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Faith and joy keep revival going in modern Russia

The Rev. Igor Volovodov, pastor of Peter and Paul United Methodist
Church in Voronezh, Russia, baptizes a parishioner. A UMNS
photo courtesy of the Rev. Igor Volovodov.

By Jan Snider*
August 12, 2009 | MOSCOW (UMNS)

The gray, murky snow is plowed high in waves against the busy city streets.

Women in black, spike-heeled boots and fur-covered coats stride forward as if on a Parisian runway, while below them old women crouch among the shuffling swarms, begging for rubles to buy their bread.

Established in 1994, New Commandment United Methodist Church is the oldest United Methodist congregation in Voronezh.
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider.

Down the street, police officers openly hustle bribes from drivers who are too busy to argue bogus tickets. Elsewhere, it is every well-groomed man for himself, as the latest cell phones slip into high-fashion pockets.

And Christians who once faced the gulag for proclaiming their faith struggle anew in a society that now pays homage to modern capitalism.

“People do not care. People do not go to church,” explains Eurasia Bishop Hans Växby.

Headquartered in the same building as the Theological Seminary of the Russia United Methodist Church in Moscow, this Finnish-born bishop has a keen outlook on Russian society. Although he oversees the largest episcopal area in the United Methodist Church, with 11 countries under his supervision, Russia presents a particularly challenging situation.

Not only does a large portion of society shun religion, those who do care are generally pro-Russian Orthodox and staunchly anti-Protestant.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “there is a lot of prejudice toward Protestant groups; so people do not easily find their way to our churches. But, if they do, there is the same freshness and you can see the joy in the eyes of the people and you can see how people find God.”

Fleeting infatuation

When Communism fell in the early 1990s, Russians in the first heady days of political freedom embraced newfound religious freedom with vigor. All religious groups grew as a pent-up demand for spirituality burst open.

But a backlash emerged. Protestant churches were seen by some as foreign influences exploiting a nation in transition. Even Methodism, which has a 120 year history in Eurasia, is viewed as a foreign religion with “cultish” practices. This is especially true in communities where there is sentimentality toward Soviet society.

Communities like Voronezh, a city of 800,000 in southwestern Russia, an overnight train ride from Moscow.

The Rev. Irina Mitina plays
keyboards, sings and leads
worship at Resurrection United
Methodist Church in Voronezh.
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider.

The area is part of a pro-Communist region known as the Red Belt. It was once a robust factory town under the Soviet system. When government-owned businesses closed, resentment grew against outside influence, including the three United Methodist congregations.

The hostility is felt at Rev. Irina Mitina’s small congregation in the center of the city.

Mitina is a striking woman with a dark page-boy haircut and large blue eyes; she laughs often and is quick to smile in response to frowns that occupy the faces of her neighbors. The neighborhood where she pastors Resurrection United Methodist Church is populated with unemployed Soviet factory workers who found communism comfortable and often drink to their disappointment in democracy.

Her church is housed in a faded factory building that shares a muddy courtyard with crumbling blocks of dreary apartments. A former English professor at a Russian University, Mitina is comfortable speaking about the challenges of growing a church in an inhospitable neighborhood.

“They say they don’t want to come to our church. They say that we are sects and cults and things like this; just prejudice. But we do what we can.”

She laughs as she observes the new windows in her building, “And we are very happy that they don’t break the windows.”

But some churches have suffered greatly.

Harassment and hostility

The Rev. Yuri Davydkin of Mercy United Methodist Church in Gatchina remembers the fire that destroyed his cherished worship space. It was in 1999, before his congregation was part of the Russia United Methodist Church.

The church was set on fire. “Everything was destroyed. It was a strong blow,” explains Davydkin, a modest man in size - but not demeanor. “There were people who wanted to get rid of us, to burn us out of this church.”

Davydkin regularly has to take matters to city authorities when harassed; he says the antagonism comes from the leadership of the local Russian Orthodox Church.

“For example,” he explains, “when two or three ministers come to the nursing home we usually can be with the people (residents) and have a Bible study and pray for them. But today when we came we found out that a representative of the Orthodox Church has been there and he has forbidden to let us in.”

The Rev. Yuri Davydkin, once an
avowed atheist who actively worked
to close churches, is now pastor of
Mercy United Methodist Church in
Gatchina. A UMNS photo by Jan Snider.

Like so many United Methodist pastors, Davydkin vows to continue; he raises his frail voice and waves a well-worn book of Russian law. “We will visit them and it does not matter what difficulties we will have. We know that we live in the country where the Orthodox Church is a semi-state organization. But we also know that according to the law of our country we have the full right to continue our activity on the territory of our city and the district.” He adds, “We will continue to serve the Lord in the place where the Lord has put us.”

This fortitude plays against society’s perceived need to define a distinctive Russian identity.

As a former president of the Russia United Methodist seminary, Rev. Tobias Dietze observed society’s shift in allegiance toward Russian Orthodoxy. “Maybe they do not know much about Christianity, but to be Orthodox is a kind of new identity which, of course, conflicts with the activities that other churches here undertake in Russia,” he explains.

Davydkin is not discouraged, “I know about a pastor who had a very small church. His name is Jesus Christ. In his church there were only 12 members, but these 12 people overturned the whole world. They turned it upside down”

Still, there are ominous signs in some parts of the country that there is little progress.

