Things will Turn Out OK
Report on a hardworking Pentecostal congregation in Penza
M o s c o w – The photo of two Pentecostal clergymen from Penza’s “Living Faith” congregation (Bishop Oleg Serov and Pastor Sergey Kireyev) with Igor Plotnitsky, Minister-President of the Lugansk People’s Republic, caused major waves in Great-Ukraine. One Ukrainian in USA compared the gathering to a hypothetical meeting with Chechen terrorists after the slaughter of 331 children and adults in Beslan in 2004! The event took place during the politician’s private visit to this city west of the Volga River on 5 March. (See our report from 21 April.)
“What’s so bad about that?” asked Pastor Kireyev during my visit on 14 June. “We read the Bible and know the Apostle Paul visited the
Roman tyrant Nero. Paulus wanted to speak to the ruler about the faith and explain to him the position of the Christians. If it were necessary, we would also meet with a Hitler. Yet Plotnitsky is
neither Nero nor Hitler. He is rather the constitutionally elected head of government in his region. His role is no less legal than that of the government created by the Maidan movement.”
Though Plotnitsky had once been the administrator for a Pentecostal congregation in Lugansk, these two pastors had not been previously acquainted with him. They were invited to the gathering at Penza’s “Club for Afghan Veterans” because their humanitarian work for Donbass and for refugees from there had given them a good name locally. Penza region is presently hosting 15.000 refugees from this war zone.
Kireyev reported: “Before this meeting, we knew nothing about Plotnitsky’s relationship to the faith. But he told us that he and his wife had long been ‘very near’ to the Protestants. It was obvious that he knew the Bible; he was totally capable of following us on spiritual topics. But I cannot confirm that he is presently a Protestant.” Oleg Serov added: “He struck us as a genuine and very honest person. He does what he can to insure a happy life for people in the Lugansk Republic.” In the meantime, observers in Great-Ukraine have begun joking that Plotnitsky aspires to becoming a second Turchinov (a leading, Baptist politician in Kiev).
Penza Pentecostals continue to have little contact with Plotnitsky. “We sent additional photos later”, they recounted. “But we have received no confirmation that he actually got to see them.”
Reports from eastern Ukraine claim that Igor Plotnitsky is a corrupt war profiteer. Serov responded: “I know nothing about this. But the open discussion on the matter shows at least that this people’s republic practices democracy.”
Sergey Kireyev responded: „We wanted to make clear in our conversation that we Protestants are no opposition and no fifth column; that we want to help rebuild the country. The book we gave to him should show that we Protestants are a positive force.” However, Kireyev admitted that the bare facts tend to speak another language. Many ordained Protestants hastily left Donbass: “Many congregations are without pastors, and that is our great disgrace.”
Regarding the persecution to which Donbass’ remaining Protestants are being subjected, Pastor Kireyev claimed: “Those who help the starving and needy are not hindered by the government in any way. They are instead being asked to help. But those who maintain a pro-Maidan position can expect trouble. However, those are not religious issues; they are political ones. It is our task to make clear to society that not all Protestants support Maidan. Pastors in (Great)Ukraine claim that the Maidan movement is supported even in Russia. But that is not true. In the world generally, a great number of Protestants take anti-revolutionary positions.”
Penza’s Pentecostals, as well as most Russian Protestants, support evolutionary change. Kireyev insisted: “We regard Maidan as a major evil, for we know what the consequences of revolution are: civil war and foreign intervention. Precisely that happened after the revolution of 1917. Have a look at the results of the French Revolution – one result was dictatorship. Revolution is no alternative; the process needs to happen in a natural fashion within the framework of existing laws. Rebellion and mutiny sow wind and reap the storm. Revolutions bring death and war – that’s why we Russian Protestants are opposed.”
Protestants in Great-Ukraine usually describe the conflict not as a civil war, but instead as a Russian attack on Ukraine. The pastor retorted: “It’s very comfortable to say what one’s own government wants to hear. Those in (Great)Ukraine who describe the matter as a civil war have reason to fear for their lives. How many journalists have already died there? There is no freedom of expression there.” My commentary: This is precisely the accusation one also hears in the opposite direction.
The roughly 150-member “Living Faith” congregation indeed does enjoy terrific ties with the local authorities. Kireyev pointed to the city flag introduced a decade ago, which displays a frontal, icon-style face of Jesus. Missing though is the circular, halo-style background common on flags in Donbass and elsewhere. (See the two photos.) “We’re responsible for the missing background”, the pastor claimed. “The city wanted to do us a favour.” He continued: “At the time when we founded the congregation in 1997, we were inexperienced and made many mistakes. We preached against Orthodoxy. However, we have learned things in the meantime. At a recent press conference in the city, a journalist asked an Orthodox priest whether he regarded us as his ‘brothers in Christ’. He answered in the affirmative.“
After I noted that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses are free to evangelise on the street in Ukraine, Bishop Serov responded: „And in Penza we are free to do mission on the street.“
Hopes for the future
Pastors Serov and Kireyev are clearly optimistic about the future. They say they want to keep no one from repenting; they are already reckoning with the country’s reconstruction. “Fellowship among Christians is always possible when it is based on the Spirit of Christ, and not on the spirit of Maidan. Politics cannot divide true Christians; Christian faith unites. True believers have terrific relationships with people in Ukraine.” According to them, the political conflicts have not affected their relations with friends and supporters in the USA. “They know how to differentiate between faith and politics.”
Kireyev remains convinced that the present distance between the faithful in Russia and Great-Ukraine will be of limited duration. “It will yet become evident whose spirit we embody and who the true peacemakers are. God will bring everything which is now concealed out into the open. Everything will be returned to its proper place. We only need to wait.”
He mentioned in this context a Ukrainian editor living in the West with whom he had cooperated for years. Following Maidan, he informed Kireyev that he would be breaking off contact. “Yet eight months later he called and apologised. We are once again working together.” He insisted: „Christians are distinguished from others in political matters by their ability to reach consensus and reconcile more quickly.”
The „Living Faith“ congregation belongs to the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE). Its head bishop, Sergey Ryakhovsky of Moscow, is known as one of those most committed to creating a positive climate with the political powers in Russia.
According to Kireyev and Serov, Penza congregations belonging to the „Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ had a combined membership of 1.000 a quarter century ago. That membership is now down to roughly 100.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 27 June 2015
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-06, 1.225 words