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 territories of the former Soviet Union appears to be somewhat strange. We would expect that after more than 50 years of anti-religious propaganda and violent secularization from above (Wanner 2007:7) religious feelings would have been, if not eradicated, then at least attenuated considerably.

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

The explanations of this incredible revival of religion and the huge amount of religion demand that accompanies it 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 instabilities, the erosion of communist social institutions – collective property, welfare state – all have contributed to create 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 (kolkhozes) 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 huge possibilities for missionary work and created favorable conditions for evangelization efforts by foreign and local missionaries.

To these we can also add: the legitimacy vacuum, existing and maintained contacts between religious communities in the West and those from the Soviet Union. The later have existed despite the strong control of Soviet religious life by the Party and the state.

More broadly these evolutions must be linked to the processes of unsecularization[2] and respiritualization of the World (Haynes 2001:143) that originated mostly in the United States. After the collapse of its main ideological rival, USA became the most powerful player in 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)

Methodology of the study. Regimes of visibility

This paper will investigate transnational ties between three main actors: Moldovan Baptist communities in the USA, Baptist organizations in the USA and Baptists in Moldova. The aim is both ambitious and difficult. The difficulty arises mainly from the fact that 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 the democratic system of America, for example, Baptists and Baptist organizations are highly visible, trying to push federal and state authorities to promote specific policies. A famous example is the intervention of former American president Jimmy Carter on behalf of an imprisoned Baptist pastor, Zaur Balaev, in Azerbaijan. Carter wrote to the country’s president Ilham Alyev to free Mr. Balaev, after a huge press campaign carried out by both the Baptist World Alliance and the European Baptist Federation (The Baptist Times, 2008).

In contrast, in order to face authoritarian regimes and the absolute monopoly of the Orthodox Church 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 will rely on publicly available sources and on interviews and conversations with local leaders, community organizers in the US and Moldova, believers. 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 being exhaustive but nevertheless, is one of the first attempts to map these communities and their interdependencies.

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

Moldovan Baptists in the USA. They began to arrive in the US right after Moldova proclaimed its independence in 1991. Exact data on the size of the Moldovan Baptist communities in the USA is not available. This is mainly due to two reasons.

First, Moldovan Baptists bypass official Moldovan institutions both at home and abroad. Since most of them come to the USA as religious refugees whose rights to practice their belief have been violated by the Moldovan state, their distance towards it is understandable. On the other hand, the Moldovan embassy in the US has itself neglected for a long time the Moldovan Diasporas because it has been focused on relationships with high-level elected officials – senators and congressmen, officials of international organizations based in the DC area etc.

It is known that large Baptist Moldovan communities have settled in Sacramento (California) – a rough estimate of 1,000 people, Portland and Boise (Oregon), Springfield, Westfield and Agawam (Massachusetts) – another 1,000 people, Seattle (Washington state), Hickory (North Carolina), Asheville (South Carolina). Also, small Moldovan Baptist communities have been identified in Georgia, Burlington (Vermont) and Minneapolis-Saint Paul (Minnesota).

The spatial 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 (by the Soviet State and the newly independent republics) they were offered asylum and consequently settled in different geographical areas of the US. The choice of specific places to settle 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 domestically, in the USA and Canada, played an instrumental role in the process of assisting immigrants from Moldova and helped them settle  in various locations.

Political refugee status was granted 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 the USA were de facto extended families. Later, this pattern was preserved and perpetuated. New immigrants and/or refugees went to settle in those places where Moldavians were already established.

Another principle of organization of the Protestant migration was linked to the region of origin. It means that people from the same religious community preferred to settle in the same place. According to one of my informants, in Minnesota for example, there is a Moldovan Baptist Church that serves a community of more than 150 people. The community is mainly composed of immigrants originating from the district of Sângerei. And most of them are relatives (cousins, uncles, aunts, husbands or spouses of cousins and so on).

– Existing patterns of mobility of Romanian/Russian religious communities. Because of their affinities (ethnic origins, 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 around the world.

