Unsecularizing the World: Moldovan Baptists as Global Citizens

Unsecularizing the World: Moldovan Baptists as Global Citizens

This paper was presented to the panel on Contemporary Concerns with Identity and Globalization in Eastern Europe at the Southern Conference of Slavic Studies. We thank the author for making the paper available to Christian Megapolis.

Why Moldova? The discussion about religion and religiosity [1] in the former Soviet Union territories appears to be somewhat strange. We would expect that after more than fifty years of anti-religious propaganda and violent secularization from the top (Wanner 2007:7) religious feelings would have been, if not eradicated, then at least suppressed considerably.

Not only hasn’t religion disappeared in the former Soviet Union, but it also became one of the dominant forces in the region. In most of the newly independent countries, church-going has increased substantially. Simultaneously, in Moldova mainly, the Church is the most trusted institution (BPO, 2010), far in front of other institutions such as the Government, the police, or the media.

The explanations of this incredible revival of religion vary. According to Ramet (1998:310), a combination of three factors is responsible for these transformations:

– The psychological, social, political, and economic uncertainties. Harsh economic conditions, political instability, the erosion of communist social institutions – collective property, the welfare state – all have contributed to the creation of a general feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. The transition to the market economy is neither easy nor unproblematic: the welfare state has been dismantled, factories and collective agricultural farms were closed, and the unemployed rose dramatically.

– Growing but unsatisfied demand for nontraditional religion. Neo-Protestant cults such as Baptism are, so to speak, “in fashion,” with individualization forces having been observed at work in different parts of the world. The most important feature of this individualization is an operation through which individual belief instead of social conformism becomes the basis of religious behavior (Roy 2004, Van der Veer 2001:10).

– The abrupt lifting of controls in the religious sphere. This relaxation of religious legislation opened possibilities for missionary work and created favorable conditions for foreign and local missionary efforts.

We can also add: the legitimacy vacuum, existing and maintained contacts between religious communities in the West and those from the Soviet Union. They existed despite the strict control of the church life by the Party and the Soviet state.

More broadly, these transformations should be linked to the processes of unsecularization [2] and re spiritualization of the World (Haynes 2001:143) that originated mostly in the United States. After the collapse of its main ideological rival, the U.S. became the most influential player of the current international political and economic system. Simultaneously, the United States have become a “prolific producer and exporter of religion, especially of Christianity.” (Wuthnow and Offut 2008:213)

The Methodology of Study. Regimes of Visibility. This paper will investigate transnational ties between three main actors: Moldovan Baptist communities in the U.S., Baptist organizations in America, and Baptists in Moldova. The aim is both ambitious and challenging. The difficulty arises because most of the transnational links between these communities are either invisible or hidden from the public view.

The regime of visibility changes according to needs, local contexts, and general strategies. In America, Baptists and Baptist organizations are highly visible as they try to motivate the federal and state authorities to promote specific policies. A well-known example is the recent intervention of former American President Jimmy Carter on behalf of an imprisoned Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan. Mr. Carter wrote to the country’s president Aliyev to free the Christian minister after a widespread press campaign by both the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation (The Baptist Times 2008).

In contrast, to face authoritarian regimes and the Orthodox Church’s absolute monopoly in places like Moldova, local Baptist communities are trying to be invisible and non-intrusive.

For these reasons, quantitative data about the number of Baptists in Moldova, their presence in the country, the rate of churches per region, the amount of material support Moldovan Baptists receive from abroad is almost impossible to obtain. Thus, I rely upon publicly available sources and conversations with local leaders and community organizers in the U.S. and Moldova. Also, Baptist websites and discussion groups were used to gather information about other key aspects: transnational collaboration, joint campaigns, and missionary news. The final picture is far from exhaustive but is one of the first attempts to map these communities and their interdependencies.

Moldovan Baptists will serve as an example of religious globalization processes, both as the direct result of the globalization after the collapse of the Soviet Union and as active players participating in them.

