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Summer 2010

Vol. 18, No. 3


Civic Ecumenism among Moscow’s Faith-Based Charities

Melissa L. Caldwell

In Russia, since the late 1980s, both the field of religion and the field of social services have been transformed by the shifting relationships of cooperation and competition that have emerged among religious denominations and between ostensibly religious and on-religious organizations. A diverse set of actors comprised of religious communities, religiously affiliated social services programs, secular development organizations and funding agencies, and Russian state agencies have forged collaborative ventures and strategic partnerships to tackle a wide range of social problems. In so doing, these organizations have created a parallel welfare structure that coexists alongside– and more typically compensates for – Russia’s formal social assistance system.

Faith-Based Social Outreach Overlooked

Relations among faith-based organizations (FBOs)and non-religious charities present an intriguing vantage point for understanding not just the conditions under which Russian-based social service programs operate, but also the complicated politics informing distinctions between “the religious” and “the secular “in Russia today. In scholarly research on Russian development and charitable projects aimed at poverty alleviation, economic reform, governance, health care, educational reform, human rights monitoring, and community enhancement more generally, the extensive contributions of FBOs have been overlooked in favor of secular development projects. Neither Janine Wedel’s book (1998) on Western aid to Russia and Eastern Europe, nor Mark Field and Judyth Twigg’sedited volume (2000) on the decay of social welfare systems in the post-Soviet period mentions the work of religious organizations at all. Although Anne White does mention religious groups briefly in her research on the emergence of charities in late-Soviet and early post-Soviet Russia (1993), her focus is overwhelmingly on non-religious groups.1 In 2007, two Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies workshops on post-Soviet development made clear that even American based development officials and scholars are curiously reluctant to acknowledge—even hostile to concede—the considerable social services work accomplished by FBOs in Russia.2

 If social service activities of religious communities are acknowledged at all, they typically are described instrumentally in terms of how they contribute to church-building, proselytism, and the deepening of spiritual commitments.3 Only rarely have scholars attempted to understand faith-based social work apart from a strictly religious/secular divide,4 thus neglecting treatment of creative partnerships that are being fostered within and across the presumed categorical boundaries of “religious” and “secular.”

Cooperation in Charity

Although Russia’s post-Soviet religious revival most often has been described as competition among religious denominations to build their communities and expand their power through conversion – these-called competition for souls5 – more recently noticeable flexibility among religious communities is in evidence such that congregations representing diverse theological orientations (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist, to name A very few) are increasingly pursuing cooperative ventures across denominational lines. In some cases, congregations support the charitable projects of another denomination by providing money, material goods, and volunteers. In other cases, multiple congregations join forces to operate welfare programs together. Orthodox congregations are very much part of this new interdenominational collaboration with non-Orthodox Christian congregations, despite official rhetoric and policies discouraging such ventures. All of these projects require congregations with divergent theological perspectives to find common ground in structuring their programs, determining eligibility for recipients, providing services, setting guidelines for volunteers, and even presenting the programs to the public.

 For instance, during a series of planning meetings and joint worship services celebrating a joint feeding program of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (to be referred to in this study as the Christian Church of Moscow—CCM), an Anglican church, a Catholic church, and a Lutheran church, clergy, staff, and parishioners worked to accommodate differences in liturgy and prayer among members. As I was privy to behind-the-scenes meetings among the clergy involved, I was able to observe ministers seeking to find an ecumenical middle-ground among their theological differences. On another occasion, the congregations from the CCM, an Anglican church, an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, and the Salvation Army came together for a special worship service to dedicate the donations each congregation had collected for a joint clothing distribution. The service was cooperative event, with an officer from the Salvation Army reading from the Anglican Book of Prayer, a CCM minister giving the sermon, and an Anglican priest offering the prayer.

