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Methodism in Russia: 100 Years of Darkness and Light
Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > July/August 2009 > 'Cult status'

A Russian version of The Upper Room Devotional Guide, written, edited and published by Russian and Ukranian United Methodists, rests atop the Russian United Methodist Hymnal (Peace Be With You). Photos by Jan Snider
'Cult status'

Russian United Methodist Church grows, but not without struggle

By Jan Snider

The words spray-painted with flair against a grimy, mud-splattered wall look oddly familiar. When asked what they mean, the Russian guide simply says they aren't very nice.

It could be graffiti in any U.S. city but, in Moscow, it's an indication of how quickly the post-Soviet society has learned to express itself.

With banner ads spanning the width of busy streets, and train stations plastered with flyers advertising the newest luxury products, the visual clamor can be deafening. It is in this overstimulated environment that the Russian United Methodist Church offers parishioners peace and acceptance. Yet, this newly democratized society provides neither peace nor acceptance to the church because United Methodists, along with other Protestants, are seen as cults populated by crackpots.

"There is a lot of suspicion against everything that is not Orthodox and traditionally Russian," explains Bishop Hans Vaxby. The Russian Orthodox Church is the official denomination of Russia. To be Russian is to be Orthodox but that does not mean that worship is part of the lives of most Russians. Some scholars estimate less than 5 percent of the population actively participates in church. As the country struggles to define its new identity, spiritual matters have given way to material desires.

Bishop Hans Vaxby (right) and the Rev. Tobias Dietz instruct students at the Moscow Seminary of the United Methodist Church. The seminary has been educating clergy for the Eurasia Central Conference since 1995.
Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary professor the Rev. Tobias Dietze believes the people focus too much on acquiring status.

"It is expected that you have to demonstrate that you have a nice car, or beautiful clothes or the latest cell phone," he says. "Many people are much more materialistic even than in western countries in a very undiluted way."

With spirituality emerging from Soviet shadows only recently, fear of the unknown has thrived.

"'Protestants will brainwash you. They will take away your apartments, take away your children, so be careful.' This is all in the back of the minds of Russian people when they hear (the word) Protestant. And now you see what our pastors have to go through in order to receive even a fair hearing to represent our faith, to represent (The United) Methodist Church," says the Rev. Sergei Nikolaev, president of the Russia United Methodist Theological Seminary.

The newest generation of United Methodist leaders navigates this materialistic and suspicious environment. Many come from generations of "unbelievers." Some suffer the disdain of family members who can't understand the desire to pursue a "cultish" life that promises little salary and tremendous difficulty.

Nikolaev says this new class of leaders differs from his generation. "We were much more enthusiastic in a way -- naive, I suppose. There was eagerness and fire, and there was not much critical analysis present."

"Now, students have to come from that society which is skeptical to begin with. So they come with that skeptical attitude," he says. "And, at the same time something motivates them to come. Something tells them, 'Well, you are called to be a pastor.' So, they have to overcome much greater challenges than we had to overcome."

One such leader is the Rev. Pavel Sergikov, a recent graduate from Russia Theological Seminary. He pastors Perovo United Methodist Church in Moscow. Like most United Methodist churches in the country, its membership is small but devoted to personal spiritual growth and social outreach.

Although his family is hostile toward his ministry, Sergikov feels empowered to continue. "If you have these signs from God as this inner calling, God is going to faithfully serve you and accompany you along this way. He will help you in everything, and He will provide everything you need for the ministry."

The Rev. Rauza Landorf welcomes nearly 100 children each weekday to her after-school program. Many of the children have parents addicted to drugs or alcohol and live in dangerous environments.
Leadership is also developing from the many social outreach programs supported by Russian United Methodists. In St. Petersburg, the Rev. Rauza Landorf, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, welcomes nearly 100 children each weekday to her after-school program. Many of these children live in such volatile circumstances they would rather sleep on the streets than go home to parents who value drugs and alcohol more than their own offspring.

Abuse of drugs and alcohol manifests itself in orphanages filled with children suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome and an average life expectancy of less than 60 years for Russian men.

As she provides a loving and empowering environment for the children, Landorf is witnessing the transformation of the children into tomorrow's leaders. "We can't allow this generation to wander around in the desert like the Jews for 40 years," she says.

Some of the children have brought their parents to the church; others have taken leadership roles in worship. Yet some still cling to fallacies about Protestant practices. "One boy said, 2You are probably feeding us to get our organs for transplants. It is impossible that you simply love us,'" recalls Landorf.

Love isn't always enough.

Many of the United Methodist social outreach programs across Russia have been terminated or harassed by government authorities at the behest of their detractors. The churches simply find new avenues to serve because active involvement in rehabilitation programs, orphanages and prison ministries continues to be one of the most successful methods of growing churches.

Nikolaev says preparing young leaders for these unique challenges is necessary for the survival of the church.

"Until we have our own indigenous Russian people engaged with indigenous Russian problems, providing indigenous Russian United Methodist answers to those problems, we will not be considered seriously as a Russian church."

It is Vaxby's hope that someday the Russian Orthodox Church will see United Methodists as brothers and sisters in Christ.

"We are here to take part in something that is bigger than all denominations. My conviction is that The United Methodist Church has a contribution, and it's important for us to be here."

--Jan Snider, producer, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

 

Supporting United Methodists in Russia

Learn more about how United Methodists around the world are supporting pastors and congregations in Russia through the Russia Initiative, http://new.gbgm-umc.org/work/initiatives/russia. Contributions can be made to the Russia Initiative (Advance #11510A).

The Rev. Olga Ganina leads worship at Samara United Methodist Church in the Volga District of the Central Russia Annual Conference. The church was born from a five-member Bible study group 20 years ago.

The Rev. Olga Ganina leads worship at Samara United Methodist Church in the Volga District of the Central Russia Annual Conference. The church was born from a five-member Bible study group 20 years ago.

A Russian version of The Upper Room Devotional Guide, written, edited and published by Russian and Ukranian United Methodists, rests atop the Russian United Methodist Hymnal (Peace Be With You).

Bishop Hans Vaxby (right) and the Rev. Tobias Dietz instruct students at the Moscow Seminary of the United Methodist Church. The seminary has been educating clergy for the Eurasia Central Conference since 1995.

The Rev. Rauza Landorf welcomes nearly 100 children each weekday to her after-school program. Many of the children have parents addicted to drugs or alcohol and live in dangerous environments.




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