Moldovan Baptists in America. The most recent immigration wave began to arrive in the U.S. right after Moldova proclaimed its independence in August of 1991. Detailed data on the Moldovan Baptist communities’ size in the U.S. is not available due to two reasons.

First, Moldovan Baptists bypass official Moldovan institutions both at home and abroad. Since most of them came to America as religious refugees whose rights to practice their beliefs the Moldovan state has violated, their distance towards it is understandable. On the other hand, the Moldovan Embassy in the U.S. has neglected the Diaspora because it focused on relationships with American members of Congress, officials of international organizations based in the Washington, D.C. area, etc.

Large Moldovan Baptist communities have settled in Sacramento (California) – a rough estimate of 1,000 people, Portland (Oregon) and Boise (Idaho), Springfield, Westfield, and Agawam (Massachusetts) – 1,000 people, Seattle (Washington), Hickory, and Asheville (North Carolina). Small Moldovan Baptist communities have been identified in Georgia, Burlington (Vermont), and the Twin Cities (Minnesota).

The distribution of Moldovan religious communities on American soil was influenced and finally shaped by:

– Existing patterns of mobility of Moldovan religious immigrants. The first Moldovan Protestants came to the United States as refugees seeking political asylum. Being persecuted for their religious beliefs and practices under the Soviets, they were offered asylum and settled in different U.S. regions. The choice of specific places was partially a random process, where individuals were trying to find better life opportunities, an informally regulated process with various American Baptist communities playing a significant role. The North American Mission Board (NAMB), a branch of the Southern Baptists Convention that operates in the U.S. and Canada, played an instrumental role in assisting immigrants from Moldova settle in various locations.

Moldovan Evangelicals received the refugee status on an individual basis, and later on, refugees began to bring their closest relatives under the clause of family reunification. Thus, these first established Moldovan Baptist settlements in America were de facto extended families. Later, this pattern was preserved and perpetuated. New immigrants settled in those places where Moldovans were already established.

Another principle of organization of the Protestant migration is linked to the region of origin. People from the same religious community preferred to settle in the same place. In Minnesota, there is a Baptist Church that serves a Moldovan community of more than 150 people. The community consists of immigrants originating from the district of Sângerei (Northern Moldova). Most of them are relatives.

– Existing patterns of mobility of Romanian/Russian religious communities. Because of their ethnic origin and shared language, Moldovan Baptists tended to settle in places where a significant Romanian/Russian Baptist presence was already established (Oregon, Georgia, Florida, California, South Carolina).

– Activity of charismatic leaders and organizers.

American Baptist Organizations and their Connection to Moldova. Transnational Institutions. Christianity itself carries a seed of universality. In its ideal representation, Christendom acts as both a spiritual community and a political project of constructing a global community of Christians regardless of culture, ethnicity, and language.

What is new in the process of re-spiritualization of the world is the incredible amount of instruments and possibilities – means of communication, resources, transport – that economic globalization opens for social movements committed to spreading the Gospel worldwide.

A picture of paradoxical and even contradictory dynamics of movements of people, resources, and money emerges when one considers all forces involved in religious globalization and the creation of transnational Christian communities.

It has to be mentioned that significant numbers of Moldovan Baptists have chosen to emigrate to the United States in search of better living and career opportunities. They left behind careers, broken lives, and despair and have arrived in the New World with high hopes.

On the other hand, Christian organizations in America (the Southern Baptists, for example) are spending vast amounts of resources training American missionaries to do fieldwork in Moldova. It includes the mastering of Russian or Romanian languages and communication skills.

These two parallel flows of people represent, in a sense, the two sides of the same coin: neoliberal globalization. For some, it brings poverty at home and thus, it becomes necessary to emigrate. For others, this is a wonderful opportunity to conquer new spiritual spaces.

Let’s follow some of these connections.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest protestant body in the United States, with over 16 million members (SBC.net) sponsors more than 5,000 foreign missionaries in 153 nations. It is one of the leading Protestant organizations that cooperates with Baptists in Moldova.

