RIGA - A Sunday service at the Good News Christian Center is, to the uninitiated, good, cheesy entertainment. A group of Christian rockers dressed in white, pump out a series of pop songs with lyrics like "It's all about you, Jesus" sung in Russian. Andrey Chebotarev, the assistant pastor, a happy thick-browed man of 34, stands on the stage, dressed in black, where he asks his parishioners to come forward to leave offerings in wicker baskets placed in front of the stage. "Please, give with joy," he says.
This is the second of a two-part article. Last week, Outlook looked at the New Generation Church, which has been linked to the violent protests that marred the gay pride festival in Riga on July 22.
Chebotarev introduces the morning's guest preacher, Chris Hill, a 37-year-old African-American from Dallas, Texas, who gives an infectious sermon about the story of Joseph. A Russian translator stands next to Hill, translating him line-by-line and, though he is evidently a little shyer and less physically imposing, he does his best to copy Hill's hand motions and the inflections of his jokes. ("Then Joseph gets marriedâ€¦No. First he gets a job. Then he gets married. Let that be a lesson for you young men out there.")
People come forward for an altar call, and Hill walks down the line blessing people one by one. By the end of the service, the floor in front of the stage is strewn with small old women with broken teeth, passed out on faith.
A big show in a big complex. The Good News Christian Center, founded by the American pastor Rick Renner in 1993 is a near self-contained universe. It has a cafe, a Christian bookstore, a gym, a children's playroom and a sauna. A sign out front points out the church is covered in Wi-Fi.
Though Good News had been involved in the petition drive to ban the gay pride parade, no one during the service brings up the violent demonstrations that had marred the gay pride festival eight days before. Nor does anyone mention the petition defending Interior Minister Dzintars Jaundzeikars, which is backed by the Christian radio station and is making the rounds of several churches. (One day after the service, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis announced that he would not seek Jaundzeikars' resignation, rendering the petition drive moot.)
When asked after the service about his silence on the interior minister, Chebotarev shakes his head, calls the petition drive, "an election thing."
The debate surrounding the gay pride festival has often drifted into accusations of foreign influence. Anti-gay activists have pointed out that the most visible member of Mozaika, the country's main gay rights organization, is a Swedish-born Latvian, Linda Freimane. When TBT interviewed Freimane a day after the gay pride festival, she made a special note of churches like New Generation, a charismatic church, some of whose members have been linked to the anti-gay protests of that day, as having "copied all their ideas from America."
The Good News Christian Center, a predominately Russian church, and Prieka Vests, a predominately Latvian church with a similar style that was founded three years earlier in 1990, have actively distanced themselves from New Generation, but a visit to these two churches may prove instructive.
Despite the obvious influences, neither of the pastors acknowledge that they follow an American style. "An American pastor comes to my church once or twice a year," Vilnis Gleske, the 46-year-old pastor of Prieka Vests, says. Gleske is a small compact man who looks little over half his age. Where Chebotarev is gleeful, loud and gregarious, Gleske, at least in person, is soft-spoken and subdued.
Chebotarev's church may have been founded by an American and may have received quite a bit of funding from Americans, but he says the style of his church is "universal."
"You see churches like this everywhere in the world."
Gleske, like Chebotarev, balks on taking a position on the Jaundzeikars petition and both pastors express horror at the violence that marked the gay pride festival.
"It was not Christian," says Gleske.
It's unclear whether Gleske is being sincere, but Juris Calitis, a minister in both the Anglican and Lutheran churches (he was effectively removed from the latter last November over his pro-gay beliefs), and a former teacher of Gleske's at the University of Latvia (Calitis is the dean of the theology faculty), says he believes him.
"Many fundamentalists in my [Ph.D.] program tend to be very arrogant, but Gleske was very affable," Calitis said. "He was always willing to listen to people who differed with him in his views."
Gleske barely passed Calitis' program, making a minimal passing score of four out of 10.
"Many of the fundamentalists who come into our program are looking for something that will give them an emotional connection with their faith. Our program doesn't offer that. It's very intellectual."
When told that Gleske denies an American influence, Calitis just shakes his head.
You could argue that no church in Latvia is all that indigenous to the country, and the Baptist Church, in which Gleske grew up is no exception.
In the 19th century, a group of British missionaries arrived in Latvia via Russia and founded the country's first Baptist churches. The churches were celebratory and musical, filled with hymnals. Those missionaries probably did not realize that their churches would, a century later during the Soviet era, become centers of anti-communist activism, actively supported by their counterparts in the West.
Memories of oppression still haunt many people who grew up in the Baptist Church in the former Soviet Union, but Gleske seems not to carry the same pain as others. "We couldn't have Sunday school and children couldn't participate in the choir, but that was it."
After the Soviet era, according to Calitis, a small number of offshoots split from the Baptist Church, taking their cue from the Americans, from the so-called "charismatic line." Even if they weren't actively founded by American pastors, as is obviously the case with Good News, they did take their cues from television, says Calitis.
And that's where the Christian rock bands, the lights and the altar calls come from. The churches are also generally homophobic, but it's unclear whether or not they could have picked that up at home as well, as the rhetoric from Good News and Prieka Vests doesn't differ that strongly from that coming from the Lutheran and Catholic churches.
In Chebotarev's words: "All the churches in Latvia get along together."
Sins of prejudice
Chebotarev and Gleske may be against violence, but they remain unrepentant for taking a stand against the planned gay pride parade, which several EU parliamentarians have condemned as a denial of the right of assembly.
"If a nudist wanted to march down the streetâ€¦it's not right to do that to other people," Chebotarev says.
If the gays had been allowed to parade, Gleske says, it would be the first of many steps leading to, perhaps, "teaching kids about homosexuality in school."
Chebotarev, an ethnic Romanian who grew up in the Ukraine, was raised in the Pentecostal Church, which has a slightly similar history in the region to the Baptist Church. He has much more to say than Gleske about the oppression he suffered. "My parents kept taking me to church and kept getting penalized for it."
But he can't relate the pain he suffered as a young man to the problems of gays in the new Latvia. "Gays have a lot of freedom," he says. "Nobody oppresses them."