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

On the one hand, significant flows of Moldovan Baptists have chosen to emigrate to the United States in search of better living and career opportunities. They have all left behind careers, broken lives and despair and have arrived to the New World with high hopes.

On the other hand, Christian organizations in America (the Southern Baptists for example) are spending huge amounts of money and resources in order to train foreign ministries and missionaries (Americans but also people of other nationalities) to do fieldwork and church planting in Moldova. This training usually includes the mastering of Russian or Romanian, basic cultural 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 (SBC), the largest protestant body in the United States, with over 16 million members “who worship in more than 42,000 churches in the United States” (SBC.net) sponsors more than 5,000 foreign missionaries in 153 nations around the world. It is a complex organization that has many subsidiaries doing specific jobs and implementing specific policies. It is the main hub of distribution of Baptism in Moldova.

One of the branches of the SBC, the International Mission Board, 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), an autonomous organization connected with the SBC, is another donor and partner of the Baptist communities in Moldova. It mainly contributes to the organization of evangelistic festivals and summer camps: during 2006, the festival ‘Jesus Christ – the Living Water” was organized on GBC’s money.

Another link for the Moldovan Baptists is the European Baptist Federation (EBF). It comprises more than 800,000 European Baptists from Portugal to Russia (ebf.org). EBF operates a major educational hub for training future pastors and evangelical propagandists, the International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) in Prague, Czech Republic. From 2002 to 2004, Valeriu Ghiletchi, the head of the Moldovan Baptist Church, has acted as the organization’s president, which emphasizes the importance of the former soviet republics as new territories for evangelization. EBF has developed a different approach than SBC: instead of training foreign evangelists and church planters in the USA and sending them to targeted countries, EBF relies on indigenous missionaries. The Indigenous Missionary Project (IMP) provides funding for suitably gifted people to work 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 country!

The local Baptist organization is the Union of Christian Evangelical Baptist Churches of Moldova (UCEBCM), a member of both the European Baptist Federation and the Baptist World Alliance.

Baptists in Moldova

According to the Baptist World Alliance, as of December 31 2009, UCEBCM comprised 470 churches and a rough estimate of 20 400 regular believers. These numbers do not include sympathizers or non-decided Baptists (bwanet.org). The most recent general Population Census (2004) conducted by the Moldovan authorities indicates a different number: 33 000 Baptists organized in 270 churches. These differences can be attributed partly to the fluid character of religiosity in the region, with large strata of population migrating from one Protestant cult to another.

UCEBCM operates the Institute for Inductive Bible Study in Chisinau in collaboration with the Moldova Precept Ministries Association. The institute represents an educational body that organizes Bible study groups, which are “the basis for planting a church in the future” (Precept.md). Another branch of UCEBCM administers the language school “English for a new life”. It provides opportunities for learning the Gospel and English simultaneously (http://efnl.org/rom/). In addition, UCEBCM has a school of technology – “Script Techno” which instructs missionaries and future pastors to use Internet technologies (blogs, websites, and forums) to spread the Gospel.

Whilst these educational organizations are domestically oriented, UCEBCM runs an educational facility oriented towards missionary missions abroad: the College of Theology and Education (CTE) in Chisinau. The college received its official registration in 1995(Turlac, 2004). It was founded by the disciples of the Emmanuel Bible Institute (EBI) in Oradea, Romania – one of the first Baptist schools in the region that began to operate in October 1990 with 60 students from Romania and 12 from Moldova. (Johnson 1996). CTE was intended to train students for missions in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. Initially it hosted students from the Caucasus, Siberian and Far East Russian regions including Yakutia (Sakha) and Chukotka (Turlac, 2004). Later, it trained Gagauz students from the autonomous Moldovan Gagauz region to serve as missionaries to fellow Turks in several Central Asian republics and in Turkey also. The graduating class of 2003, for example consisted of students that have come to study at CTE from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Korea, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan (Turlac, 2004).