The International Mission Board of the SBC is the body entitled to “evangelize the lost, disciple believers, develop churches and minister to people in need across the globe. This is accomplished by mobilizing prayer support, appointing missionaries, enlisting volunteers, channeling financial support, and communicating how God is working overseas.” (SBC.net)

The Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) is another donor and partner of the Baptist communities in Moldova. In 2006, the festival ‘Jesus Christ – the Living Water” was organized with GBC’s participation.

The European Baptist Federation (EBF) is a strategic partner of Moldovan Baptists. It comprises more than 800,000 European Baptists from Portugal to Russia (ebf.org). EBF operates a major educational hub for training pastors, missionaries, and theologians, the International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) in Prague. In 2004-2006, Valeriu Ghiletchi, the Bishop of the Union of the Christian Evangelical Baptist Churches in Moldova, served as one of the EBF’s officers. EBF relies on indigenous missionaries in propagating the Christian faith. The Indigenous Missionary Project (IMP) provides funding for gifted Christians to serve as evangelists and church planters in their own countries. (EBF.org). By April 2010, EBF had managed 6 IMPs in Moldova, more than in any other European nation.

The Union of Christian Evangelical Baptist Churches of Moldova (UCEBCM), with headquarters in Chisinau (Kishinev) unites hundreds of Moldovan churches. It is a member of both the European Baptist Federation and the Baptist World Alliance.

Baptists in Moldova. According to the data from the Baptist World Alliance, as of December 31, 2009, UCEBCM comprised 470 churches and a rough estimate of 20,400 members (bwanet.org). The 2004 Moldovan Population Census indicates a different number: 33,000 Baptists organized in 270 churches. These differences can be attributed partly to religiosity’s fluid character in the region, with large strata of population migrating from one Protestant denomination to another.

It has to be mentioned that not all Baptists in Moldova are united under the umbrella of the UCEBCM. The Moldovan branch of the International Council of Churches of the Evangelical Christians-Baptists (Rus. Sovet Tserkvei EKhB) claims a large following. Some Moldovan Baptists call themselves Avtonomnye and are united into the Association of Independent Baptists.

UCEBCM cooperates with the Institute for Inductive Bible Study by the Moldova Precept Ministries. The IIBS is a non-accredited educational body that leads Bible study groups, which are “the basis for planting a church in the future” (precept.md).

Another branch of the UCEBCM administers the “English for a New Life” School. It provides opportunities for the study of the Bible and English simultaneously (http://efnl.org/rom/).

UCEBCM has a school of technology – “Script Techno,” which instructs missionaries and future pastors to use Internet technology to spread the Gospel of Christ.

While these educational organizations are domestically oriented, UCEBCM runs a theological school oriented towards foreign missions: the College of Theology and Education (CTE) in Chisinau. According to Dr. Oleg Turlac, CTE received its official registration in 1995 (Turlac 2004). It was founded by the graduates of the Logos Christian College (St.Petersburg, Russia), Emmanuel Bible Institute (EBI) in Oradea, and Bucharest Baptist Institute (both in Romania). The EBI is one of the first Baptist schools in the region that began to operate in October 1990, with sixty students from Romania and twelve from Moldova. (Johnson 1996).

CTE trains students for missions in the former Soviet Union and beyond. Initially, it hosted students from the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far Eastern regions of Russia, including Yakutia and Chukotka (Turlac 2004). It trains Gagauz students from the autonomous region in Moldova (Gagauz Yeri) to serve as missionaries among Turkic-speaking people. (Turlac 2004).

UCEBCM manages some nursing facilities for the elderly, an Association of Moldovan Christian Businessmen, the Tae-kwon-do Federation of Moldova, which started as a sports club. When its director Ion Cheptene became a Christian, his club became a Christian mission. The federation has 60 Christian karate clubs and has seen more than 60 people accept Christ (Merchant, 1999).

Transnational practices. The main operational channels of Baptist religious organizations are:

– The production and distribution of Bibles and other Christian literature. The official history of importing Bibles into territories of the former Soviet Union began when the USSR still existed. It would be fair to suppose that “Bible smuggling” as a practice has never disappeared, but officially it started in the late 1980s. Between 1985 and 1989, 2 million copies of the Bible/New Testament had been imported into the USSR (Ramet 1998:235). Bibles are printed in local languages, and support is raised through local congregations” (Wuthnow and Offut 2008:223). In 1992, more than 100,000 Bibles were distributed in Moldova. (East and West 1993:4).

