A Baptist with Two Careers
The Ukrainian youth leader Pavel Unguryan
M o s c o w / A m s t e r d a m -- “Baptists in Western Europe are growing weaker - the global Baptist movement is moving eastward and southward. Baptist youth of today live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We, the young Baptists of Ukraine, want to be a strategic platform and springboard to support these developments.” That was the assessment of 29-year-old Pavel Unguryan (Kiev), National Youth Director of the 133.000-member “All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christian-Baptists”, in a conversation at the European Baptist Federation’s “Amsterdam 400” celebrations on 26 July.
Yet the beginnings are modest: In January, his youth department sent two missionaries to the Central Asian republics of the former USSR. Two families are scheduled to follow in September. Others have been active longer in Kazakhstan. The Youth Director reported: “I am very pleased that many Ukrainians have left for missionary service in Russia, including Siberia, the Far East and the extreme North. Our union also has workers in Moldova, Romania, Belarus and Armenia.” A Baptist leader in Kiev, Viktor Kulbich, reported in 2004 that 450 Ukrainian Baptists were active as missionaries in Russia. An additional 38 were serving in countries as far away as Australia, Afghanistan, Israel, Portugal and Canada. Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s “Bible Belt”, is today home of the largest Baptist Union on the European mainland.
Unguryan, who grew up in Odessa, continued: “The missions explosion of the 1990s occurred in a state of initial, general euphoria. But today the young are leading the way, we are now the avant-garde. And older members are beginning to support us.” He believes the movement is now in need of greater institutionalisation: “We must organise things step-by-step. We need to get into the budget of every congregation. Many are beginning to understand that we need one or two missionaries from every congregation, and they need to be financed. Our Union has 2.800 congregations. If we had two missionaries from every congregation, then that would be a great army. Our Union has 40.000 young people. The work within Ukraine may be our right hand, but our left hand is the work elsewhere.”
The Youth Director stressed that his department’s ties to the Russian Union’s youth department, which is headed by Rev. Evgeny Bakhmutsky (Moscow), are intimate. A major highlight for both was a convention of 3.000 young people from 19 countries in Odessa. The joint struggle for mission is a glue cementing the ties between the national youth movements. It has at times been rumoured that the Moscow-based “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”, which unites most of the countries of the former Soviet Union except for the Baltics and parts of the Caucasus, was nearing the end of its usefulness. Yet he believes Russian-speaking youth are capable of injecting this Federation with new blood and vigour.
Pavel Unguryan believes that East European events such as the Odessa youth conference of August 2008, which occurred only weeks after the Baptist World Alliance’s global youth conference in Leipzig, dare not be interpreted as competing, parallel occurrences. “It’s really good that we have these two blocs of activity,” he insisted in Amsterdam. “They reflect Baptist diversity. Many young people have neither the funds nor visas necessary to attend events in the West. The Odessa conference was prepared by the young and united them across borders in a dramatic way. Events such as this one are truly a gift from heaven.”
He does not believe significant theological differences still exist between the Baptist youth of East and West. But he conceded that “cultural and psychological differences” remain. “We have differences in mentality. We in the Russian-speaking world grew up in a region in which Christians had long been subjected to pressure. We still have conservative positions on outward issues such as clothing and forms of worship. Our understanding of certain democratic values differs. We nevertheless must always search for that which unites.”
What must still change among Ukrainian Baptists? “We must change our understanding of the times,” Unguryan responded. “We now have very unique opportunities and we must strive daily to comprehend and use them well. We must also change our view on Ukraine. We have become a bridge between East and West; we must take the new global role of Ukraine seriously. We are now in a position to prepare missionaries for all the territory east and south of us.”
The Youth Director’s job during the week
Pavel Unguryan, a lawyer by profession, added that he is Youth Director only on weekends. After serving on Odessa’s city council, he was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament, the “Verkhovna Rada”, in September 2007. He, three other Baptists and one Pentecostal belong to the ruling party, the “Bloc Yulia Timoshenko”. One-hundred-fifty-five of the parliament’s 450 members belong to this party. The dean of Baptist politicians in Ukraine, the economist Dr. Alexander (or Oleksandr) Turchinov, is Unguryan’s party colleague. Turchinov has been an associate of Prime Minister Timoshenko since 1993 and is now serving as her First Deputy Prime Minister. The 1964-born economist became famous during his stint as the first-ever civilian head of Ukraine’s security service SBU (once KGB) from February to September 2005. Unguryan adds that many Baptists are active as village mayors; others serve as deputies on local and regional councils.
Does Unguryan regret that all Baptists in parliament belong to the Bloc Timoshenko? “It would be better if Baptists were active in different political parties,” he answered. “But unfortunately, only one political force is willing to accept Baptists. The other parties do not have Baptists and do not want any.” Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is known to cater to the Kiev-based Orthodox church; the pro-Russian “Party of Regions” headed by Viktor Yanukovich is beholden to the Moscow Patriarchate. Unguryan failed to add that in 2004 many Baptists initially supported Viktor Yushchenko. Kiev’s mayor, the businessman and Charismatic Leonid Chernovetsky, is an ally of Viktor Yushchenko. Chernovetsky remains a member of the "Embassy of God" congregation founded by the Nigerian Sunday Adelaja. Until recently, the “Embassy” claimed to have 25.000 members in Kiev alone. Adelaja’s involvement in a Ponzi scheme and other charges of fraud have led to downturns in attendance during 2009.
Despite the very reserved position of his own Union’s leadership, Pavel Unguryan takes a gracious stance regarding the Nigerian pastor. “It’s good that Sunday Adelaja is in Ukraine. Until he came, the face of Ukrainian evangelicalism had always been European and white. He is a teaching and admonishment for us. But he has tended to exaggerate his successes - that leaves the impression of being frivolous. His claim to have masterminded the Orange Revolution did not resound well. It would be much better for him to cooperate with us Baptists and the evangelical movement in general. Then the people would say, ‘fine’.”
How do Ukrainians in general react when meeting a Baptist politician? “Many people are dumbfounded, others are pleased. But we have no unified position in our congregations either. Some Baptists still believe political involvement to be unnecessary. But I believe we must be involved in the attempt to create a new quality of government. We Christians are called on to help change society.” This politician is an optimist. When asked if the political involvement of Ukrainian Baptists will create greater distance between them and the Baptists of Russia, he responded: “I believe the same thing will yet happen in Russia.”
At the moment, Pavel Unguryan cannot be reached for further comment: He was married on 15 August 2009!
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 18 August 2009
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #09-25, 1.246 words, 7.833 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from September 2020: In Latin letters, our subject's name is now usually written as "Pavlo Ungurian". ("Pavlo" is the Ukrainian version of "Pavel".) He remains a member of the Ukrainian parliament and is active in the country's National Prayer Breakfast movement. The ending on "Unguryan" is incidentally Armenian. He was born in Soviet Moldova in 1979.