For Gays, a Loud New Foe
Sacramento's large enclave of immigrant Slavic evangelicals is becoming a force on social issues. Their actions shock many.
By Rone Tempest, The Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2006
SACRAMENTO -- Organizers of the annual Rainbow Festival were prepared for trouble.
The Q Crew, a local "queer/straight alliance," distributed cards telling people what to do if approached by hostile demonstrators. Sympathetic local church groups formed a protective buffer along the festival ground's cyclone fence. Mounted police were on patrol.
Jerry Sloan manned a table for Stand Up for Sacramento, a recently formed gay self-defense organization.
"So far, so good," he said. "No Russians."
The festival, held last month amid the gay bars, restaurants and shops of midtown's "Lavender Heights" neighborhood, went off without conflict. But the elaborate security preparations reflected growing tensions between Sacramento gays and the city's large and vociferous community of fundamentalist Christians from the former Soviet Union.
Over the last 18 months, Sacramento Russian-language church members have picketed gay pride events, jammed into legislative committee meetings when gay issues were on the agenda and demonstrated at school board meetings.
Incited by firebrand Russian Pentacostal pastors and polemical Russian-language newspapers, the fundamentalists turn out en masse for state Capitol protest rallies.
Last June, urging readers to attend a massive rally, the Russian newspaper the Speaker told them:
"Make a choice. It's your decision. Homosexuality is knocking on your doors and asking: 'Can I make your son gay and your daughter lesbian?' "
In most instances, the Russian-speaking demonstrators far outnumber representatives from all other anti-gay groups combined. Anti-homosexual rallies that a few years ago attracted a few dozen participants now regularly draw hundreds and sometimes thousands, many with a heavy Russian accent.
Even in a state capital where impassioned public demonstrations are a daily event, the Slavic fundamentalists stand out. Elderly women in babushkas stand next to small children carrying signs stating: "Perversion is Never Safe" and "I Am Not Learning About Gay People."
Speakers address the crowds fervently in Russian and Ukrainian.
After a wave of religious refugees that began coming here in the late 1980s, Sacramento now has one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in North America: an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Slavic immigrants, community members say. They came primarily from the Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and the other southern Soviet republics, and settled mostly in Sacramento's northern and western suburbs.
These immigrants are different from their Russian-speaking counterparts in New York's Brighton Beach, San Francisco's Richmond district or West Hollywood, all established Russian-immigrant enclaves that are mostly Jewish or Russian Orthodox and generally coexist with large gay populations.
West Hollywood's 11-member Russian Advisory Board recently voted 8 to 3 to send a letter to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkov, asking him to reconsider his decision banning gay pride events in the Russian capital.
"We want you to consider the unique partnership that has developed here in West Hollywood between the large population of Russian-speaking immigrants and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community," the letter said.
The Sacramento community, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly evangelical -- Baptist and Pentecostalist. The charismatic Pentacostal church, introduced in the Ukraine in the 1920s by missionary and martyr Ivan Efimovich Vornaev, includes speaking in tongues and washing of feet. The churches' social views are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
"The main issues in the Russian community here," said Vitaly Prokopchuk, a Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, "are gay issues, abortion issues and family-definition issues. To these people, these issues are very cut-and-dry in the Bible."
Sacramento has more than 70 Russian fundamentalist congregations. One of them, Bethany Missionary Slavic Church, has 3,200 members and claims to be the largest Russian-language church outside of Europe.
"Sacramento is the No. 1 gathering place for non-Jewish, non-Russian Orthodox, fundamentalist Russian and Ukrainian immigrants," said University of Oregon geographer Susan W. Hardwick, an expert on the Russian immigrant community. Similar but smaller communities, Hardwick said, have established themselves in Portland and Seattle, where they also are beginning to flex their political muscle.
But nowhere approaches Sacramento, which has a 24-hour Russian-language cable television station, two radio stations and several newspapers, all of which push a conservative message marked by strident opposition to homosexuality. A recent edition of the Speaker, for example, promoted a book, "The Pink Swastika," that contends that the extermination of Jews during World War II was the work of homosexuals inside the Nazi Party.
For Sacramento gay leaders, the sudden appearance of organized demonstrators was a major shock after years of building support in the state capital.
"We've been accepted and were just perking along," said Sloan, a 69-year-old church pastor and co-founder of Lambda Community Center, which serves the gay community. "That's why this Russian thing was such a jolt to people."
Leaders of the religious right, however, celebrate the Russian efforts as a revival.
"My hope and my prayer," said Mark Matta, a former legislative aide who heads the Christian Public Awareness Ministries, "is that they will become a voice in the wilderness for the rest of the country."
Many credit the Slavic Christian immigrant community with filling a void left by the traditional American church and providing reinforcements in the ongoing culture wars over what should define family, acceptable sexual relationships and marriage.
"Russian Christians bring a fresh faith and uncorrupted family values to this country. They are a shining model for the rest of us in terms of faith, family, work ethic, patriotism and community," said Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families.
Gay civil rights activists, meanwhile, accuse the demonstrators of hateful and aggressive tactics that they say sometimes lean dangerously toward violence.
Signs displayed by the demonstrators often equate homosexuality with pedophilia and describe the AIDS epidemic as a message from God. One of the common tactics of the demonstrators is to tap gays forcefully on the head and announce that they have been "saved."
