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Pentecostals Find Refuge : Sacramento Area Is Home to Burgeoning Soviet Christian Population in U.S.

December 16, 1991|RUSSELL CHANDLER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It all began three years ago in a makeshift church in the back yard of Vladimir and Nadezhda Kuzmenko, who had just moved to this Central Valley city with their eight young children.

The congregation of 35 quickly outgrew the Kuzmenkos' covered patio, then relocated to a rented building that held 180. Soon, the faithful--all Pentecostal Christians from the Soviet Union--were praying for an even larger space.

"People were spilling over to the stairs and sidewalk," said the Rev. Paul Demetrus, 75, the unofficial patriarch of the burgeoning Soviet community.

Since the Soviet Union's exit gates cracked open in 1988, this new wave of believers--bringing with them the appearance and culture of rural Russia and the strict customs of their persecuted faith--has grown to about 7,000, including many with double-digit-size families.

Sacramento is now home to more Soviet Christians than any other city in the United States, and accounts for nearly a fourth of the 30,000 Soviet Pentecostals who have emigrated to this country.

Because the influx has been so massive and swift, local public schools are strapped for teachers bilingual in Russian and English, low-cost housing is in short supply, and social service agencies are all but overwhelmed. Because most of the Soviet families arrive nearly destitute and jobless, welfare costs are taxing the already stretched federal and county budgets.

About two-thirds of the 200,000 Soviet refugees who have streamed into U.S. cities during the past several years are Jewish, but most of the other Soviet newcomers are evangelical Christians--Pentecostals and Baptists--a group that until recently had virtually no established community in this country.

In contrast to Soviet Jews, the evangelical believers tend to be blue-collar workers with little education. Because of the evangelicals' uncompromising religious faith and unwillingness to register their churches with the government, Soviet officials not only restricted their worship but also barred their children from higher education and the best jobs.

Before policies were relaxed during glasnost , an evangelical family that applied for exit visas typically had their jobs and government-issued apartment taken away, and their children were kicked out of the government-run schools. Now, visas are granted if an applicant has a U.S. sponsor, but waiting periods of up to two years are common.

Bursting at the seams, the Sacramento Russian Pentecostal Church has an average Sunday attendance of about 2,000, which overflows two of the city's largest Presbyterian church buildings. The Pentecostals rent the churches for Russian-language services each Sunday afternoon and return for a two-hour service on Sunday nights.

Several miles away, more than 300 Russian Pentecostal youth cram the Chinese Assembly of God Church on Thursday evenings to share testimonies of faith, sing Russian gospel songs with a Western beat, and fervently pray.

Pentecostal Christianity--introduced into the Soviet Union from the United States in the 1920s--is a conservative, Bible-based faith that stresses prophetic "gifts" of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. Soviet Pentecostals do not practice birth control or abortion, believing that each child is a blessing of God. Families with 10 or more children are common.

Gaining an average of 10 new families a week, the Russian Pentecostal Church is said to be the largest Russian evangelical church outside the Soviet Union and the fastest growing of any congregation in the Sacramento area.

About 1,200 Soviet Baptists pack another two churches here every Sunday morning and evening.

At the Russian Baptist Church in West Sacramento--a small, wooden A-frame built to hold 300--nearly 500 worshipers crowd the aisles and spill into the hall. The married women observe the Russian Baptist custom of wearing gauze head scarves during the service, a sign of subjection to their husbands. Round-faced children--the girls with huge, ruffled bows in their hair--squirm in the front pews.

Why have so many Soviet Christians settled in Sacramento?

Just as news of the gold strike at Sutter's Mill 140 years earlier brought the rush of '49ers here, word of a promised land had spread to Soviet homes--via powerful shortwave radio.

Thousands of believers who secretly practiced their faith had long been listening to preacher Demetrus' gospel program, "The Voice of Truth." The inspirational messages, begun 36 years ago, are taped in Sacramento and broadcast in Russian and Ukrainian across the Soviet Union from transmitters outside the country.

Other believers had tuned in the shortwave broadcasts of Michael Lokteff of West Sacramento, a Soviet emigre who has sent the message of his Russian Baptist faith back to his homeland since 1972.

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