The World’s Largest Territorial Lutheran Church Must Make Do with Very Few People

Russia (photo:
By William Yoder, Ph.D.October 10th, 2018

Vladivostok - Even in the Russian Far East it can be the state that keeps a Protestant congregation from throwing in the towel. A Lutheran house church had already received a green light from church leadership to close its doors. Yet when the city informed them that deregistration would cost 60.000 roubles (1.800 euros at the time), the congregation changed its mind.

How fortunate that bureaucracies can also prevent mistakes from happening: Four strong women in this congregation appear very much capable of keeping it afloat. Yet they lack the time to prepare sermons and organise public events for the general public. The "power women" of Russia are overworked: The church head in this instance spends 60 hours a week working at a local drugstore. In addition, they are additionally confronted with the labour-intensive matter of a dacha in summertime. This small congregation is currently home to about 10 persons.

In the Russian Far East, Lutheran church life is fighting for its very existence. Due to high heating costs, the Lutheran house quarters in the former Gulag city of Magadan need to be sold. In Komsomolsk-na-Amure, up to nine persons are attending a bi-weekly church service. Khabarovsk with its 577.000 inhabitants features eight Baptist congregations, but the city's sole Lutheran congregation rarely has more than seven locals in attendance. These two congregations have been forced to make do without a pastor since early 2002. The last pastor in these two congregations, Rev. Markus Lesinski from Hanover, claimed recently: "It's a true miracle that these two congregations still exist." Should endangered congregations be offered euthanasia - or should they receive all possible support in hopes of their recovery?  

The Lutheran diocese (Propstei) in the Russian Far East has only two ordained pastors: Manfred Brockmann (born 1937) from Hamburg is superintendent (area dean) in Vladivostok and has been on location since 1992. A local Lutheran, Alexander Lapochenko, has been serving 250 km away in Arsenyev since 2008, while also helping out in Ussuriysk. The only Lutheran building in the Russian Far East which also looks like a church is Vladivostok's St. Paul's Church, dedicated in 1907. That makes it the oldest church structure in this relatively young port city. 

One should note that Russia's Lutheran community has been suffering massive shrinkage during the past quarter of a century. The bustling Ekaterina Veits, church head in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, reports that her congregation still had over 200 participants at the turn of the millennium. Membership stats in Khabarovsk had also once been well over 100. The mother church in Vladivostok (it has 100 members) currently has an attendance of up to 40 on Sundays. 

Nina Dmitriyeva, a long-time lay minister in the Vladivostok congregation, bemoaned the fact that so few are attending church today. „One can still see it on the old photos", she reports. „We once had very primitive facilities, but the benches were full. Today, we possess very acceptable facilities, but most chairs remain empty." As she sees it, the causes are not limited to emigration and a high death rate. „Some people had the wrong idea about church," she reports. „They wanted to receive rather than to give. As soon as humanitarian shipments from the West stopped arriving, they stopped coming."

The endangered mosaic

In terms of territory, the Omsk/Siberia-based „Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Urals, Siberia and Far East" is the world's largest Lutheran church. It has roughly 4.000 members in 150 congregations. The nine congregations from Chita in the west to Magadan in the east belong to the Vladivostok-based diocese Far East. Around half of these nine congregations are now in danger of being closed. (The Amur region begins a bit before the station Yerofey Pavlovich on the Trans-Siberian Railroad - that which the Russians call the „Far East". „Siberia" ends at that point.)

Christendom can be described as a mosaic. Every denomination and every region represent a unique stone within a wonderful mosaic. If the Lutheran denominations in Russia's Far East would cease to exist, then this glorious mosaic would suddenly be sprouting a hole. 

But all is not yet lost. Affairs remain well-organised in Vladivostok - the parish continues to feature a number of loyal „givers". The church doors remain open daily.  Concert organiser Viktor Baranov is usually present and rarely needs to complain about insufficient visitors. The congregation holds as many as 33 concerts annually; the very fitting and circumscribed surroundings have carved a niche for the church in the city's cultural scene. A word of greeting or prayer at the beginning and end of the events constantly remind the listener of the spiritual context. Parish member Baranov, a resident of the city since 1969, frequently points to the mission mandate of these concerts and regards them as a means of introducing outsiders to the work of the parish. According to the Superintendent, the parish has through its music created a group of 3-4.000 "friends" of the church. Alcoholics Anonymous, a Bible study group and others are gathering within these church's walls.

