RIGA - New Generation, a 5,000-strong non-denominational church primarily consisting of Russians, combines some of the stranger practices of the major religions. Anyone who has seen a big tent revival in America will know what it means when pastor Alexey Ledyaev says that New Generation "heals sick people." Not a common site in Latvia. "We also take things from the ecumenical tradition, which is not very typical of the American church," Ledyaev says. They perform exorcisms.
This is the first of a two-part article.
The church, located in a plain building near some auto repair shops in Zasulauks, has been discussed rather widely of late. According to the organizers of the gay pride day in Riga on July 22, members of New Generation's congregation met them outside the Anglican Church after a service held by the openly gay priest, Maris Sants, where they proceeded to throw excrement at parishioners. "People in my group recognized them," Juris Calvitis, the Anglican minister who oversaw the service, says. A report released by the Interior Ministry confirmed the claim, though it also noted other groups, including the ultra-right National Force Union.
Ledyaev was not at the Anglican Church that morning, but his presence 's he is a dynamic man of 50 's was particularly noticeable in front of the Reval Hotel Latvija where the same group of protesters met to disrupt a meeting held by the gay rights group Mozaika that was occurring on the second floor.
Many of those who witnessed the events of that afternoon recall four hours of a tense confrontation between an irate crowd shouting things like "No to sodomy!" and a line of stoical, generally non-responsive policemen, punctuated by sudden moments of banal violence. One protester pelted an LNT cameraman with eggs. When a member of Mozaika attempted to leave the hotel by the front door, one protester ran up to squirt water in her face.
Igors Maslakovs directed the members of his group, No Pride, to go to other exits of the hotel in order to harass gay pride participants as they were leaving, and many of the children, some as young as eight, under his stead, all dressed in particularly graphic T-shirts that suggested a ban on sodomy, jumped up to follow orders, as if they were playing a game of "capture the flag."
Ledyaev, who is currently in Bulgaria, remembered things a little differently. "I'm against acting tough and being rude," he said in a telephone interview. "But being at that square in front of Reval Hotel I didn't see any violence.
"What I saw there is something that would belong to any democratic society. There were no burned cars or broken windows. Not even one gay was beaten, as happened in Moscow."
The charismatic line
Ledyaev founded New Generation, a charismatic church, in 1989. The charismatic line, according to Calitis, who is also the dean of the theology faculty at Latvia University, is about "working on people emotionally, altar calls, talking in tongues." It's about rock groups and pop groups performing Christian music. "It's entertainment. I don't mean that in a bad way."
And it's about a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The church has a branch in the Springfield, Massachussetts and Ledyaev attended a National Prayer Breakfast hosted by President Bush in February. But the pastor disagrees with the characterization of his church as being particularly "American."
Calitis disagrees. Though New Generation, like a few other churches in Riga, may not get their funding or pastoral support directly from Americans (which is the case with the Good News Christian Congregation, founded by the American pastor Rick Renner in 1993), all of them take their cues from certain American churches, he says.
"Everyone is watching television," Calitis says. And in taking their cues, New Generation not only copies the style but often the substance of the message. "I don't know where the shit-throwing comes from," says Calitis. "I don't know where that fits into their theology."
One would assume the appeal of the New Generation's essential weirdness may attract Latvians, who are accustomed to a long tradition of pagan mysticism, but Calitis says he understands the attraction for Russians, who are culturally more extroverted and may relate more to the emotive aspect of the church. Russians were also robbed of having a church tradition for a much longer time. "They may be more naive about religion."
Ledyaev was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan and grew up in the Baptist Church, which throughout the former Soviet Union was known for dissident activity. He still, apparently, bears the scars of that time. "It was especially bad in school in the fourth or fifth grade. [Baptist children] were made to stand in front of the class, as the teacher said, 'Look at what a strange thing we have here,' and all the students laughed at us."
Ledyaev remembers his file in the army covered in a word written in red ink, "Baptist," which meant the best job he could obtain would be that of a brick-layer. He eventually moved to the Pentecostal Church, and the relatively more celebratory nature of these two churches helped inform the manner of New Generation. That said, Calitis points out that traditional Baptists would not approve of New Generation's theatrics.
Ledyaev is, at the moment, unwary of taking political stands that may embarrass some of the other churches in Riga. He has a way of speaking his id. "I think there are a lot of gays in the media," he says. "You can tell it by the questions they ask and the articles they write."
In this he may have a soul mate in former Transport Minister Ainars Slesers, who Ledyaev says is a frequent V.I.P. member of the church. Slesers was quoted in the press this week saying "we can't have three policemen protecting every fag," but Ledyaev says his friend was quoted out of context.
"[Slesers] only meant that now [the gay pride controversies] will all be over, and we won't need to assign all these policemen to protect gay people," he says. "And that gay people should hold their meeting outside the city in a forest or a swamp where they won't bother anyone."
He took a firm stand in defense of Interior Minister Dzintars Jaundzeikars, becoming a particularly vocal proponent of a petition backed by the local Christian radio station in support of his retaining his position against the petition backed by the gay rights group Mozaika and others asking for his resignation. "The sexual minorities are trying to take revenge on Jaundzeikars," he says.
But there are other so-called American-style church groups who supported the petition to ban the gay pride parade, who balked at taking a position on the pro-Jaundzeikars petition one way or another. (Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said on July 31 that he would not demand Jaundzeikars' resignation, rendering the petition drive moot.)
The Good News Christian Congregation is one of these churches. When asked if his church had a strong relationship with New Generation, Andrey Chebotarev, the assistant pastor of Good News, answers after a slightly uncomfortable pause and through a nervous smile: "We believe in the same Jesus."
Next week, Outlook will look at two other mega-churches in Riga, which have a different approach to the events surrounding gay pride day.