the growth of Protestantism is the work of foreign missionaries.
Eerily echoing the Soviet era, both state and local officials have increasingly been treating missionaries as instigators or spies. Fewer and fewer religious workers are able to get or extend religious worker visas.
Mark R. Elliot, editor of East-West Church and Ministry Report, estimates that between 1997 and 2003 the revocations of visas of foreign religious workers totaled 84. Fifty-four of them were Protestants, 15 Muslims, 7 Catholics, 3 Buddhists, 3 Mormons, and 2 Jehovah's Witnesses. And these are just the known cases; most are not reported.
"Authorities frequently do not offer explanations for visa denials," Elliot writes, "but when they do, national security and the alleged threat of missionary espionage on behalf of foreign powers are the reasons most frequently cited."
What are the missionaries' extremist activities? I've unearthed a few. Planting churches. Translating the Bible into some of the more than 100 languages spoken in Russia. Teaching computer skills. Handing out religious literature. Helping orphans get eye glasses. Teaching congregations how to make money to support themselves. Training native church leaders.
So maybe these missionaries are obtuse ugly Americans, and that's why the government just can't stand them?
"Contrary to the popular, pro-Orthodox opinion that foreign evangelists denigrate or downplay native culture, many coming from the United States and Scandinavian countries leave behind strong and independent local churches," writes Roman Lunkin, a researcher who worked on the newly published Encyclopedia of Contemporary Religious Life in Russia. "The congregations reflect an understanding of their context, including the cultural history and spiritual sensitivities of their flock."
While Russian Orthodox powers audaciously equate missionary activity with stealing sheep that are theirs by virtue of geopolitics, state officials discriminate against Protestants for a different reason. It's because, writes Lunkin in East-West Church and Ministry Report, of Protestants' "preference for a democratic outcome to Russia's present floundering for a new way forward."
This prejudice is reflected in the application of another recent law—the 1997 bill that dictates that a non-traditional congregation can secure legal status only after it has existed for 15 years or if it belongs to a denomination that has existed for this long. The law in and of itself isn't restrictive. But the way local police and courts apply it is, since it often depends on the officials' moods, their level of xenophobia, and whether a bribe has been paid.
Anatoly Krasikov, head of the Center for Religious and Social Studies at the Institute of Europe in Moscow, is upset over what happened with the Salvation Army. The group "is centrally registered with the Russian Federation, which means it can function anywhere," he says. "But in local administrative districts, which disregard the constitution, it has not received permission to function, and this judicial battle is continuing today."
To comment on such frustrations, Sergey Rakhuba, a vice president of Illinois-based Russian Ministries, quotes an old Russian proverb: Zakon kak dyshlo; kuda poverni, tuda i vishlo. Meaning: "The law is like the handles of a wagon; whichever way you turn them, there it will go." Increasingly, the wagon turns in a direction that favors only the Orthodox church. As of September 1, in 16 of Russia's 89 provinces, a new subject has been introduced in public schools: the Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture.
The class is mandatory.
But truly chilling is the news about an addendum to the 1997 law, which is introduced, and backed by Putin, as I write this in September. Defying the Russian constitution and the Human Rights Declaration, it would prohibit anyone who is not a full-time religious worker from preaching or talking about his or her religion.
In addition, missionaries would not be allowed to minister to "those who are in difficult life circumstances with promises to help them out of their situation." Meaning: You couldn't tell the homeless that you'll help them find shelter or a job. You couldn't tell an HIV-infected man that getting treatment could prolong his life. I can't imagine this bill passing, though stranger things have happened in Russia.
But the state shouldn't shoulder all the blame for obstacles to the spread of Christianity in Russia.
First Church of Gloom
It's the last Sunday in May, and we're doing a little church hopping. We start at another underground church—the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Dedovsk near Moscow, one of at least 3,000 evangelical congregations that have historically rejected state registration. There are about 150 people at the service, mostly headscarf-clad babushkas who sit, as do all the women, separate from the men. I see no teenagers or 20-somethings.