Mechanical engineer Konstantin Pavlenko, the congregation's English-speaking lay leader, still engages in dreaming. Despite the presence of sceptics, he continues to imagine a small guesthouse being built on the church premises. Along with the music, it would be a source of income for the parish. But a guesthouse would also clearly fit Konstantin's hospitable personality. His family has been living in Vladivostok region for six generations, but both he and spouse Anna are first-generation Lutherans. 

Svetlana Vashanova, a social worker from Karaganda in Kazakhstan, also clearly cares about people. She gives dance instruction in the church and when children appear on a Sunday, she also holds Sunday School. She will be organising a summer children's camp this year. She had become acquainted with an evangelical parish through a visit in Germany in 1999. Upon her return, she was delighted to discover that Vladivostok had similar offerings.

The already-mentioned Nina Dmitriyeva, who was born in Vorkuta in 1949, belongs to the small circle of Lutheran Russian-Germans still active within the church in the Far East. When her entire clan was exiting Frunze (now Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan) for the West in 1999, Nina and her family departed in the exact opposite direction. One reason was that her husband, a policeman and ethnic Russian, no longer had a future in the new Kyrgyz state. She claims not to regret that decision.

The organist Stepan Menshoykin plays without pay at church services - not a common occurrence in Russia.

The stones will need to cry out

Vladimir Vinogradov, the Omsk-based superintendent for the 120 congregations in the church's Siberian region, describes the lack of co-workers as the church's most crying need. It would therefore make sense for his church to intensify the search for local candidates. Such persons speak Russian without an accent and possess the right kind of passport. Yet much to the chagrin of the superintendents in Omsk and Vladivostok, the vast majority of those coming into question long ago decided to spend their time in the West. The Vladivostok Superintendent is very irritated by the fact that German mission societies sometimes aid theologians in emigrating to the West. 

When the best-suited Lutherans drop out, then, according to Jesus, the stones will be commissioned to carry on with the Gospel (see Luke 19:40). These are foreigners of evangelical faith - and these "stones" are far more numerous than the Lutherans of Russia. The Christians of China should be included among the stones. Assuming a million adult Protestants in Russia makes the churches of China at least 100-fold larger and wealthier than the Russian ones. Chinese Pentecostal and Baptist congregations already exist in border cities like Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk, and Moscow hosts a Pentecostal congregation with nearly 1.000 participants. In 2018, a congregation from the Three-Self-Movement in the Chinese border town of Suifenhe celebrated Pentecost at St. Paul's. This church is located no more than 150 km west of Vladivostok. Superintendent Brockmann has maintained contact with church circles in Harbin/Manchuria for years.  

South Korean citizens remain active within Methodist and Presbyterian circles in the Russian Far East. The arrival of East Asian peoples would naturally revolutionize the colour of the Lutheran mosaic piece - but a German Lutheranism in the Russian Far East no longer exists anyway. 

Willing helpers unable to move to Russia will need to be satisfied with long-term planned, continual visits. Such visits from Germany and North America are nearly always welcome. They supply the hosts with necessary resources and reassure the hosts that they are not forgotten. Former Far Eastern pastor Markus Lesinski arrives every October in Khabarovsk to help organise a local culture week. The members in Khabarovsk appreciate that very much. Lesinski remains a foreign-based pastor working under the auspices of the "Evangelical Church of Germany" in New Delhi.    

The buoyant Olga Kokhan from Komsomolsk still possesses thick albums documenting her visit to Lutheran parishes in Kansas during 2003. She would very much like to resuscitate those friendships. That desire is not unrealistic, for Pastor Gary Teske from Topeka/Kansas and the „Central States Synod" of the „Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" (ELCA) are still in the business of maintaining partnerships with these small Russian congregations. Work teams from Australia and New Zealand have also made an appearance in Vladivostok. One would think these initial contacts could be developed further.

Yet these efforts remain in the end stopgap measures and makeshift remedies. Visitors are no replacement for workers living on location. „We are the greatest missionaries around!" a Presbyterian couple from the USA extolled a number of years ago. "For we are the ones who live here on location." The location was Klaipeda in Lithuania. Lay parish head Konstantin Pavlenko assures: „No one from the outside can save us - we can only do so ourselves." He adds: "Human contacts always remain the greatest value - money trails behind."  

