Russia's New Religious Persecution is Economic Oppression

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“The little church that could” in St. Petersburg, Russia, has overcome corrupt officials, the Russian mafia, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, those challenges behind them, it faces one last hurdle, economic oppression. As Americans freely celebrate Christmas in places of worship, the missionary who founded the church appeals to Scripture—as it turns out, the Apostle Paul left specific instructions how to help churches that couldn’t support themselves.

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After the Soviet communist regime crumbled in 1991, Russia adopted a constitution that officially allowed for freedom of religion. But the thirty faithful members of the eleven-year-old Light of Christ Church in St. Petersburg, Russia, has first-hand experience that this freedom is often in name only. So far, this “little church that could” has successfully overcome run-ins with the Russian mafia, interference by corrupt Russian government officials, and challenges with members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, with true religious persecution a thing of the past, it faces one last hurdle—economic oppression. They simply cannot afford a place to meet. And without one, the church may have to disband altogether, at a time of year when their American counterparts don't think twice about having a place to celebrate Christmas.

Eleven years ago in 1993, Ray Geide, an American missionary from Kansas, moved his family to Russia, the world’s largest country, where less than one percent of the population claims faith in Christ. Geide and his wife Deanna planted the Light of Christ Church in the southeastern part of St. Petersburg, Russia, a large urban city of almost five million people.

Despite having overcome a number of significant hurdles since its inception, the church Geide planted is in danger of closing its doors. The membership is extremely poor and can’t afford to cover its basic expenses. The hard fact is that many mission churches cannot exist without outside help, especially in economically oppressive countries like Russia. Geide’s goal is to raise at least U.S. $60,000 so the church can purchase a meeting place and create some self-sufficiency and stability for its congregation.

The church had humble beginnings, with just two converts meeting in a community center, but quickly grew to an astounding 70 people within three years, including many alcoholic teenagers and even a few drug dealers. “We try to reach everybody but we were mostly able to reach children who hadn’t already been indoctrinated by Russian communist atheism,” explains Geide. “We basically raised children. I was like a father to a lot of them,” he adds. In fact, Sergei Koseref, the church’s current pastor, was just a teenager when he first converted and began attending the church.

Over the years, the church had to move several times. When the community center became too small, they met in Geide’s apartment. Geide’s own place was inadequate for a growing church, so he purchased a building for the church to meet in, but even that didn’t provide the security he’d hoped for. No sooner had they moved in, but the Russian mafia showed up, trying to extort money. Geide stood up to them, but the mafia proceeded to make life miserable for the little church by disconnecting their electricity, defacing their property. They even broke in and stole thousands of dollars worth of computers, musical equipment, and supplies.

As if that weren’t enough, the church was antagonized by corrupt city officials. Even though Geide now owned the building the church met in, he had to rent the land from the city government because all land in St. Petersburg is owned by the city. One corrupt city official refused to renew the land rental agreement, and the church’s building was confiscated. “This official accused me of being a drug kingpin and member of the mafia,” Geide recalled. “I couldn’t believe it!” The charges were, of course, groundless, but once again, the little church found itself without a home.

The church even had run-ins with Russian Orthodox people while conducting evangelism through street preaching. “They would say, ‘We have our own Christ,’ referring to the Orthodox Christ. They didn’t want to hear about what they called ‘the American Christ,’ even though I assured them the Christ I preached is the Christ of the whole world, not just of America.”

In Russia, the Orthodox Church has been known to coerce government officials to help them shut Protestant churches down in small Russian villages. Geide found that the best policy was to keep a low profile around the Orthodox Church. “If they don't know you exist or they don't feel threatened by you, they will not come after you,” he says. “We did not actively pursue Orthodox members, because there are plenty of lost people who are not Orthodox.” Fortunately, the Orthodox Church does not have such a stranglehold on the Russian government in cities like St. Petersburg, and the church’s run-ins with them were limited.

After nine long months without a meeting place following the loss of their building, the church eventually found an apartment to rent and currently holds services there. But now the landlord wants to sell their apartment, and he’s not alone, with real estate prices having tripled in the last five years. With everyone selling, there are very few apartments available to rent.

After living in Russia for seven years over a nine-year period, Geide has learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t, and the solution is to purchase an apartment for the church to meet in. “It’s cheaper than buying a building and doesn’t have the same legal hassles and red tape,“ Geide explains. “You don’t have to pay off the city because they don’t own the land. And, apartments have far less restrictions and complications. Because of this, many churches in St. Petersburg now meet in purchased apartments.” This clear solution, however, is out of reach for this little church.

In St. Petersburg, it would require $850 per month to pay expenses for a three-room apartment to hold their modest congregation of 30 people. Given the average Russian income, the church would need at least 200 members in order to collect this sum through congregation offerings. This is assuming that the ratio of adults to children is 1 to 3, and that every adult tithes—an ideal church. But, if the church had 200 members, they would need a much larger apartment, which costs two or three times more. Then, in order to pay for the larger apartment, the church would have to have not 200, but 400 to 600 members, which would mean they would need an even bigger space. This vicious cycle guarantees that no matter how many members the church has, it will not be able to support itself.

“It's hard for churches to exist at all because of problems with the mafia, corrupt officials, and the Orthodox Church. And here is this little church that has completely overcome all of these challenges. That's really saying something,” says Geide. “After how far they’ve come, I'd hate for this to be the nail in the coffin,” he laments. While not religious persecution as we know it, economic oppression and an inability to be self-sufficient still poses a serious problem for many Protestant Christian churches.

A good pastor, Geide points to Scripture as the answer. The Bible says the Apostle Paul had a similar problem with a church that was too poor to support itself. So Paul commanded other churches "upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gathering when I come." (1 Corinthians 16:2) This collection was to support the church at Jerusalem, a church that could not support itself. Geide endeavors to follow this Scriptural principle in Russia.

About Ray Geide & Mission Churches International Incorporated

Ray Geide is an ordained pastor who received his B.A. in Pastoral Theology from the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO, and his M.Div. from Temple Baptist Theological Seminary in Chattanooga, TN. After carefully training two members of the congregation to pastor Light of Christ Baptist Church, Geide moved his family back to the U.S. in 2002. He then founded Mission Churches International Incorporated (MCII) as a nonprofit organization with the main purpose to establish Bible-believing mission churches that are self-sufficient. MCII raises money through missionaries, organizations, businesses, and individuals, then processes and distributes donations to missionaries and mission churches that cannot survive without outside help. Geide currently pastors a church in Ellsworth, KS, but is more dedicated than ever to helping churches in Russia, one of which is the Light of Christ Church in St. Petersburg.

For more information about MCII, or to make a donation to the Light of Christ Church to ensure its self-sufficiency for years to come, please visit http://www.mcii.org. To arrange a speaking appearance with Ray Geide about the economic oppression of the church in Russia, please contact MCII’s publicist Anne Sharp, at 818-994-2309.

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Anne Sharp