Apart from these, UCEBCM manages some nursing facilities for the elderly, an Association of Christian Businessmen in Moldova, the Tae-kwon-do Federation of Moldova which started as a sports club but when director Ion Cheptene became a Christian through a Bible study, his club became a Christian mission. The federation now 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 begins in the days 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 80s. Just between 1985 and 1989 some 2 million copies of the Bible or the 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 Moldova, more than 100 000 Bibles were distributed just in 1992 (East and West, 1993:4).

– Crusades and Evangelical Festivals. These are regular events usually organized during the summer. They are managed and implemented by joint teams that consist of international (American, British or European missionaries) and local pastors. They can be: summer camps, concerts, trips. Sometimes prominent Baptists from other parts of the world participate as honorary guests. For example, between July 8th and July 10th 2005, Franklin Graham, an American Christian evangelist and missionary had organized a series of “Festivals of Christianity” in nine different regions of Moldova. For three days Franklin Graham presented the Gospel to over 100,000 people from all parts of Moldova. More than 700 evangelical churches have joined the effort of organizing this project, representing Evangelical Christian Baptist Union, Pentecostal Union, Bible Church, Evangelical Christians, and other denominations. (MoldovaforChrist.org) “In three evenings more than 13,000 people trusted Jesus!”.

– Sister-Churches. Moldovan Baptist communities in the US have developed a special program, sometimes formal (at the community level), sometimes informal (at the individual level) to help Baptist churches in Moldova, either in their place of origins, or in other parts of Moldova. A man from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Moldovan Baptist community is helping the Baptist community from his village in Moldova, as one of my informants told me. He regularly sends money that is used to buy different supplies for the local Baptist Church or is used for relief work.  Holidays are another occasion to help the communities in Moldova: a special program of child-to-child-letters was developed. Children from Baptist communities in the USA write letters to Baptist children in Moldova and send them packages with candy, school supplies and toys. At the community level, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Moldovan Baptist community supports as a sister-church the Baptist church from Carpineni, Hancesti (Moldova).

– Missionaries. Under the leadership of SBC, American Baptist churches sponsor evangelistic trips abroad. For example, the 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 Marshallville (Georgia). It supports the training of pastors in Moldova, as well as medical clinics and Vacation Bible Schools. The most amazing fact about Marshallville is that 78 % of the city’s population are Blacks or African-Americans. It is interesting to see how Baptist Christianity operates as a way to transcend racial differences: black Baptists in America helping their white Christian brothers in a poor country in Europe.

– Relief and Charity. In addition to direct evangelical propaganda, Baptist churches perform a series of non-intrusive actions and procedures that are intended to expose people to baptism in a non-direct way. For example, another one of my informants told me that Baptists would request the permission of the administration of the Rusca Prison and would organize a dinner for the female inmates there. Or, another case, they would help a person in need – especially elderly people – to repair the walls, dig the garden or chop wood. After all the work is done, the Baptist would perform a ritual pray and would thank God for help. In most cases, this impressive display of community support and compassion would lead to the conversion of the target.

A completely different set of transnational practices is the work of Moldovan Baptists as missionaries and church planters in Russia or other parts of the world. The extent and the scale of such missions will remain unknown since Baptist Churches are reluctant to make it publicly known. Moldovan Baptists are part of a massive set of processes of targeted movements of people and resources that characterize the actual development and diffusion of Baptist Christianity. They act as agents of a transnational community of faith. Their specific skills and knowledge were used by the organization in order to help it attain its goals. Moldovan missionaries of Gagauz ethnicity are serving as missionaries in Turkey, due to their excellent command of Turkish.

In Tajikistan, Moldovan Baptists served not only as pastors but also as the main providers of highly-trained missionaries and religious functionaries. Moldovan Baptists helped launch the first Bible School there, with 29 students and acted as the governing body of the school. Teachers and pastors were also recruited from former students of the College of Theology and Education of the Moldovan Baptist Union. At the same time, Moldovan Baptists provided the backbone of the process of “church planting” in Tajikistan.

