The Rewards of Suffering: Ukrainian Evangelical Immigrants in the United States

Catherine Wanner

In 1987, as the Soviet Union prepared for the millennial commemoration of Christianity in Kyivan Rus’, Mikhail Gorbachev took the bold step of announcing that all victims of religious persecution could apply to emigrate as part of his greater campaign of glasnost. Soon thereafter, in 1989, the U.S. Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment which made religion the cornerstone of America’s Soviet refugee policy and extended the benefits Soviet Jews already received to Evangelical Christian, Ukrainian Catholic, and Ukrainian Orthodox believers. Persons affiliated with any of these denominations who could demonstrate “well-established histories of persecution” under the Soviet regime became eligible to immigrate to the United States as refugees if they had family ties or some other form of sponsorship in the United States. Notably, they were not required to prove fear of future persecution; past membership in a persecuted religious group would suffice. As a result of these actions by Moscow and Washington, approximately 500,000 Soviet evangelicals immigrated to the United States, some as refugees, others, through family reunification.

“Push” and “Pull” Factors in Migration

For Soviet believers, 1989 proved to be an

historic juncture: remarkably, the Soviet Union was willing to allow evangelical believers to leave, and the United States was willing to receive them. The political liberalizations that occurred in the USSR in the late 1980s, while welcome, had a sharp, negative impact on all sectors of the economy. Nearly all Soviet citizens saw their standard of living plummet, which led to “instability emigration,” a desire to escape the economic chaos of the so-called transition to capitalism. In addition to economic decline, other linkages with the United States were occurring at this time, and they stimulated a desire to emigrate.

A barrage of American missionaries promising salvation arrived in Ukraine, right alongside American media and popular culture displaying images of glamour and wealth, and American multinational corporations offering a plethora of longed-for consumer goods. They served as magnets, as cultural bridges, transporting Soviet citizens from the “proletarian paradise” to the perceived land of milk and honey. These bridges fostered the illusion of familiarity and fed the desire to emigrate.

The rapid, massive exodus of longstanding evangelical believers that began in 1989 occurred at a critical juncture of religious revival in Ukraine. Just as it was becoming possible to create religious communities legally, to “harvest” new converts from among the many religious seekers, the majority of clergy and established believers emigrated. This was additional motivation for foreign missionaries to travel to the former Soviet Union to “plant” churches and to respond to the quests of the “unsaved” by imparting their understandings of evangelical practice.

Settlement Locations in the United States

Across America in the 1990s, communities of Soviet evangelicals sprang up in residentially compact clusters of families and believers united around churches. This latest wave of refugees from Soviet Ukraine, compared to the previous waves that preceded them, and other immigrant groups more generally, has lost extraordinarily little in the process of relocating, prompting a Jewish émigré to claim enviously that evangelicals have a “moveable feast” (Interview conducted 6 May 2001). Highly favorable immigration policies have allowed nearly  the entire membership of many Soviet congregations  to relocate rapidly to the Pacific Northwest, to traditional Ukrainian immigrant communities in Pennsylvania, and to mid-sized American cities not formerly noted for their receptivity to immigrants. In particular, Soviet Evangelicals have settled extensively in Sacramento, California. Starting in the 1950s, a radio station based in Sacramento rana Russian-language evangelical radio broadcast that was received in parts of the former Soviet Union.

For the earliest evangelical refugees, this suggested that Sacramento might be a hospitable new home. Sacramento became the preferred relocation point for evangelicals and today has the largest Soviet evangelical community. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, and Pennsylvania became other key destinations.

The Role of Social Service Providers

The earliest evangelical refugees had no relatives in the United States, making it necessary for organizations such as the North American Baptist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Lutheran Social Services to sponsor these “free cases.” These religious organizations, in  conjunction with individual congregations, assumed responsibility for the resettlement of refugee families. These intermediary organizations have played a critical role in organizing assistance to newly arrived families and, therefore, have directed immigrants to particular areas and have diverted them from others. The pivotal position of these denominational organizations also reveals why evangelical believers have become concentrated on the U.S. West Coast and Pennsylvania. In each instance, these communities would never have grown had it not been for such sponsoring church organizations. After 1992, immigration regulations changed, and emigrants were obliged to have some family connection in the United States. Congregations became clusters of residential and familial networks as local churches helped families who were in the United States to sponsor their relatives under the Family Reunification Act.

