Confessions of a Soviet Bloc Pastor
by Eugene Gerasimov
If I had to choose one person who stands out in my mind as an incarnation of greed (which is, as you know, one of the seven deadly sins), that honor would go to an assistant director of a community center where my congregation rented a room and held worship back when I first began my ministry.
This man was responsible for making sure the center made money. Every four or five weeks he would call and invite me to meet with him for a conversation, during which conversation he would always increase our rent.
There were about eighty people worshiping with us then. I was a new pastor, and for the first few months I used my entire pastoral salary to pay the rent. Then I had an idea. Our regional Adventist Book Center didn’t have a permanent home, so we placed a curtain across the room and generously gave up some of our worship space in exchange for their sharing the cost. After a few months, even with their participation, we were again falling behind those ever-escalating rent payments. So I bought my first modem (it was 1998) and I began sending junk emails to Adventists in the United States asking for help. (Let me use this opportunity to thank all who patiently endured these emails, and especially those few individuals and churches who supported us. Our congregation survived because of you).
One day this assistant director called me again, and this time the tone of his voice made me think something bigger was happening. When I met with him he told me that he’d had a call from the city administration, who in turn had received a call from the local Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. “This Saturday you have to be somewhere else,” he told me. “No more cultists in our community center!”
Neither pleading nor offers to double the rent did any good. Even money—previously the most important thing for this man—wouldn’t persuade him. Our congregation was on the street, and it was already Tuesday.
I cannot describe here how desperately I explored basements and rooms in this large city for the next three days, seeking a space that would fit our congregation. We would have agreed to any room at any price, even if we had to split into two services. Many property owners needed money, and would delightedly invite me to meet with them to discuss my proposal. But after they heard who we were, their interest died. (It wasn’t only because we were considered sectarian. In that same year in this city of one million inhabitants the Russian Orthodox community blocked the building of the first and only Roman Catholic church building.)
Finally on Friday one owner agreed to let us meet in his club building. His requirements were strict. I had to swear that no one would know about our agreement. No advertisements, no noise, no invitations and no inviting guests “off the street”. No evangelistic crusades and no spreading the word of where the Adventists were meeting.
And because we needed a place so desperately, we were happy to accept his conditions, even if it meant keeping our existence a secret.
Being Protestant isn’t easy in the former Soviet countries. Nor is being a pastor. Here are three observations about being a Seventh-day Adventist here.
1. In most of the former Soviet countries, people perceive Seventh-day Adventists as outsiders.
Even the friendliest and kindest people here have a tendency to think that non-Russian Orthodox churches have no right to exist. The 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “To be Russian means to be Russian Orthodox.” And that hasn’t changed since his time.
To be completely blunt: all our efforts to fit into the cultural context of these countries have not brought us success. The church here is no longer as permeated with American culture as it was right after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Western evangelists and donors were in evidence. For the past 10-15 years our ministry has been homegrown. But even with that change, the Adventist church has still not integrated into the local culture, and I wonder if it ever will.
Moreover, opposition has increased. Many now feel that every faith that is different than “ours” is, by definition, a foreign influence and thus dangerous to the state. Other religions, some say, are merely businesses under the banner of religion. Worse, they could be fronts for foreign intelligence services! If you go to such a church, you are not a patriot. So if our lay members are outsiders, and the pastor a foreign agent, what will people say when we invite them to church?
This is discouraging to us. We Adventists measure success by how many people join the church. And our numbers here aren’t inspiring, compared to places in Africa where hundreds of thousands join. We feel like defective disciples of Christ when we compare ourselves with the global south. The thousands of sincere brothers and sisters in these former Soviet countries are sad that we have so few conversions to the church we love so much.
We may have to accept that here we really are a remnant church, and serve God as such.
2. The culture here is secularizing rapidly.
After the end of the Soviet Union people here had a tremendous thirst for spiritual things. Now we are seeing a rapidly decreasing interest in religion. One radio advertisement in 1996 gathered more people to our meetings than 25,000 flyers would today. The hundreds of people baptized then were succeeded by dozens, and now even one baptism is news for the entire Euro-Asia Division.
Articles and books say that the reason is our improving quality of life, the temptation of a materialistic lifestyle. They say that that people feel themselves more independent from God and more unwilling to seek help from above. That may be true for some western countries, but in our region not many have become financially independent. Here, we have been crippled not by wealth, but by our inability to attract attention any longer.
Back then, the Adventist church was one of few players in the information market, and we had something to offer: we were able to help people understand the Bible. Not many churches did that, so we became popular. I remember when we hung just one advertisement for a film entitled simply Jesus (released back in 1979). The theater was filled, and after Bible studies people were baptized with joy and the assurance that they’d found truth. In those days, if you had a multimedia projector and could show Bible texts on the screen your evangelistic crusade would be a success.
The revolution in information technologies changed all that: computers, the internet, smartphones—in short, access to knowledge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This increase in digital information blunted our tools. We’d gotten their attention by being able to tell them, in attractive and winning ways, information about the time of the end, about the 4th commandment’s call to keep the Sabbath, and other teachings of the Bible that had been hidden from people for so long. The weapons that worked so well back then are like old rusty swords now. We are still trying to use those tools, and sometimes we succeed. But mostly, we have fallen behind the times, and people are no longer interested in our lectures. They have an abundance of information (including religious information) on their laptop at home and the telephone in in their pocket.
It seems to me there is a solution to this problem, but it would be revolutionary: that we would not merely supply information about the Bible, but create loving, accepting Christian communities. That’s something people can’t get from their smartphones or the internet. People need love and true soul warmth, especially at time when even our family members are more interested in looking at their digital screens than in showing interest in one another. It is our only chance, I believe—and maybe that’s true for all places in the world, not just the former USSR.
3. Congregations here mostly present the traditional side of Adventism.
Readers of Adventist Today represent a particular sector of the Adventist world, so you may not realize that the important and controversial issues that so concern you there are simply not on the agenda here. These topics are still exotic and strange to most of our congregations.
For example, you will not find even ordained deaconesses here, much less female pastors. We simply do not have them. Perhaps that helps you understand our confusion about this issue, and why we voted as we did. To our Adventist culture, the idea is foreign. The same applies to the problems of minorities: in our churches the percentage of such people is close to zero, so even a discussion of the issue seems irrelevant.
Books and resources that explore new ideas in Adventism—familiar to Adventists elsewhere—haven’t been, and probably won’t be, translated to local languages. Lacking other opinions, our congregations here are mainly homogeneous groups that don’t ask questions about the church. More than 95% of church members are confident in all 28 doctrines and and fully trust our prophetic calling.
Any person who likes to explore hard questions will find it difficult to feel a sense of community in these homogeneous congregations. Rarely will such a person stay in our communities for very long. It is not unlike what we “sectarians” feel in an Orthodox country: the pressure of the majority creates a feeling of foreignness, as if you don’t belong. Our challenge is to learn how to understand people who are different from us, people who disagree or have doubts. As of now, we tend to distance ourselves from them, or condemn them. But we need to show them our love in a practical way, knowing that our church is supposed to keep unity in diversity.
I remind myself that in spite of these problems, God was able to gather His children into this church in the early 1990’s. For a period of time, God calmed the hostility and gave us the tools and the voice to spread the Seventh-day Adventist message. God hasn’t lost his strength since then.
Eugene Gerasimov is the pastor of the Orsha and Baran Seventh-day Adventist congregations in the Vitebsk region of Belarus, a former Soviet country.
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