– Crusades and Evangelical Outreach. These are regular events (summer camps, concerts, and mission trips) usually organized during the summer. They are managed by joint teams of international (American or European missionaries) and local pastors. Sometimes prominent Baptists from other parts of the world participate as honorary guests.

In July 2005, Rev. Franklin Graham, an American Christian evangelist, son of world-renown evangelist Billy Graham, organized the “Festival of Hope” in the Moldovan capital. For three days, Graham presented the Gospel to over 100,000 people from all parts of the country. More than 700 evangelical churches have joined the effort, representing Baptists, Pentecostals, the Bible Churches, Evangelical Christians, etc. (MoldovaforChrist.org). “More than 13,000 people trusted Christ during the three days of the festival.”

– Sister-Churches. Moldovan Baptist communities in the U.S. have developed a program to help Baptist churches in Moldova, either in their place of origin or other parts of the country. A Baptist gentleman from the Twin Cities (Minnesota) helps the Baptist community from his hometown in Moldova, as one of my sources shared with me. He regularly sends funds over for different ministries of the local Baptist church.  Holidays are another occasion to help the communities in Moldova. Children from Baptist congregations in America write letters to Baptist children in Moldova and send them packages with sweets, school supplies, and toys. At the community level, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Moldovan Baptist community supports as a sister-church from Carpineni (Moldova).

– Missionaries. Under the leadership of SBC, Baptist churches in the U.S. sponsor evangelistic trips abroad. Bethany Baptist Church, McDonough, Georgia, has sent, since 1987, nearly 80 members of its congregation to serve as missionaries throughout Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia. Another major donor for these trips is the First Baptist Church of Marshallville (Georgia). It supports the training of pastors in Moldova, as well as medical clinics and Vacation Bible Schools.

– Relief and Charity. In addition to the proclamation of their faith, Baptist churches perform non-intrusive actions to expose people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a non-direct way. Recently, Baptists organized a dinner for the inmates of the Female Penitentiary in the town of Rusca. In another instance, Moldovan Baptists helped the elderly to do house repairs and chop the wood. After they finished the work, believers prayed to thank God for help. In some cases, this display of compassion leads people to conversion.

A different set of transnational practices is employed in the missionary service of Moldovan Baptists in Russia and other countries. The extent of such mission remains unknown since Baptist churches are somewhat reluctant to make it known. Moldovan Baptists participate in a massive set of targeted movements of people and resources that characterize the Baptist movement’s development and diffusion. Baptists act as agents of a transnational community of faith. Because of their excellent command of the language, ethnic Gagauz missionaries are serving in the Turkic-speaking world.

In Tajikistan, Moldovan Baptists served as significant supporters of missionaries and church leaders. Moldovans helped launch the first Tajik Bible School, with 29 students enrolled. Teachers were active faculty and graduates of the College of Theology and Education of the UCEBCM. At the same time, Moldovan Baptists provided the backbone for the church planting in Tajikistan.

Dr. Turlac points out the reach of Moldovan Baptists and their role in the process of spreading the Christian faith in Eurasia:

“V.Grini, P.Litnevsky, and V.Gladkevich, CTE graduates, serve in Chukotka (Russia).  Y.Vylkov serves as a missionary in Bulgaria. In the Yakutia region of Russia, L.Tataev, a 1998 graduate of CTE, and A.Kravchenko, a 1997 graduate, have joined together in ministry. V.Koval serves as a missionary in Yoshkar-Ola, while the Biryuk couple serves Christ in Chita (the Russian Far East). E.Shablenko, A.Botnari, P.Belev, and S.Kul’kov serve in different regions of Russia. M.Arabadji (of the Gagauz ethnicity) ministers among Turkic-speaking people. N.Khripko ministers in the Odessa region of Ukraine.  One CTE graduate participated in the establishment of the Bible school in Southern Kazakhstan. In 2003, a graduate of CTE’s B.Div. program, started the Bible school in Tajikistan. The same year, CTE’s faculty member traveled to Dushanbe to teach 34 students.” (2004)

Inequalities and Contradictions in the Baptist Religious Globalization. Do transnational religious movements reproduce structural inequalities between the West (conceived broadly as more prosperous and powerful) and the East? Or could “the love for the Gospel” erase differences and solve inherent conflicts and disputes that may arise?