Limited English Limiting Evangelism

Virtually no one I interviewed regretted the decision to emigrate. Simply put, their biggest problem has been language. In addition to complicating the process of finding work, it is no longer possible to missionize. As one pastor flatly said, “We understand that the central aim of our  church is evangelization.” The old practices of going to prisons and orphanages, visiting the elderly, and traveling from village to village singing psalms and spreading the Gospel have come to an end. It is a bitter irony for them that language has created a barrier against proselytizing far more insurmountable than any the Soviet state could erect. Limited English-language ability among the first generation fuels a mission orientation to the homeland and helps maintain the ethnic nature of the community.

Missionizing in Ukraine: A Pennsylvania Case Study of New Slavic Immigrants

Even as the ethos of one Slavic evangelical community in Pennsylvania has Americanized by relaxing a long list of behavioral prescriptions, a mission orientation to the homeland, broadly understood as the former Soviet Union, has helped maintain the Slavic identity of the community and has held at bay the permissiveness of Americans, even of American Baptists. Extensive indirect missionizing occurs as the church sponsors two missionaries and annual youth mission trips to the former Soviet Union, usually to Ukraine or Belarus, and provides humanitarian aid to the needy in Ukraine. Two women with ties to Zaporizhzhia, an eastern Ukrainian city, organize bimonthly shipments of two or three tons of clothing, toys, food products, and other items to orphanages, boarding schools, and congregations. Gathering donated goods, organizing them, packing them, documenting everything for  customs, and arranging for the goods to be trucked to Philadelphia, placed in a container, loaded onto a ship, sent to Ukraine, and distributed throughout villages in twelve oblasts is a colossal undertaking.

On the Ukrainian side the job is no less monumental. A small group of women in Zaporizhzhia provide close supervision of the distribution to the intended recipients to avoid seeing the goods end up for sale at some sidewalk bazaar. Relying on informal, local assessments of which families and institutions are in need, a small group of women on both sides of the ocean manage to deliver literally tons of aid directly to the needy, independent of their religious affiliation. (The church is categorically against restricting aid to Baptists out of fear that people will convert for the sole purpose of gaining material rewards.) These shipments go exclusively to Ukraine for two reasons: they graft onto preexisting informal networks that are highly efficient, and the Ukrainian government is one of the few in Eurasia that allows Protestant denominations to deliver humanitarian aid directly. These immigrants have simply reoriented their evangelical efforts to the former USSR with considerable zeal.

I see no signs of abatement in their attachments to the former Soviet Union, which take the forms of missionizing, charitable, and other outreach activities. The emerging religious marketplace in Ukraine, with its comparatively few legal restrictions, plus the personal networks of these members suggests that the era of closed, isolated communities has indeed come to an end. In its place has emerged an active transnational social field of believers that is connected to both a country of origin and an adopted country via religious commitments to evangelize.

Religion and Missions Connecting Two Continents

If religion is the factor that made it possible to choose to emigrate, interestingly, it is also the factor that is almost always evoked to explain the choice not to emigrate. Those who refuse to emigrate often claim that the need for evangelization and proselytizing in Ukraine is more pressing because of the wounds inflicted by socialism. This overrides any desire for increased material comfort or fears of renewed religious persecution. For those who do leave, however, the obligation to evangelize remains. Migration situates this basic activity in a transnational social field, the essence of which is found in personal relationships that cross national borders.

As we have seen, members of Slavic immigrant congregations send missionaries, and themselves become missionaries to Ukraine, delivering money, medicine, information, and other forms of charitable aid. Given their transnational familial networks, missionizing projects, youth group exchanges, and other connections with the former Soviet Union, at virtually every church service, in the U.S. and in Ukraine, a half-dozen people stand and offer greetings or report back on a recent trip to another congregation abroad.

Soviet evangelicals blend aspects of their culture and a religious lifestyle in a setting of increased material comfort in the United States while retaining strong links and building social relationships with  coreligionists elsewhere in the world. Many refugee networks are so embedded in religious communities that they are rendered inseparable. Religious institutions function as the nodes in interlinked networks that unite migrants spread across  continents.

In Summary

The latest wave of refugees from the Soviet Union rapidly relocated entire congregations and the multigenerational families that constituted their membership. They are committed to maintaining some kind of an “ethnic” church in the United States, be it Russian, Slavic, or Ukrainian, and to providing charitable and missionary assistance to fellow religious communities in Ukraine. They have no desire to return to their homeland permanently, but they do evince a strong commitment to return frequently in order to missionize. F

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Catherine Wanner, Communities of the Converted, Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Catherine Wanner is associate professor of history and religious studies at Pensylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania