A young Russian woman founded a United Methodist church in Sverdlovsk, Russia, last year after she heard a sermon by a visiting pastor from Louisiana. The new church already has more than 600 members.
It is among hundreds of religious projects being aided by U.S. churches, whose leaders see the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the newly independent Baltic states as an unprecedented opportunity for mission work.Most major U.S. denominations have staff workers on the scene. Initial steps, whether by big organizations or small, usually need follow-up efforts.
This fall, for example, the Rev. Dwight Ramsey of Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Shreveport, La., and some members were back in the Russian Republic, bracing up the church started by Lydia Istomina in Sverdlovsk.
They provided hymns translated into Russian, 200 Russian-language Bibles, medical supplies and a $1 million pledge for the building fund of the new Sverdlovsk church.
U.S. religious leaders say there is a tremendous spiritual need in the Soviet Union and that existing churches can also serve as the most credible organizations to distribute humanitarian aid.
"Religious literature of any kind is very much read and picked up," said the Rev. George Sarauskas, a National Conference of Catholic Bishops official working with Catholic churches in eastern Europe in their efforts to rebuild churches, religious orders and seminaries.
The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Soviet religious body, has an estimated 60 million members. Protestants are estimated at more than 2 million, including a large Baptist presence in the Russian Republic.
Catholics predominate in Lithuania and Latvia, which also includes many Lutherans. Estonia is mainly Lutheran and has many Methodists. Catholics are numerous in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Some easterly republics are mostly Muslim.
The Rev. L. Newton Thurber, interim director of the Europe-USSR office of the National Council of Churches, said the chief Protestant body in the Soviet Union is the All-Union Association of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.
He said evangelism has become extensive. "You can see American TV evangelists preaching on Soviet government television," he said.
The Rev. Keith Parks, president of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, says there are 50 SBC missionaries dispersed in the Soviet Union. Most are working with Soviet Baptists to help with such projects as training of pastors, forming seminaries and establishing Sunday schools.
During a recent visit to the Soviet Union for prayer vigils, Thurber says he saw hundreds attending daily morning and evening prayer at Russian Orthodox churches.