Last year, a United Methodist house church in Smolensk was temporarily closed for teaching children’s Sunday school during regular worship services. The complaint was reportedly lodged by a local Russian Orthodox bishop who was said to have deemed the church a “pseudo-religious organization.”

The Russian Ministry of Justice recently elected a “sectologist” to head the council of experts charged with guiding Russian courts on religious matters. This official considers Protestants to be among those cults that should be reined in. His appointment is disconcerting to some church officials.

Fertile ground

The Church of Our Savior
on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg is built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. A UMNS photo by Jan Snider.

Having a physical presence is one way that United Methodist churches have found tolerance.

During the days of communism, the golden onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries were often used as warehouses, orphanages, and even farms. Today, the government sponsors the refurbishment of the elaborately bejeweled structures and is helping to build impressive new churches throughout the federation.

By contrast, Protestant churches are sometimes as simple as a living room in a small, tattered Khrushchev-era apartment, a repurposed industrial building, or a minimally furnished institutional space.

Russian Protestants understand that having a tangible existence means to many observers that the church is viable, it is indigenous to their country and the congregation intends to grow.

In the Central Black Soil district of the Russian United Methodist Church, everything grows well, according to Rev. Igor Volovodov, pastor of Peter and Paul United Methodist Church.

Donning thick glasses and emanating an authoritative air that he honed as a Soviet factory boss, Volovodov speaks like a proud farmer nurturing his fields. “We have big plans,” he says, “We want to be a church that plants new churches. We want to be a church where there is a lot of youth. We want for our church to become a mother church of other churches.”

Although there are only 50 official members, the congregation enjoys a new red brick building on landscaped grounds in a neighborhood of recently constructed upscale homes. An expansion is nearly complete.

Volovodov allies with other Protestant congregations to help grow. “We want to do it with other evangelical churches; with Baptists, Pentecostals (and) charismatic churches. Here in our city we have a good relationship with these churches.”

Alexander Kozyrev owns a Christian bookstore in Voronezh. A UMNS
photo by Jan Snider.

Across the city, Alexander Kozyrev watches the busy traffic zoom by as he stands outside a converted first floor apartment underneath a large banner that advertises Christian books.

It has taken two years and a great deal of paperwork but his Protestant book store is now open. “People need such a store,” explains Kozyrev. “There is no other store like this in Voronezh or in the areas around.”

The brightly-lit interior gleams with fresh paint; shelves are lined with children’s Bible story books as well as literature for adults who want a Christian perspective beyond the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a Russian United Methodist, Kozyrevf has put his hopes in this store and feels that overcoming major difficulties will require educating government officials. “They do not understand how important such a store is for the city.”

Brick by brick

By contrast, on the rural outskirts of the metropolis is a town called Latnaya, a pre-World War II home serves as the sanctuary for Revival United Methodist Church.

Surrounded by a weathered picket fence, the building’s brightly painted green metal siding competes with its rusted undercoat. Inside, scraps of yellowed linoleum are still glued in spots to the wooden floor; mouse holes sprinkle the baseboards as a cat prowls for her supper.

The worship space is a side room off the main hall furnished with three high back benches covered with old rugs. The small altar table is draped in an elegant pink tablecloth. Displayed with care are embroidered textiles, the Russian edition of “The Upper Room” devotional, wooden crosses and a Bible.

Alexander Kolesnikov (left) and Yuri Konovalov (right) stand with another
church member outside Revival United Methodist Church in Latnaya, Russia.
A UMNS photo by Jan Snider.

In the back yard stands an ancient, but working, outhouse and beyond that a small patch of land that is farmed by church members. The congregation serves the prison, the orphanages and a handful of Protestants in this town of 10,000.

Next door is the shell of a brick church; the small congregation has been adding to it piece by piece for over three years. Lay leader Alexander Kolesnikov can look at the brick-framed walls and imagine the finished facility.

“Downstairs we will have a tea-party (fellowship) hall; upstairs will be the sanctuary,” he explains, “On the roof there will be a big cross.”

Revival, in its name and spirit, is a symbol of Methodism in Eurasia. A simple foundation has allowed a boundless faith to take root.

For over 100 years, through a brief period of freedom to the persecution of the Soviet era and the challenges beyond, Methodists have stayed faithful to their calling to build the church in Russia. Although there is this new Russian Revolution of Methodist faith, the struggle is not over.

Växby predicts, just as in the beginning, it will take time to build trust, time to build bridges between United Methodist and Russian Orthodox Christians and time to sow seeds of faith in new communities.

It will take Revival, and more than a hundred other congregations like it.

But the bishop marvels at the journey.

“To see how they fight and struggle with this calling and how strong the urge to live for God is, this is moving and very hopeful,” he says. “I think we will see the day when society, even local authorities, appreciates our presence.”

*Snider is a producer with United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Jan Snider, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Methodism in Russia: 100 Years of Darkness and Light

Video Tour of Resurrection United Methodist Church, Voronezh Russia

The Rev. Irina Mitina: “They say we are a sect.”

The Rev. Irina Mitina: “We have a good music program.”

The Rev. Irina Mitina: “It’s so happy to be a Methodist.”


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