Pas­tors reach out to im­mi­grants in flock

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - DAVID FILIPOV

They have come to pray for the health of loved ones. They have come to ask for help to pass a tough exam, or to just get by in hard times. But mostly, they have come to be part of a once-in-a-mil­len­nium spir­i­tual event: St. Ni­cholas has come to town.

Since relics of Rus­sia’s most beloved saint were brought to Moscow on May 21, more than a mil­lion peo­ple have waited in lines last­ing as long as 10 hours to spend just an in­stant at the gilded ark that holds one of his ribs.

This mass act of devo­tion pro­vides a snap­shot of how im­por­tant the Ortho­dox church has be­come to Rus­sians’ con­tem­po­rary sense of iden­tity.

Lines to see the saint Rus­sians call “the mir­a­cle worker” have stretched up to five miles from the gi­ant, onion-domed Christ the Sav­ior Cathe­dral, a re­con­struc­tion of a cathe­dral de­mol­ished by the Sovi­ets in 1931.

Some waited to pray for a mir­a­cle to St. Ni­cholas, whose life in­spired the leg­end of Santa Claus. But for many, the ar­rival of the relics, on loan for the first time from the Ital­ian city where they rested for 930 years, was in it­self a mir­a­cle worth wit­ness­ing.

“It’s im­por­tant to be close to the grace of St. Ni­cholas,” said De­nis Knyazyev, 32, who drove four hours from his home west of Moscow to stand in line for St. Ni­cholas last week. “All saints are spe­cial, but this is the one most dear to us.”

What they see at the ark is an icon of St. Ni­cholas un­der a panel of bul­let­proof glass, with a crescent-shaped open­ing in the mid­dle through which the bone is vis­i­ble. As priests and burly se­cu­rity guards look on, a choir chants a har­mo­nious prayer that echoes through the cav­ernous, or­nate cathe­dral. But the mu­sic is drowned out by the sten­to­rian in­struc­tions of vol­un­teers in flu­o­res­cent green vests.

They warn wor­ship­pers to cross them­selves be­fore they reach the ark and to have their prayers ready, to avoid back­ing up the line. As soon as the faith­ful bend to kiss the glass, a vol­un­teer grabs them by the shoul­ders and nudges them, usu­ally lightly, to­ward the exit. Those who linger get a spe­cial shove and an or­der to move on. An­other vol­un­teer wipes the glass with a cloth.

But if this brusque treat­ment both­ered any­one, it did not show. Peo­ple com­ing out of the cathe­dral on a re­cent Fri­day ex­pressed some­thing re­sem­bling a com­bi­na­tion of bliss over what they had seen and re­lief that they had sur­vived the or­deal.

“We were so afraid we wouldn’t make it,” a preg­nant woman said in tears, as her hus­band com­forted her.

Danila, a 14-year-old Mus­covite, said he had “a mag­i­cal feel­ing.” His mother, who like many of the peo­ple who vis­ited the relics that did not give her name to an Amer­i­can re­porter, added that, “It was like God had heard me.”

More than 70 per­cent of Rus­sians iden­tify them­selves as Ortho­dox Chris­tians, more than dou­ble the num­ber at the time of the 1991 Soviet col­lapse. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who has aligned his vi­sion for his coun­try as a bas­tion of con­ser­va­tive val­ues with that of the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church, vis­ited the relics the day they ar­rived in Moscow.

But many Rus­sians con­sider them­selves only “par­tially re­li­gious,” said Natalya Zorkaya, a re­searcher for the Le­vada Cen­ter, Rus­sia’s in­de­pen­dent poll­ster. “The in­ter­est in the relics rep­re­sents a de­sire to be­come part of the process, to par­tic­i­pate in an event or­ga­nized not just by the Ortho­dox Church but also by the state.”

Rus­sia is slowly start­ing to come out of a re­ces­sion, and peo­ple frus­trated by low liv­ing stan­dards or cor­rup­tion-rid­den gov­ern­ment are al­ways look­ing for some­where to turn. About 2 mil­lion wrote let­ters to Putin for his an­nual “Di­rect Line” call-in show last month to ask for things such as higher salaries, bet­ter roads and im­proved health care.

But peo­ple go to see St. Ni­cholas not just be­cause they are frus­trated and hop­ing for a mir­a­cle that Putin can’t give them. The ex­pe­ri­ence re­ally ap­pears to make them feel as if they are part of some­thing big­ger.

Zorkaya agreed, say­ing, “This is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of a cer­tain state iden­tity with re­li­gious col­or­ing.”

The gov­ern­ment-linked Rus­sian Public Opin­ion Re­search Cen­ter polling agency found that 10 per­cent of visi­tors to the relics ask for some­thing more spe­cific than good health for them­selves and loved ones. One of those was Rus­lan, 20, a law stu­dent who said that he had come be­cause “I’m in the mid­dle of ex­ams and I hope it goes well.” An­other woman who rushed by quickly said she was pray­ing “to get by in times like th­ese.”

Rus­sians have stood in lines by the hun­dreds of thou­sands to wit­ness re­li­gious relics. More than 3 mil­lion peo­ple saw a belt thought to have be­longed to the Vir­gin Mary when it came to Rus­sia in 2011.

But St. Ni­cholas is spe­cial, said Maria Korov­ina, head of the Ortho­dox Church’s me­dia cen­ter for spe­cial events, be­cause of the role he plays in Rus­sians’ lives — and the way th­ese relics got here.

“For 930 years, no one has seen them,” she said. “This is as though St. Ni­cholas him­self has come to Moscow.”

Ni­cholas, who died in A.D. 343, was the bishop of Myra, which is now in south­ern Turkey. One leg­endary at­tribute that led to the story of Santa Claus was his habit of giv­ing gifts in se­cret.

Be­liev­ers say his re­mains pro­duce a liq­uid called manna, said to have heal­ing pow­ers. In 1087, Ital­ian sailors spir­ited the bones to Bari, Italy, where the re­mains have been kept in a crypt ever since.

The de­ci­sion to re­move a rib and send it to Rus­sia was the re­sult of a his­toric meet­ing last year be­tween Pope Fran­cis and Rus­sian Ortho­dox leader Pa­tri­arch Kir­ill, the first such en­counter since the 11th-cen­tury Great Schism that di­vided Chris­tian­ity.

The re­mains will be taken to St. Peters­burg on Wed­nes­day and re­turned to Italy at the end of the month.

On a re­cent Sun­day evening, as the line me­an­dered along a fenced-off side­walk on the Moscow River em­bank­ment, through well-guarded po­lice check­points and past well-stocked food kiosks and por­ta­ble toi­lets, peo­ple wrote down prayers for the health of their loved ones to while away the hours.

Some fret­ted over whether they would get in be­fore the cathe­dral closed for the night. But there was no need to pray for a mir­a­cle. The doors stay open un­til the last wor­ship­per in line has made it in­side.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Natalya Ab­baku­mova of The Wash­ing­ton Post.


Pas­tor Julio Bar­quero, a lay min­is­ter in the Dis­ci­ples of Christ, holds a con­fer­ence call Bible study and prayer ses­sion with at­ten­dees too afraid to go to church in Hous­ton. Many of the call­ers are un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.