Pentecostals Find Refuge : Sacramento Area Is Home to Burgeoning Soviet Christian Population in U.S.


It all began three years ago in a makeshift church in the back yard of Vladimir and Nadezhda Kuzmenko, who had just moved to this Central Valley city with their eight young children.

The congregation of 35 quickly outgrew the Kuzmenkos’ covered patio, then relocated to a rented building that held 180. Soon, the faithful--all Pentecostal Christians from the Soviet Union--were praying for an even larger space.

“People were spilling over to the stairs and sidewalk,” said the Rev. Paul Demetrus, 75, the unofficial patriarch of the burgeoning Soviet community.


Since the Soviet Union’s exit gates cracked open in 1988, this new wave of believers--bringing with them the appearance and culture of rural Russia and the strict customs of their persecuted faith--has grown to about 7,000, including many with double-digit-size families.

Sacramento is now home to more Soviet Christians than any other city in the United States, and accounts for nearly a fourth of the 30,000 Soviet Pentecostals who have emigrated to this country.

Because the influx has been so massive and swift, local public schools are strapped for teachers bilingual in Russian and English, low-cost housing is in short supply, and social service agencies are all but overwhelmed. Because most of the Soviet families arrive nearly destitute and jobless, welfare costs are taxing the already stretched federal and county budgets.

About two-thirds of the 200,000 Soviet refugees who have streamed into U.S. cities during the past several years are Jewish, but most of the other Soviet newcomers are evangelical Christians--Pentecostals and Baptists--a group that until recently had virtually no established community in this country.

In contrast to Soviet Jews, the evangelical believers tend to be blue-collar workers with little education. Because of the evangelicals’ uncompromising religious faith and unwillingness to register their churches with the government, Soviet officials not only restricted their worship but also barred their children from higher education and the best jobs.

Before policies were relaxed during glasnost , an evangelical family that applied for exit visas typically had their jobs and government-issued apartment taken away, and their children were kicked out of the government-run schools. Now, visas are granted if an applicant has a U.S. sponsor, but waiting periods of up to two years are common.

Bursting at the seams, the Sacramento Russian Pentecostal Church has an average Sunday attendance of about 2,000, which overflows two of the city’s largest Presbyterian church buildings. The Pentecostals rent the churches for Russian-language services each Sunday afternoon and return for a two-hour service on Sunday nights.

Several miles away, more than 300 Russian Pentecostal youth cram the Chinese Assembly of God Church on Thursday evenings to share testimonies of faith, sing Russian gospel songs with a Western beat, and fervently pray.

Pentecostal Christianity--introduced into the Soviet Union from the United States in the 1920s--is a conservative, Bible-based faith that stresses prophetic “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. Soviet Pentecostals do not practice birth control or abortion, believing that each child is a blessing of God. Families with 10 or more children are common.

Gaining an average of 10 new families a week, the Russian Pentecostal Church is said to be the largest Russian evangelical church outside the Soviet Union and the fastest growing of any congregation in the Sacramento area.

About 1,200 Soviet Baptists pack another two churches here every Sunday morning and evening.

At the Russian Baptist Church in West Sacramento--a small, wooden A-frame built to hold 300--nearly 500 worshipers crowd the aisles and spill into the hall. The married women observe the Russian Baptist custom of wearing gauze head scarves during the service, a sign of subjection to their husbands. Round-faced children--the girls with huge, ruffled bows in their hair--squirm in the front pews.

Why have so many Soviet Christians settled in Sacramento?

Just as news of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill 140 years earlier brought the rush of ‘49ers here, word of a promised land had spread to Soviet homes--via powerful shortwave radio.

Thousands of believers who secretly practiced their faith had long been listening to preacher Demetrus’ gospel program, “The Voice of Truth.” The inspirational messages, begun 36 years ago, are taped in Sacramento and broadcast in Russian and Ukrainian across the Soviet Union from transmitters outside the country.

Other believers had tuned in the shortwave broadcasts of Michael Lokteff of West Sacramento, a Soviet emigre who has sent the message of his Russian Baptist faith back to his homeland since 1972.

“Now it’s relatives, relatives, relatives,” Demetrus said recently, as he guided a reporter through a North Sacramento housing development where every other apartment seemed to be occupied by a Soviet family related to another one several doors away.

A popular prophecy also has drawn the evangelicals to the area. According to the story, 50 years ago a Soviet religious leader said he had had a vision that there would be a short time of freedom when persecuted believers could flee to a land of valleys, rivers and trees. The prophecy warned that a repression worse than that of past regimes would follow.

Alexander Kalinyuk, whose 10 brothers and sisters and parents live in the North Sacramento complex, spoke to visitors between mouthfuls of pilmeni , a kind of Russian ravioli, and plov , the Russian equivalent of rice pilaf.

“I was a youth pastor and was arrested for holding services in the park,” he said, explaining why he left the Soviet Union two years ago. “The police and the KGB were on my trail continuously.” Kalinyuk is attending a Bible college and wants to pursue a church career.

There are other, less mystical reasons for Sacramento’s appeal: Housing is cheaper than in most major cities, and the climate is relatively mild. And California’s welfare benefits are more generous than those in many other states.

Although most of the Soviet refugees want jobs, about 70% are on welfare, according to Mike Launitz, a Russian interpreter for the county Department of Social Services. “Language is the greatest barrier,” he said.

Between late 1989 and mid-1991, the number of Soviet refugees on public assistance jumped from 700 to more than 3,000 in Sacramento County.

Those numbers reflect, in part, the reality that the refugees can get more money and benefits on welfare than by working.

Take, for example, Vladimir Ivanov and his family of five. Their monthly income includes $1,057 in Aid for Families With Dependent Children money, $200 in food stamps and free medical benefits. If the father were employed at the minimum wage, the family’s income would drop to $880 a month with no benefits, said Arilyd Barrett, coordinator for the Employment Ministries Network of World Relief, which tries to find jobs for immigrants.

“When Vladimir compares the figures, he is very disappointed,” Barrett told a recent gathering of pastors. “With his limited knowledge of English, he can only get a low-paying job and his medical benefits are lost. What if one of his children has to be taken to the hospital? That lack of security is very frightening, especially for someone from a country where all medical benefits are provided free.

“And what if he takes a job and gets laid off? . . . Then Vladimir has nothing.”

To help ease the immigrants’ transition into American society, churches provide employment tutors to help refugees develop vocational English and job-search skills. World Relief gives a cash gift to each incoming family to pay their first month’s rent and also lines up sponsoring families who help them get settled.

“But still,” said Sharon Tate, a World Relief volunteer who has helped churches gather furniture and clothing and provide transportation for the Soviet immigrants, “the middle-class and wealthy (Americans) say: ‘Why should we have to support these people?’ And families of other minority groups . . . resent the Soviets” because they think they are shown favoritism.

Young Soviet children seem to adapt well to the U.S. school system, said Ventura Lopez, director of the multilingual department of the Sacramento Unified School District.

In the Sacramento city schools, there are 400 children whose primary language is Russian. Many more are enrolled in neighboring districts.

But, Lopez said, the district has a great need for bilingual teachers who speak Russian and English. The Soviet evangelicals come on tourist visas, which do not permit them to be hired as teachers, he said.

Despite the challenges of learning a new language, adapting to an alien culture and coping with meager finances, the refugees have not forgotten their needy countrymen back home. On a recent Saturday, several hundred joined in a Russian food and music festival to raise funds for food, medicine and clothing.

Soviet refugees “have been blessed through the churches here,” said Davis pastor Jonathan Zachariou. “So now they want to give back to their people in the motherland.”