Cooperation Between Faith-Based and Secular Agencies

Diversity is also evident in the partnerships forged between FBOs and non-religious aid Organizations. FBOs and non-religious organizations cooperate by sharing resources and client lists with one another and by collaborating in joint activities. By creating these complementary relationships they recognize and harness their diverse strengths for the greater benefit of all. In the case of refugeeresettlement, various responsibilities are parceled out to several FBOs, the International Office for Migration, appropriate Russian government agencies, and theembassy personnel of receiving countries. Staff and volunteers from each of these entities work so closely and smoothly with one another that candidates for immigration moving through the process are often unaware of distinctions among the different programs and staff. Staff and volunteers from the various programs even socialize with one another outside their formal working roles.

 Rather than seeing one another as having competing objectives or approaches, staff and volunteers from these different organizations repeatedly emphasized the symbiotic nature of their respective activities. In interviews during my ongoing research in Moscow on FBOs, officials with Russian welfare agencies, international development organizations, and funding agencies have not only praised religiously affiliated assistance programs for the work they are doing, but have also consistently singled out these FBOs as more successful than their non-religious counterparts. In September 2009 alone, staff and volunteers from the Christian Church of Moscow, a Protestant congregation have been following since 1997, were invited by

such organizations as the UN High Commission on Refugees, the Aga Khan Foundation, and the U.S. Embassy to participate in round table sessions in order to advise staff from non-religious agencies on such projects as establishing medical clinics for homeless persons, promoting racial tolerance and assisting victims of racial violence, and assisting victims of human trafficking. After the round table focusing on racial tolerance, an official from one of Moscow’s leading human rights monitoring agencies praised the CCM for its ability to do the work that other organizations could only dream of doing.

Commitment to Social Justice Overcoming


These collaborative ventures have significantly reduced assumed distinctions between faith-based and non-faith-based agencies. During the course of my research, individuals who worked with religious organizations repeatedly sought to emphasize that their decision to do so was based not on religious grounds but on a sense of shared social justice ideals. One staff person confessed that she did not particularly like the theological orientation of the church with which she worked, but that she found the congregation’s commitment to social justice programs exemplary and a perfect match to her own values. An American Embassy official who was a strong supporter (including in financial terms) of the CCM’s social services programs shared that although she herself was Jewish, she found the CCM’s programs to be the most effective– far more effective than those of other organizations in Russia.

United Way Moscow

United Way Moscow serves as another example of the blurring of distinctions between faith-based and non-faith-based organizations. Recently I asked the director of this charity to comment on her organization’s relationships with religious charities in Russia and to describe any differences she perceived between religious and secular charities. My contact with United Way had come through a minister from one of the churches I have been following.  

The minister, in fact, was participating with the United Way director in a charity golf tournament the very next day, and his congregation was in the final stages of submitting a grant proposal to the United Way for funding to support its charitable feeding programs and homeless shelter initiative. Hence, I was at first taken aback by the United Way director’s emphatic insistence that her agency does not work with or support religious organizations. As the director continued, however, the greater import of her statement became clear. While repeating that United Way did not work with religious organizations, the director used hand gestures and facial expressions that suggested that her words were to be understood as an official “party line” statement. She then continued by stating that her agency worked very closely with “non-profit organizations” (nekommercheskii organizatsii) like the social ministries affiliated with the specific church I had mentioned.

 By invoking the term “non-profit,” or “noncommercial, “the United Way director pointed to an important legal and symbolic distinction in how charitable organizations are classified in Russia today. From the perspective of the Russian state, officially registered “non-profit” organizations are classified as secular, nongovernmental organizations, and they adhere to federal regulations governing accounting practices, tax reporting, and employment for secular organizations. This formal registration also enables such NGOs to apply for federal funding from the Russian state and to work officially with state agencies. It is certainly the case that many NGOs– both domestic and foreign – currently working in Russia are not officially registered as “non-profits, “which thereby limits their ability to provide services, solicit donations, and protect their clients. Yet among religious congregations, a recent trend has been to create separate “non-profit” arms to administer their social ministries. Hence, when the United Way director said that her agency did not work with religious organizations, she was referencing an official legal an semantic set of categories rather than denying actual collaboration with religious communities.