"They've declared war on us for some reason," said Stand Up for Sacramento founder Nathan Feldman, a jewelry store clerk. "They got it into their heads that California is the land of sin and that it is their duty to cleanse the state, starting with homosexuals."
Feldman said he formed his self-defense organization after he was surrounded by dozens of Russian-speaking demonstrators at a June gay pride parade.
"I ended up getting spit on and yelled at," said Feldman, whose organization recently staged a counterdemonstration outside Bethany Slavic Missionary Church.
Prokopchuk, the Sacramento County sheriff's deputy, is for many here the voice of law and order in the Russian-Ukrainian community. A garrulous bear of a man with a burr haircut, he appears regularly on local Russian television and radio. His cellphone constantly rings with calls asking him to interpret and explain American laws and responsibilities.
Like many here, Prokopchuk, 32, arrived with his family 16 years ago from his native Ukraine after Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev loosened emigration rules for religious refugees who faced persecution under the Communist regime.
Before emigrating, many of the refugees learned about Sacramento from two sources: a short-wave fundamentalist religious radio program, "Word to Russia," that originated here, and a Russian-language newspaper, Our Days, that was printed in Sacramento and distributed to underground churches in the Soviet Union. A local Russian Baptist church persuaded several Sacramento evangelical churches to sponsor the refugees.
Prokopchuk attributes the recent political activities in Sacramento to culture shock and anti-homosexual prejudices imported from the home country.
"Back home," Prokopchuk said, "homosexuality was looked at as kind of a disgrace and a lifestyle for immoral people and prisoners. I came from a town of 30,000 people but did not know even one openly gay person."
But an even bigger factor, Prokopchuk said, is the widespread fear in the Russian-Ukrainian community that the American popular culture will capture their children.
"It's not only about homosexuality. It's also about drinking, about premarital sex and about drugs," Prokopchuk said. "Some of these people even regret coming here because they have a feeling they are losing their kids."
At a shopping center in suburban Antelope outside Sacramento, young Russians and Ukrainians skateboard in the parking lot and gather on the outdoor patio of a Starbucks.
Across the lot, Natasha Bugriyev, 31, watches warily from the counter of her Russian vitamin shop.
Compared to many immigrants, Bugriyev and her husband, a building contractor, have been quite successful since coming to Sacramento from their native Moldova 12 years ago.
The couple, active members of a Russian Baptist church, live in a 4,500-square-foot home in Roseville, an affluent Sacramento suburb. She drives a new BMW 745. He has a new Nissan Titan pickup truck.
Recently, however, they have been considering moving back to Moldova.
"Honestly, I'm scared for the kids," Bugriyev said. "We have a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old. I'm scared that when they go to school they will be in a class where they are taught it is OK for a man to sleep with another man. We are thinking that after another five years, we will move back to Moldova."
Michael Lokteff, 69, is a former high school teacher who was the voice of the "Word to Russia" broadcasts into the Soviet Union. A cheerful, white-haired lay Baptist who takes a glass of wine with his meals, Lokteff said that many of the immigrants were unprepared for culturally laissez-faire California.
In part, Lokteff blames his own broadcasts, which he said left the listeners with the impression that America, and particularly Sacramento, was a Christian bastion.
"They even thought my program was government-sponsored," Lokteff said. "They came here expecting a Christian commune, and all of a sudden the first thing they see is a gay parade."
Like the Calvinist Puritans who were the first to settle in the New World, many in the Slavic religious community have an apocalyptic worldview. To them, the United States is a chosen nation but the American church is apostate and hapless, not up to the job. The Slavic Christians view it as their duty to cleanse and save the nation in preparation for Jesus Christ's return to Earth.
"We feel the American church already lost the battle 20 years ago by remaining silent," said Victor Chernyetsky, 47, a Soviet-trained engineer who serves as administrator for the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church. "We can't remain silent. There are a lot of sins."
One of the first Slavic immigrants to jump into politics was Galina Bondar, an energetic 39-year-old registered nurse from Ukraine whose father is a leading fundamentalist pastor.
Bondar said she was inspired by a radio interview with conservative activist Randy Thomasson, who took her under his wing and taught her the rules of engagement in Sacramento. "He was the first one who taught me the civil process, Political Science 101," Bondar said.
In 1997, Bondar started her own weekly Russian-language radio program, "Heal Our Land," which tracks legislation of interest to the Russian church. She began speaking at Sacramento Russian Baptist and Pentacostal churches, urging political action.
Bondar, as much as anyone, was responsible for organizing and directing public protests, including a raucous 2005 appearance at a legislative hearing on gay marriage that marked the political coming-out of the Slavic community.
"We hate government oppression of religious freedom and family values, whether in Russia or California," Bondar said. "We just have more we can do about it in California."
Taking her movement to a new level, Bondar was one of three people in the Russian-language community to file as a candidate for a suburban school board.
On Sept. 5, the day after the Sacramento Rainbow Festival, several hundred sign-wielding demonstrators appeared at the Capitol to oppose a state Senate bill, SB 1437, that would have banned negative references based on sexual orientation from state textbooks and classes.
In the crowd were Bondar's mother, father and grandmother.
The next day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, stating that protection against discrimination already existed in state law.
"We may not have gotten the veto without them," said Thomasson, who spearheaded the lobbying effort against the bill.
To Bondar, the veto was a clear victory.
"Very satisfying," she said. "It shows people who participated in the civic process that their hard work was not in vain."
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