Oleg Turlac, dean of theology at the College of Theology and Education, Kishinev, Moldova, and a doctor of ministry candidate at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama lists, not without a big deal of joy, the reach of Moldovan Baptists and their significant role in the process of spreading Baptism around the world:

“Vyacheslav Grini, Peter Litnevsky, and Vladimir Gladkevich, graduates of CTE, serve in Chukotka near the Bering Strait in Siberia.  Yuri Vylkov serves as a missionary in Bulgaria.   In the Yakutia region of Russia, Lyubomir Tataev, a 1998 graduate of CTE, and Alexander Kravchenko, a 1997 graduate, have joined together in ministry.   Viktor Koval serves as a missionary in Yoshkar-Ola, while Mikhail and Inna Biryuk serve in Chita in the Russian Far East.   Evgeny Shablenko, Alexei Botnari, Pavel Belev, and Sergey Kul’kov serve in different regions of Russia, while Mikhail Arabadji ministers in Turkey and Nikolai Khripko ministers in the Odessa region of Ukraine.  One Moldavian CTE graduate participated in establishing the Bible school in Shymkent (Chimkent in Russian), Kazakhstan.   The Bible school in Shymkent became the first satellite school of CTE.   Igor Kohaniuk, a graduate of CTE’s Bachelor of Divinity program, started a Bible school in Tajikistan in 2003.   In the fall of 2003 CTE’s professor Serghei Namesnic traveled to Tajikistan to teach homiletics to 34 students at the Bible school in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.” (Turlac, 2004)

Inequalities and contradictions in the Baptist religious globalization

Do transnational religious movements reproduce structural inequalities between the West (conceived broadly as richer and more powerful) and the East? Or “the love for the Gospel” could attenuate these differences and solve inherent conflicts and disputes that may arise?

The answer is very complex and is complicated by the actual shortage of public information. Conflicts within and between Protestant Churches rarely get outside the boundaries of the community – to the general public – and are usually solved within it.

The few available testimonies can only suggest the existence of such conflicts and inequalities. One of them is that of Danut Manastireanu, a lecturer in theology at Emmanuel Bible College, Oradea, Romania. It was published in the East-West Church Ministry Report, back in 1998.

Manastireanu’s account summarizes some key aspects of the complicated relationship between Protestant centers in the US and local realities in Romania. They are:

– An almost exclusive theological dependence on the West, especially the United States. According to Manastireanu “it is absolutely 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 very serious negative consequences for the future relevance of Evangelical theology in a cultural environment totally different from the American Evangelical context.” (Manastireanu, 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) in order to become pastors and evangelists. They are well paid according to Romanian standards, 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.” (Manastireanu, 1998)

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

Conclusion

There are roughly 20,000 Baptists in Moldova. This number appears to be stable. Not because of lack of enthusiasm of the local pastors, but because people sometimes, as one of my informants argued, use the Baptist highway in order to immigrate to the US or Europe for a better life. However, not only opportunists choose to emigrate. Immigration becomes a viable option even for the most sincere believers. At a time when the Moldovan economy is down because of a failed transition to a market economy, a third of the population has gone abroad in search of work. Moldova can be a nice place to convert people to the new faith, but a very bad place to live. Immigration is the main problem that Moldovan Baptists have to confront. It empties their churches and diminishes Church attendance. The new territory of faith is the battle for the souls of the poor, those who could not immigrate or who lack the opportunity/money to immigrate.

However, immigration also has another story to tell. A story about Moldovan Baptist communities established in America that send money back to Moldova to help local churches, sponsor missionary trips to Africa or Asia and themselves serve as missionaries across the globe.

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

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Notes

[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, Olivier. 2004. Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Columbia University Press, pp.  5-6.

[2] see Anheier, Helmut K., and Yudhishthir Raj Isar. 2007. Conflicts and tensions. SAGE; Davie, Grace. 2000. Religion in modern Europe: a memory mutates. Oxford University Press; Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. illustrated edition. Cambridge University Press; Michalski, Krzysztof. 2006. Religion in the New Europe. Central European University Press.

Published with author’s permission.

Photo: Pixabay.

Виталий Спринчана

Выпускник Кишиневского государственного университета (USM). Проживает в городе Fairfax, Virginia (США).

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