The advantages of the Far East

What does life in the Far East have to offer? "Nowhere else is greener," claims Nina Dmitriyeva. "We have nature pure with tigers, bears, waterfalls, mountains and seas, fishing and boating." Yet those scouting for mushrooms need healthy muscles: They can reach as high as the knee. Konstantin cannot live without the smell of the sea. Those attracted to yachts and ships can tour as far as South Korea and Japan. Vladivostok's hills and ocean remind one of San Francisco - yet without the earthquakes and astronomic rent. But the Far East even then is relative expensive for Russians. Similar to Minsk in Belarus, Khabarovsk strikes the visitor as well-groomed and stately.

The Russian Far East is by no means on the fringe when one is reminded that China describes itself as the "Middle (of the globe) Kingdom". China indeed was that up into the 15th century - and is now well on its way to becoming that once again.

Russia's Far East is a natural for orientalists preferring residence on Russian soil. Blagoveshchensk (translated: „Good News City"), the city on the Amur with an unobstructed view of a Chinese one just across the river, has attracted a Protestant couple which regards China as its mission field. As residents of the border region, they are allowed to enter China without a visa. He hails from the Volga region, she is from Ukraine.

The major cities in the border region feature a many-coloured mix of nations. Chinese and South Korean tourists belong to the landscape of Vladivostok. And those with a trained eye can on occasion identify a North Korean. South Koreans visit the city in order to experience "Europe" at minimal cost. Svetlana Vashanova is among the local Lutherans who regret that not even more Japanese visit the Russian Far East. They are cherished for their friendliness and politeness. 

Those enterprising persons eager to create something from scratch are at their proper location in Far East. Those suffering from the travel bug and longing for action will get their fill there. In Siberia, just to the west of Omsk, such drive among Russian-German Mennonite farmers has led to a mini-re-immigration from Germany. In business terms, Germany's juicy sectors and choice objects were spoken for generations ago.  

Those with an adventuresome spirit and not on the lookout for salvation in secure comfort zones, should give the Russian Far East a look. These attributes fit Superintendent Brockmann well. Forging across borders, setting out for foreign lands, a restless heart finding peace on the move, are all expression which describe his disposition. He venerates the church father Augustine and the liturgy of the Taizé community in France.

Yet on the other hand, life in the West can be more precarious than one assumes. A young Christian from the USA wrote me recently: "Words can't express the admiration and respect I have for someone . . . who spreads the Gospel of Christ in foreign precarious countries like Russia and China." Yet, according to my impression, life is not as bad in Eastern Europe and Asia, nor as good in the West, as conventional wisdom assumes. The shrinkage of America's middle class and the moral dilemmas emanating from current US foreign policy have also made life in the USA "precarious". Life can be precarious everywhere, the issue is essentially how believers master the challenges confronting them.

The Russian Far East can of course also become one's dearly-treasured homeland. In Vladivostok, lay preacher Nina mentioned the mud puddles which tend to spring up right below one's feet when exiting a city bus: "If they would suddenly disappear, then this city would no longer be my home." A difference in mentality may be afoot: "Russians can be happy and content even in situations in which conditions are not optimal." 

In Komsomolsk, lay church leader Katya Weits reports on how she discovered the congregation 20 years ago through attending a German language course. She had taken the church-sponsored course in hopes of exiting to the West as quickly as possible. She then spent a number of weeks visiting Germany - and decided to return home. "I didn't want to be a second-class citizen long-term," she says today. "Two of my girlfriends who had emigrated have returned. The same thing would have happened to me."

Of course, the Far East is no longer as it was when the German trade firm "Kunst and Albers" reached Vladivostok by sea in 1864 and set up shop. Today, those with sufficient pocket change need only 10 flight hours to get from Khabarovsk to Berlin. (The train from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok takes three hours longer.) Lutherans from the Far East repeatedly visit seminars in St. Petersburg or Omsk as well as the prominent "Kirchentag" church convention in Germany. Superintendent Brockmann visits Germany a number of times annually. Nina Dmitriyeva has a daughter in California; a Pentecostal from Vladivostok will be marrying an Alaskan this summer. A Baptist flight service from Alaska has a base in Khabarovsk. A number of Far East residents work in the Far North both to the east and west of the Urals and spend every second month back home. The people in the Far East know Western Europe and North American much better than vice-versa. 

Those with insufficient roubles can still easily resort to Skype and social media. Current technology is completely capable of networking the Lutherans in the broad expanses of Russia much more intensively. It would, as a stopgap, help keep a church surviving on its pilot light from complete extinction. 

(The author is a reporter from the Russian Evangelical Alliance and the article was originally published on 14 June 2018.)  


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