At first, it seems we're at a funeral service, but there's no body. The homily is about how Jesus can heal people like he did the paraplegic lowered to him on a mat, but the message is delivered by a somber-faced preacher in a monotone punctuated by heavy sighs. Then five men in black suits begin singing a melancholy melody that sounds like a funeral march. The lyrics, astonishingly, are: "Come to him, and you will find happiness in him." Russians in general don't smile as much as Americans do, so I don't want to read too much into this. Doubtless these believers have known God in their suffering. But I wonder if they also have known him in mirth.
"Communism and atheism forced churches like this one into isolation," says Russian Ministries' Rakhuba, but today the church's unregistered status is an excuse. "It makes them comfortable in their isolation, when the key is to encourage the younger generation of Christians to break the shell from the inside."
After a fidgety 30 minutes, we go to a church just around the corner, a congregation that in 1990 broke off from the Church of Gloom, registered with the state, and started 14 other churches. "Registration in Soviet times meant limitation," the church's pastor later tells me, "but now, it's freedom—a relative freedom at least. We can preach, worship freely, and sell literature." Nearly 250 men and women sit intermingled. A children's choir sings a playful song, and the congregation chuckles.
A sign of this church's vitality takes the stage later in the service when nine young men, flush-faced, some with tears in their eyes, tell about their addiction to narcotics, which held them captive until they stumbled upon the rehab center, a ministry of the church, and found themselves in the arms of God.
After the service, I speak with 25-year-old Daniel Karemlak, who uses a walker, a reminder of a drug overdose that triggered a small stroke. Son of a deacon, he grew up in a Baptist family in Yalta, a famous resort on the Black Sea. After a sheltered childhood, he got into drugs because he was ostracized by kids at school, who called him a "white crow"—the opposite of a "black sheep." After "falling into the arms of Satan," he sang in the church choir and stole from a donation box for orphans—sometimes on the same day. After an earnest prayer, during which he repented of riding his father's spiritual coattails, he spent eight months in rehab and now wants to go back to Yalta to help his buddies find fullness of life before they contract AIDS or overdose, like several of his other friends.
As I leave the church, someone introduces me to the pastor, Peter Vasilevich Rumachik, who was imprisoned between 1961 and 1987 "because he didn't want to live like the ungodly dictated." He tells me he didn't see one Scripture verse during his entire incarceration; the guards confiscated his Bible upon entry, and he was allowed to read "only the classics and ungodly literature."
"What sustained you?" I ask.
"Memory," he says.
Later I ask him about the future of the Russian church, and he says that he has hope for the new generation, but he worries about their materialism and wishes that "they would be attracted more to the Word of God, and that they would live it."
Later in the day, back in Moscow, we visit an evening service at the 700-member non-denominational charismatic church Rosa (meaning "dew"). "It may get wild," warns our Russian guide, himself a progressive-thinking Baptist. We enter the basement hall cautiously, only to find ourselves amid a hiply dressed crowd, most of them good-looking men and beautiful women in their 20s and 30s, many of whom attend universities—Russian Christianity's most elusive demographic.
Hands lift and hips sway to the funky, pulsating rock music that swells up with climactic refrains of adoration. The band's worship leader, a mesmerizing curly-haired guitarist and singer, is pregnant. We later learn she is two days from her due date. This is one of the few times in Russia I see a woman leading anything besides a church's kitchen or children's ministry.
On Moscow's Arbat Street, I buy a book of Communist posters propagating feminism. "Leave behind kitchen slavery," one of them urges, portraying a woman leaving her spider-webbed kitchen and apron behind and opening the door to the bright new world of factories and guns needed to build Communism. Is this partly why so many evangelical churches here are reluctant to embrace anything that reminds them of feminism?
