May 25, 2012, was a dramatic time for evangelicals in the tiny country of Moldova. On that day, its parliament deputies were called on to decide whether their country would continue down the road toward integration in the European Union.
Under strong EU pressure, the deputies voted 53-48 to pass a law on equal opportunity for women and men. Much to the dismay of evangelicals, this law includes passages supporting the rights of sexual minorities.
Before the vote, EU representatives had implied that visa requirements for Moldovan citizens to enter the EU would be dropped only if the law was passed. (Neither Moldova nor Ukraine requires visas from Westerners for short-term visits ― the visa barrier exists only for Easterners traveling westward.)
Conservative resentment was widespread: The West was seen as exploiting Moldova’s economic desperation to force a foreign political agenda onto the needy. Speaking before journalists, Vasile Filat, the outspoken pastor of the Baptist Good News Church in the capital city of Chisinau, concluded: “During the election campaign (of 2010), politicians promised that the legalisation on homosexual practice would not be passed. But they have not kept their word. The adoption of this law was a crime.”
The liberal agenda of a West seen as a morally destitute economic savior is one thorn in the flesh impeding Moldova’s Western integration.
A second thorn involves the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria, the rogue industrial state on the Dniester River claiming 15 percent of the country’s population of 3.6 million and 12 percent of its territory.
Observers speak of a long-term, geo-strategic conflict, as Transnistria is home to 1,200 Russian troops. They guarantee that Moldova ― much like Georgia ― cannot become a full-fledged member of the EU.
Scrunched in between Romania in the West and the Ukrainian-Russian monolith in the East, Moldova is profoundly in-between. The country and its churches are also squeezed in between an East European past and a likely West European future.
Jim Overton, a Moscow-based Californian who just spent four years in Moldova, reports that the country is an ideal location for foreigners uncertain about their language skills.
“Since Russia is a second language for most, there is greater patience for a foreign missionary’s frequent grammatical errors.”
As in Romania, the predominant religion is Eastern (Orthodoxy), but the language is Western. Overton reports on the dark humor of Moldovan friends who claim their country is the only one in Europe without a will to exist. Many wish for their country to be dissolved into Romania or Russia.
The evangelical movement in Central Asia has seen dramatic changes in the last 23 years. In 1991, the region of Moldova hosted 11,000 Baptists worshiping in 130 congregations. The official numbers for 2012 list 19,562 Baptist members in 482 congregations.
Moldovan Baptists have a strong vision for the restless Muslim republics of Central Asia and frequently send mission teams there. About 50 Central Asian pastors annually spend time at Chisinau College of Theology and Education. Other teams range as far afield as northern Siberia.
Overton, an expert on missions in the former USSR, maintains that “most new churches planted in Russia are the work of missionaries from Ukraine or Moldova. If a Russian congregation desires daughter churches, a common response is to invite someone from the outside to come in and take over the task.”
Though the 74,000-member Russian Union is much larger, Overton claims: “I have never heard of any Russian mission teams going to Moldova. The Moldovans are a remarkable example worthy of admiration.”
Despite being in dire economic straits, Overton believes that Moldovans allocate a greater portion of their giving to mission. “During the January 2013 holidays, Moldovan Baptists sent seven mission teams to Russia and Abkhazia alone. All transportation costs were covered by the Moldovans themselves. Neighboring unions also like to send missionaries to Central Asia, but they expect the West to cover the costs.”
The young are very much involved among the Moldovan evangelicals. School Without Walls, a successful educational program sponsored by Chicago-based Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, is heavily directed toward the young.
The relative success of Moldovan Baptism might be due to their strong sense of unity. According to Overton, “in-between” Moldovans have all kinds of reasons to be split and fractured, yet they display much more unity than neighboring unions. Only about 60 percent of the Baptist congregations worship in Romanian. “Moldovans have what Romanians don’t have: a deep, integrated sense of unity.”
Fertile and warm Moldova, once one of the USSR’s most prosperous regions, now competes with Albania for the title of Europe’s poorest country. Moldova is infamous for the sale of body organs and major ― primarily female ― human trafficking. Tens of thousands have fallen victim to this human slavery.
Half of those still registered in the country are working elsewhere ― usually illegally ― in Europe or Asia. Roughly 30 percent of the country’s children are said to be social orphans forced to manage without their fathers or parents. Regular income is reported to cover only 30 percent of the basic costs for survival; subsistence, small-plot farming is required to make up the difference.
In Chisinau, Vladimir and Yulia Ubeyvolk have developed a highly successful ministry among the socially disadvantaged and victims of trafficking called The Beginning of Life. Many of their activities are prophylactic and involve visiting schools to warn pupils of the dangers they will be facing.
Another significant social endeavour is very rare in Eastern Europe: a Baptist-run home for the elderly. Tabitha House is located in the village of Iabloana near Balti (or Beltz) in northern Moldova and has a staff of 13 with space for 40 residents.
Barriers to growth
Perhaps even more surprising than growth despite emigration is growth despite the existence of a barely penetrable tradition. Mongolian missionaries were able to begin with a blank slate in 1990, but Moldovans were forced to come to terms with century-old tradition.
In an article from 2004 titled “Struggling to Overcome a Fortress Mentality and Emigration,” the afore-mentioned Oleg Turlac wrote: “State prohibitions established in the 1960s became so ingrained in most congregations that they came to consider them as divine commandments. The church had to stop being just a club for formerly persecuted Christians. But many Christians refused to change, saying, ‘If people (really) want salvation, they will come to the church even without invitations.’”
The North American Entrust Moldova Initiative wrote that “the legalism that infested most evangelical churches during the reign of communism still holds sway in the minds of most members. Untrained men serving as pastors often scoff at calls to get into a training program.”
The political efforts of evangelicals have included fighting the acceptance of sexual minorities and the teaching of evolution in schools. Evangelical-Orthodox relations are very weak, but in the struggle against homosexuality and for family values, a consensus with Orthodox circles arises.
Moldova features at least five competing Orthodox denominations, the largest two being the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is allied with the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Romania-allied Orthodox Church (or Metropolis) of Bessarabia.
Mainline U.S. denominations have also been involved in Moldova. Washington D.C.’s National Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has related closely for two decades to Bethany Baptist Church in Balti as well as Chisinau’s College of Theology and Education. One of the college’s founders is Valeriu Ghiletchi.
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.