 Officially designated “non-profits” inhabit different world from their counterparts, both religious and non-religious, that do not possess this designation. Official non-profits have access to resources and a veneer of legitimacy and credibility denied to no designated organizations. More significantly, when FBOs become transformed into official “non-profits,” they divest themselves of their religious qualities and move increasingly in a “secular” direction. Yet I would hesitate to suggest that “non-profit” FBOs ever truly lose their “religious” ethos and move completely into the realm of “the secular.” Even though none of the “on-profit” FBOs I encountered use their social services to proselytize or even ask participants to reveal their religious background, and even though staff, volunteers, and affiliates generally downplay or deny the faith-based aspect of the programs they support, there is no denying that these are religious organizations whose programs emerged out of particular theological concerns for compassion and justice.

Just as substantial numbers of FBOs in Russia have taken on more secular hues, so too, many Secular entities have increasingly assumed roles more commonly associated with religious agencies. Institutions generally thought of as secular actors– state agencies, political parties, and businesses – are increasingly engaging in the work of championing tradition, defending morality, and preserving religious heritage. Conversely, institutions typically associated with the religious sphere are increasingly engaging in rebuilding Russia’s infrastructure, opening schools, renovating and supporting orphanages, providing health care, and serving as liaisons with international human rights groups such as the United Nations Humanitarian Council on Refugees.

Civic Ecumenism

These institutional reconfigurations and their blurring of religious/secular distinctions highlight the artificiality and ineffectiveness of “religious” versus “secular,” particularly in the case of non-profit FBOs. For the sake of greater clarity I propose the notion of “civic ecumenism” to capture the convergences and collaborations among diverse “religious” and “secular” actors. What seems to be the common motivation of clergy, staff, volunteers, donors, and congregants from radically different backgrounds and communities is a shared ethic of compassion and social justice and desire to promote the public welfare of a robust Russian nation. As a result, the cooperative ventures of various groups entail civic responsibility that bothencompasses and transcends religious and secular distinctions. Non-profit FBOs value the welfare ofthe whole, that is, the public, and the welfare of theindividual over the interests of the state, the church, or the market, thereby challenging narrow definitions of what constitutes religious organizations. In fact, field observations suggest that FBOs functioning in the spirit of “civic ecumenism” demonstrate greater flexibility, greater tolerance, and greater effectiveness than would otherwise be possible if they were forced into the narrow confines of either a strictly “religious “or “secular” identity. ♦


1Gerald W. Creed and Janine R. Wedel, “Second Thoughts from the Second World: Interpreting Aid in Post-Communist Eastern Europe,” Human Organization 56 (No. 3, 1997): 253-64; Mark G. Field and Judyth L. Twigg, eds., Russia’s Torn Safety Nets: Health and Social Welfare during the Transition (New

York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Janine R. Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 1989-1998 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998); and Anne White, “Charity, Self-Help and Politics in Russia, 1985-91,” Europe-Asia Studies 45 (No. 5, 1993): 788.2Melissa L. Caldwell, “Placing Faith in Development: FBOs and Russia’s Development Narrative, “unpublished manuscript under review.

3John Anderson, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Gediminas Lankauskas, “On Modern Christians, Consumption, and the Value of National Identity in Post-Soviet Lithuania,” Ethnos 67 (No. 3, 2002): 320-44; Nikolai Mitrokhin, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov’: Sovremennoe sostoyaníe i aktaul’nye problemy

(Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2004);Catherine Wanner, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).4An exception is Adele Lindenmeyr, Poverty Is Not a Vice: Charity, Society, and the State in Imperial Russia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).5John Witte, Jr., and Michael Bourdeaux, eds., Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia: The New Warfor Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999); Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America,1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

Melissa L. Caldwell is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Dr. Caldwell is the author of Not by Bread Alone: Social Support in the New Russia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), reviewed in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 (Fall

2004), 14, by Cheryl K. Hosken.