The pregnant guitarist turns out to be an architect, and her name is Julia. She and her husband write 50 percent of the songs the congregation sings. The vibrancy of this congregation gives her hope, she says, adding, "And I am responsible to give hope to my child." She is one of those many former atheists whose attention was caught by a street evangelist in 1992. As a result, she joined this church. These days, Julia says, it's harder for young people to come to Christ. The young people who make up 50 percent of her congregation have been reached, she says, with the help of the Holy Spirit, as well as modern music, pantomime, and inventive use of dance and film.
Looking for a Good Reputation
According to Sergei Filatov, one of the editors of the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Religious Life in Russia just published in Russian by the Keston Institute, charismatics account for 60 percent of the country's Protestants. As we sit at a coffee shop in Moscow, Filatov, a devout Russian Orthodox believer, tells me that since perestroika, evangelicals have gained the most churchgoers and that they are the most churchgoing of all Russian believers.
A fair-minded ecumenical, Filatov is an exception in that he would like to see Catholics and Protestants recognized as "foundation stones in the castle of Russian civilization." We talk a little bit about the way nationalism, xenophobia, and the Russian Orthodox Church gang up on evangelicals. I tell him what I learned from the pastors at Rosa—that the days are gone when they were able to give presentations at schools, hospitals, and prisons. And what about the growing number of evangelical congregations that, in spite of their approved status, are repeatedly denied requests for buildings?
"You just don't have a good reputation," says Filatov.
"What did we—Protestants—do wrong?"
"You wanted from them a good reputation," he says, laughing.
Plain old jealousy and Russia's superpower ambitions contribute to the evangelicaphobia, but so does, indirectly, American licentiousness.
I get a glimpse of the way Russians—and Muslims—perceive Americans (which in the minds of many means evangelicals) at the mosque in Nalchik, the seat of Muslim power in Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in the south. Before we enter the mosque, a local pastor instructs us not to bring up three topics: the war in Iraq, politics, and religious differences.
Barefoot, we take a quick tour of the upstairs prayer hall, lushly carpeted in red. The smell of rose perfume fills our nostrils as we enter the office of a vice mullah and are served tea and cookies. I try to hide my astonishment at the fact that it's a she, in a republic where evidence of the subordination of women to men is abundant.
After a greeting and some pleasantries, she asks a question that reveals the lens through which she perceives Protestants—especially those with ties to America.
"We're concerned these days that pornography, violence, and foreign lifestyles are coming to this country from the West," she says. "Do Christians do anything to fight the filth that is produced in the United States? The Qur'an says that no one should be forced into accepting Islam. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, we see force employed to accept someone's point of view. How do you explain that?" So much for staying off taboos. (For a full account of this conversation, go to christianitytoday.com/go/mullah.)
Her questions echo in my mind during a dispute our party has with respected elders of a church in Kabardino-Balkaria. It takes place the same day that one of them, a well-read church patriarch, uses the term "American" to disparage a bad construction job. The elders begin bashing America for the infusion of pornography and Hollywood mediocrity into Russian culture, sounding much like the mullah. But Mikhail Cherenkov, a young philosopher who works with Russian Ministries, counters that 80 percent of Russian pornography is Russian-made. "Who is buying porn and going to see naughty movies in Russia—Americans or Russians?" I ask. "Isn't every human heart corrupt?"
"And do you know," asks Rakhuba, "that at a time [when] orphans are stigmatized and many of them homeless or molested at state orphanages in Russia, many American evangelicals are hoping and praying and willing to pay a lot of money for their adoption, which the state makes nearly impossible?"
Changing Views of Evangelicals
Another evidence of God's presence in the region is Gennady Terkun, once a powerful gang leader and black magician who used to have people assassinated and spent a total of 18 years in prison. Or, as he now calls himself, "a wolf whom God is making into a lamb."