The answer is quite complicated, in part because of the shortage of information. Conflicts within and between Protestant Churches rarely get outside the community’s boundaries – to the general public – and are usually resolved within it.

Available testimonies suggest the existence of such conflicts and inequalities. One of them is Dr. Danut Manastireanu, lecturer at Emmanuel Bible College, Oradea, published in the East-West Church Ministry Report in 1998. Manastireanu summarizes the critical aspects of the complicated relationship between Protestant centers in America and Romania’s realities. They are:

– An almost exclusive theological dependence on the West, especially the United States. According to Manastireanu, “it is vital for us to learn from those who are ahead of us theologically. We are confronted, however, with a sort of theological aggressiveness, even with a form of theological “imperialism,” which can have negative consequences for the future relevance of Evangelical theology in a cultural environment different from the American Evangelical context.” (1998).

– Import of Western theological disputes in cultural and intellectual contexts where these debates are irrelevant or without roots. Manastireanu provides two examples of such “theological imports’: the so-called “Lordship salvation” dispute and the dispute on inerrancy. This, argues Manastireanu, “may satisfy and reassure some donors, but it will surely not help Evangelicals in Romania very much in the long run.” (1998)

– Christian vocations and salaries. Neo Protestant denominations share a dualistic approach to life, with a strong emphasis on the full-time Christian ministry as the highest possible calling. This leads to the fact that many talented young people leave their promising careers in secular life (politics, business, art) to become pastors and evangelists. According to Romanian standards, they are well-paid, but their salaries come from donations originating mainly in the US. “What will happen with the national workers when the Western support ceases? … It’s a true manifestation of “free market” capitalism.” (1998)

– Cultural alienation of Protestant denominations from the local religious and spiritual environment. Most Protestant worship, music, theology, and liturgy are imported products with little or no effort to accommodate them to the local cultural context.

Conclusion. The number of Baptists in Moldova (abt. 20,000) appears to be stable because some people (as one of my sources argued) use the “Baptist highway” to immigrate to the U.S./Europe. However, not only opportunists choose to emigrate. Immigration to America becomes a viable option even for the most sincere believers. Moldovan economy is down because of a failed transition to free-market relations. The third of the population migrated abroad, searching for work. Moldova can be a nice place to convert people to the new faith, but an awful place to live. Emigration is the main issue that Moldovan Baptists have to confront. It empties their pews and hits hard at church attendance. The new territory of faith is the battle for the poor’s souls who lack the opportunity/money to emigrate.

Immigration points at another phenomenon. Moldovan Baptist communities established in America do not stop to think about their homeland. They send finances back to Moldova to help churches. They look even beyond by sponsoring mission trips to Africa and Asia. Some choose to serve as missionaries across the globe.

In this sense, Moldovan Baptists are global citizens, both shaping and being shaped by the process of globalization.


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[1] Religion and religiosity are considered to be different concepts that explain different social realities. I embrace Olivier Roy’s taxonomy: religiosity (self- formulation and self-expression of a personal faith) and religion (a coherent corpus of beliefs and dogmas collectively managed by a body of legitimate holders of knowledge). See Roy, O. 2004. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Columbia U.P., pp.5-6.

[2] See Anheier, H.K., and Yudhishthir R.I. 2007. Conflicts and Tensions. SAGE; Davie, G. 2000. Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. Oxford U.P.; Norris, P., and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge U.P.; Michalski, K. 2006. Religion in the New Europe. Central European U.P.

Published with the author’s permission.

Photo: Pixabay.

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