The Wild Religious West in Moscow
Orthodox News, Segodnia, 6 September 1996.
American sect draws Moscow Youth: Flourishing activity among Russian youth of an American cult-like religious organization calling itself the Church of Christ.
The Moscow Church of Christ, which was founded five years ago by missionaries from Los Angeles, is a flourishing organization which gathers twice a week around 3,500 people, mostly youth. A small proportion are students from Moscow State University (MGU), which is not surprising because until recently the meetings of the sect were held at the university. However, according to the rector of MGU, Valery Kozlov, after numerous discussions by the academic council of the question of the impropriety of supporting various sects it was recommended to the deans not to permit meetings of believers in their lecture halls. Now the Moscow Church of Christ rents ten Moscow movie theaters and is divided into ten family-regions.
Here is what one of the parishioners of the Moscow Church of Christ told me: “When I first attended a meeting the attention given me by complete strangers seemed strange and insincere. I thought that their baselessly warm love was more false than if they had gone out onto the street and shouted how they loved every passerby.”
Actually, when I attended a Sunday meeting of one of the regions of the Moscow Church of Christ, “Art, Culture,Sport,” I had barely gotten seated when I found myself in the friendly embrace of neighbors who, with smiles on their faces, already had begun to sing in unison. Then they drew me into another kind of performance: joining hands and dancing in place. I couldn’t make out what was “prayer” and what “psalm” and what simply a “song,” as printed in the program. The program mentioned, not entirely inappropriately, how God loved the members of the sect which seems to be the main thought in their message that attracts initiates to the church: “God has blessed us mightily.” At the beginning of the meeting we heard a talk about how “God changed the life” of the speaker, who stood on a stage with a microphone in his hands. This story, then a skit “In the Wild West,” and a sermon were accompanied by shouts from the hall, “we are listening,” “right on,” “we’re with you brother,” which inevitably reminded one of a broadcast of “Shop on the Sofa.” The meeting ended with a “fellowship of tea and coffee,” when newcomers were supposed to observe a complete picture of unity and prosperity of the members of the church and begin to envy their fortune. Several parishioners surrounded each stranger and with a smile and shining eyes earnestly invited them to come to a meeting a few days later for studying the Bible together.
Nevertheless one of the former members of the sect recalls the fellowship with members of the church as one of the “sour” periods of her life: “Our acquaintance began, of course, with a question on the street. I had a terrible liking for the expression on the face of the girl who wanted to know whether I believed in God. I live in a dormatory and thus you can understand how much I craved kindness and attention. I began to go to MGU for classes. The fifth time they told me that I was ready and should not delay baptism. I tried to tell them that I was not quite ready for this step, but they began to scold me. They told me how one girl also refused to be baptized and her mama died. It was so difficult for me that I just wanted to get it all over as soon as possible. Fortunately my friend ‘saved’ me.”
The life of those who remain in the Moscow Church of Christ gradually fills up with church affairs. For those who decide to devote their lives to the sect, it is possible to become preachers. Besides, there are foreign friends because the Church of Christ, which began in Boston in 1979, now is active in many cities of America and Europe. The president of the mission of the Moscow Church of Christ, Mikhail Rokovshchik, was baptized in Denmark.
Preachers of the Moscow Church of Christ have borrowed from American missionaries their stage manners: preaching accompanied with active gestures, emotional tones, and humor. In the words of Slava, the leader of the regional church, besides sermons and help in the solution of personal problems of parishioners, teachers of the sect are engaged in charity through the fund “Hope.” True, leaders of the fund are rather evasive in answering questions about the relationship with the church. Some of the money, apparently, goes to help the poor, but a large part meets the needs of the sect. The president of the mission and several dozen preachers and organizers receive salaries, and the rent for the premises is also large. Although at the meeting I saw only obviously poor youth (the leader of the group MF-3, Christian Ray, was an obvious exception), the leaders of the chruch said that all their money comes exclusively from donations.