After the opening prayer, a recent Sunday morning service at First Slavic Baptist Church resounded with drums, chimes, guitar and the sung refrain “Slava Bogu” – Russian for “Praise the Lord.”
All the services are in Russian, though they have begun offering headphones with English translation on Sunday at 10 a.m. “We recognize that more and more of our own members, our children, are speaking English,” says Vadim Moshkovsky, church secretary. “And also, we like to have guests.”
About 80 percent of the church members are immigrants. Members are predominantly Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan, with Russians the majority; and also include people from Estonia, Kazakhstan and other Russian-speaking countries of the former Soviet Union.
A few people speak Ukrainian at services, “because most of the people will understand. It’s very close languages. Very close nations,” says Pastor Gennady Maryanov. “Everybody’s surprised,” he adds, about the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. “We just pray that God will give peace to his people” in both countries.
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Twenty years ago, Maryanov says, Charlotte had only a few Slavic families. Today there are 10,000-15,000 people in the city’s Russian-speaking community. Among Charlotte’s Russian-speaking churches are five Baptist, three Pentecostal, a charismatic church, an Orthodox church and an Armenian church, which together have around 2,000 members, he says.
Most Russians and Ukrainians in Charlotte are transplants from other U.S. cities, says Moshkovsky, 34, whose family moved to Philadelphia from Zhytomyr, Ukraine, when he was 9. Many in their congregation moved to Charlotte after ensuring they could find a Slavic church.
Senior pastor: Gennady Maryanov, 54, has been pastor more than four years. Maryanov was born in Mykop, in the north Caucasus region of Russia. “Near Sochi,” he says. He received a bachelor’s in industrial construction and served a mandatory two-year term in the Soviet army. Maryanov says he was arrested more than once for his Christian beliefs, and he and his family left in 1989 as refugees.
“Russia took away our citizenship when they knew we were going to America. … This is the way it was 25 years ago in the Soviet Union. So they … said, ‘Get out, we don’t like you, you’re a traitor,’ because we were leaving. Now it’s different. Now Russia is open.”
Maryanov, his Ukrainian wife, their 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son left with “four bags and $360 in our pocket. It was all the Russian government would allow you to take: $90 for each person.” The family took 3 1/2 months to get to the United States, living in Austria and Italy along the way. Their second daughter, now 18, was born in the U.S.
Slavic Baptists: Estimates from the CIA World Factbook identify 15-20 percent of practicing worshipers in Russia as Russian Orthodox, 10-15 percent Muslim. Maryanov says Baptists and Pentecostals make up about 0.1 percent of the Russian population. In Ukraine, where evangelical churches are strongest in the former Soviet Union countries, the percentage is higher, around 1 percent. The All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists is one of the largest Baptist bodies in Europe. Mennonites from Germany heavily influenced the Baptists in Ukraine and Russia, says Moshkovsky. “A lot of our traditions (are) very similar.”
Community center: In October and May, First Slavic Baptist hosts an open ping-pong tournament. On Russian Thanksgiving, the last Sunday of September, they cook a feast for hundreds of people. “We view our role as much wider than just the small community here on Plott Road,” says Moshkovsky. It’s the whole “Russian-speaking Slavic community … trying to serve their spiritual needs as well as social and material needs.”