It was thanks to perestroika that prison doors were flung open to all kinds of religious groups. In Krasnodar in 1988, a Russian Baptist group was allowed to minister to recidivist criminals at a maximum-security prison. Terkun, who says he could communicate with the dead, predict the future "100 percent accurately"—for example, telling prisoners when guards would be away long enough to make moonshine—and was in command of the prisoners, was infuriated. He took the missionaries' visit as an intrusion on his spiritual territory.
As he tells this story, Terkun, a man of few words whose eyes, even today, seem to penetrate anyone they fall on, doesn't go into sensational details. I have been briefed, so I pry them out of him. "After they [the Christians] left, I wrote them a very long letter—eight or nine typed pages," he says. "I was trying to prove in this letter that they were dark, uneducated, without any intellect."
The letter reached an older man in a nearby Baptist church, who replied, and the two started corresponding. Their correspondence lasted two and a half years. "He had an amazing patience," Terkun says, "responding to all my questions."
Finally, "some kind of power got broken" in Terkun's heart. When the national coup occurred in 1991, prison guards took the especially dangerous inmates to a special confinement area to prevent a rebellion. "It was a hole in the ground with bars on top, through which the guards spread gas, which over time could act as poison," Terkun recalls. It was there that he called on Jesus. Soon, after the prisoners were pulled out, he "felt the power go out of him." But a higher power was working in him. In spite of weak health—he had lost one lung and doctors said he was about to die of tuberculosis—over the next five years he started several churches in various prisons where he was incarcerated.
He now works as a pastor of an evangelical church in the Caucasus region. Remarkably, even though as my translator informs me, "it's very hard for [the locals called] Ossetians to accept the authority of Russians here," 80 or 85 percent of people who attend his church are Ossetians. The most frequently cited statistics say that 60 percent of Ossetians are Russian Orthodox. This doesn't keep most of them from worshiping idols. (See graph at left for what happens to religious numbers when ethnicity isn't equated with religious faith.)
The God of the Ossetians is the Great St. George, but he has nothing to do with the traditional St. George. Half horse, half man, he is the spirit on the mountains who is believed to own the republic of North Ossetia. "Maybe it would amuse you to see, as I often do, an intelligent person who takes care of herself and is well-dressed, yet keeps the pagan traditions," Terkun says. "For example, on the 13th of January, she sacrifices a chicken or offers pies to demons in her apartment."
The Ossetian paradigm of offerings and sacrifices proved impotent when a terrorist attack took the lives of 344 people, most of them children, during the siege at a school in Beslan, which is Terkun's ministry territory. Many people wondered, "Why is this child alive and that one dead?" Several of them began attending Terkun's congregation after the Beslan tragedy.
The Christian counselors that Russian Ministries put in place for a year "prevented people from nationalism or racism or revenge," Terkun says. Instead, some believers from Beslan have chosen to go with Terkun to the place the terrorists hailed from, Chechnya, to work with Muslim kids growing up in shot-up buildings, to distract them from war for a while by putting on camps. Unlike Russian government officials, Grozny's education and welfare ministers welcome evangelicals with open arms.
With the help of locals and Ukrainian believers, volunteers from Kids Around the World recently built a playground in Beslan. At the opening, while rowdy elementary school kids rejoiced in their new playground, Terkun told me that this "opened an opportunity to network with the local authorities, with the school principal, with all these very important people. The local officials told me that their view of evangelical churches, and the sponsors from Western countries, has changed."
One afternoon, Terkun takes us to visit an incipient, eight-month-old church in the little town of Ardon. We get into a dilapidated van, which he says is a gift from God they received after 15 babushkas prayed for it ceaselessly for months. Terkun tells us that if we need to throw up, we'll just pull over and do it on the side of the road, okay? Okay.
As in most churches we visit in Russia, the majority here are women and children. Striped sweatpants–clad men in front lead the service. Children bounce around. The smell of onion fills the air. A Barnabas International ministry founder, Lareau Lindquist, who, in spite of his advanced age, put in a week at the playground construction site, is preaching a sermon about Jesus' love.
"Do you know his love?" he asks. A brassy-haired woman stands up. She says her name is Oksana Carikaeva, and she's a refugee from Tadjikistan. It's her first time at a meeting like this, she says, but she does know God's love. In 1987, her daughter fell under the wheels of a bus and spent six months in a coma. "I prayed and prayed, and God saved my daughter's life. Now she has a husband and three daughters." That's when Carikaeva realized that God loves her, she says, and began to read the Bible on her own. She sits down, and at the end of the meeting, she's one of 5 people in this gathering of 30 who give their lives to Christ with tears in their eyes.
Everyone hugs and cries. I overhear Terkun say, "If Christ lived today, he'd drink Ossetian kvas [a traditional fermented drink] and wear Ossetian jeans."
Where Orphans Dance
For all the sky-soaring beauty of the Orthodox liturgy, many faithful cannot appreciate it. That's because the Russian Orthodox Church refuses to replace the old liturgy, written in Slavonic, an archaic language that gave birth to Russian.
As a result, some phrases in the Slavonic liturgy used in every Orthodox church in Russia are just close enough to contemporary Russian to sound silly.
A bright theologian who is active in her evangelical-minded Orthodox church—but who would rather not be identified for fear of coming across as insubordinate—tells me that a phrase commonly sung during the liturgy is, when translated from Slavonic, "My soul glorifies the life of the Lord!" Except that zhivot, the Slavonic word for "life," is the Russian word for "belly." "In effect," she says, smirking, "we're singing 'My soul glorifies the belly of the Lord!'" But for priests who want to use Russian instead of Slavonic in worship, this is not a laughing matter—they are threatened with excommunication.
The antiquated language "is a tragic collision of heaven and culture," says Evgenii Rashkovsky, a 66-year-old philosopher, historian, scientist, poet, polyglot, and Russian Orthodox. The Christian tongue "should neither be vulgar or too aloof." Whether we dress our projection of Christ in priestly garments or in jeans, he must be recognizable.
The wonder-filled world of a young Orthodox priest I meet in Maysky, Kabardino-Balkaria, is where heaven and culture collide in a way that makes orphans dance.
An understated man of few words, Fr. Sergey reminds me of Terkun. He looks a little bit like a biker dude and gives off a vibe of quiet confidence, like a person who doesn't have to prove anything to anybody.
Several years ago, when news spread of successful exorcisms that Fr. Sergey from the Orthodox church in Maysky was performing, the powers that be became concerned. Their "worry" was that the young, 30-something maverick exorcist might succumb to the sin of pride. Only bishops are allowed to perform exorcisms. In freeing people from demons, Fr. Sergey broke the rule. And if not for a miracle, he would have been defrocked.
As Fr. Sergey meets us in front of a church, 14 ruddy-faced, dirty-necked young boys flank him. They are orphans the priest and his wife took in from the streets. Still breathing hard from playing soccer, they say nothing. It's a sign of respect: Kids don't speak unless they're spoken to.
As the priest leads us up the steps of his church, we pass a bent-over babushka scrubbing them spotless. Later we learn that she used to be inhabited by demons until God used Fr. Sergey to deliver her, and she decided to work at the parish.
We ask about the miracle that we were told happened at his church. He points to two big picture frames to the right of the altar. One of the frames holds an icon of Christ; the other holds just a cracked sheet of protective glass that used to cover the icon. When a caretaker went to replace the glass, he noticed something unusual on it—a faint image of Christ, which is still clearly visible. The Orthodox church's commission tasked with confirming miracles verified that the imprint was indeed supernatural. And, in no less of another miracle, Fr. Sergey was left alone by the bishops who had wanted to defrock him.
We walk into the unadorned, light-colored dining room, with three long tables forming a U. We're served pirogi, dessert, and tea from a 200-year-old samovar. As we wonder how it's heated, the priest flashes his wry sense of humor: "Ecologically pure product."
We're invited to sit at the middle table. The boys take a seat at the table to our right. They don't say a word. Except for chanting a heavenly song of thanks before the meal, they will not say anything during the meal. How can these "troubled kids" who used to live on the streets restrain their raging hormonal energy?
To bypass the red tape needed to open an orphanage, the priest became the boys' foster parent. "I am their father today," he says, looking over the crowd of children between 2 and 18 years of age, eating in silence. He and his wife have three children of their own. The church is the only institution supporting the ministry—the boys help out at their animal and produce farm and at the nursing home the church also established.
When asked if they have Sunday school, Fr. Sergey sounds like an evangelical. "We do, but I prefer they learn the law of God by heart, not memorize it behind a desk like they do things in public school," he says. "Lenin knew the law of God, he had the highest grades in religion classes, memorized everything in the New Testament, but look what he did. So I believe you have to plant the living Word into the hearts of children. Then they will remember it all their lives."
After dinner, it's time for another musical interlude.
"The boys want to know if you would like to see them breakdance," the priest says, as if it were a natural post-dinner activity.
We go upstairs to the boys' dormitory, and they morph from quiet, respectful kids into balls of twirling energy. The foot shuffles! The spins! The one-handed freezes! The effortless transitions in and out of dance movements! Shades of the '80s!
The priest sits on one of the boys' beds with a satisfied smile, nodding his head.
The man who introduced us to Fr. Sergey's church is Viktor Levashov, who functions as the bishop for all the Baptist churches in Northern Caucasus. He and Fr. Sergey go way back. They used to meet as high-school students to read the Bible together and to visit a Baptist pastor; they each chose their own way when they got drafted to the army.
"So much damage was done during the Soviet era," Levashov says. "A popular rock bard, Igor Talkov, sings in his ballad that 'the priest's robe hid the KGB rank.' It was often true. Not just in the Orthodox church. The KGB spies were in Baptist churches, too. The consequence of that is the distrust that people have toward the church. So I'm happy to see a regeneration of faith thanks to priests like Fr. Sergey."
At the end of our meeting, Levashov tells the boys he has a present for them. He pulls out a three-dimensional, Rubik's cube–like toy called EvangeCube. Its eight sides arrange to illustrate the gospel. "Now you can tell your friends about why Jesus came," says Levashov, after walking the wide-eyed kids through a presentation. The boys begin playing with the toys immediately. "Do you have more that we can take to school for our friends?"
I see Rakhuba push a wad of hundred dollar bills into Fr. Sergey's hands. "This is for the kids," he says, "from our ministry." My mind goes to Russian Ministries' eloquent, kind, and well-networked president, Anita Deyneka, the wife of the ministry's late founder, Peter Deyneka, who spends much of her time writing proposals asking foundations for money.
As evangelical zeal and Orthodox reverence meet in a place of grace and whimsy, the priest who mustn't do exorcisms grins and nods.
Here, too, God lives, works, and plays. Neither vulgar nor aloof, he never fails to get through to his children, with or without the help of church and state officials.
Agnieszka Tennant is an editor at large for Christianity Today. She is studying the relationship between corruption and religious institutions in postcommunist countries at the University of Chicago. To view more photographs from this Russia trip, go to christianitytoday.com/go/russiaphotos.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A photo essay accompanied this story.
A Christianity Today article, "Why I'm Not Orthodox," is also available.
The fragility of religious freedom in Russia has been "of consistent concern" in the Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (2005).
The USCIRF has a transcript of a roundtable discussion "Assessing U.S. Human Rights Policy Towards Russia," a press release on the increasing religious intolerance, and has an opinion article on the difficulties that face evangelicals in Putin's Russia.
In 2003, Russia put non-Orthodox Christians at the top of its list of security threats.
In September 2006, the Russian Justice Ministry drafted a law on "Counteracting Illegal Missionary Activity."
U.S. News and World Report has an article on the situation of missionaries in Siberia.
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