Sunday, December 26, 2010

NYT: Newcomers revive Russian church in changing Brooklyn neighborhood.

For (New Calendar) Christmas, the New York Times offers a report on the revival of the century-old Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. After seeing its congregation wither as the children and grandchildren of the founding parishioners moved away, Holy Trinity has become vibrant again thanks to the efforts of an energetic pastor who has worked to draw a new wave of Russian immigrants into the church. How did he do it? The NYT's Nida Najar offers some answers:
As the church declined, a succession of priests came and went. But in 2001, the Orthodox Church of [sic: 'in'] America assigned Father [Vladimir] Alexeev, a Siberian-born priest who was in New York for six months to study English at Columbia University, to the church. His placement was temporary — until his bishop told him that Holy Trinity would be closed if he left.

Father Alexeev turned down a professorship at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland, where he had earned a doctorate in theology, to stay in East New York.

He had a plan: repopulate the congregation by reaching out to the new wave of Russian immigrants in the city.

“I thought, ‘What do people need?’ ” he recalled. “They feel lost in a new country with a foreign language and foreign law. They are looking for warmth.” He promoted the church on Russian-language television and radio programs. He made himself available to parishioners, answering their phone calls in the middle of the night.

One of his young recruits, Gleb Ivanov, a well-known concert pianist, can be seen during Sunday services in the choir balcony, singing hymns in his deep baritone. Sometimes, after a service, he plays the grand piano, a recent gift from a wealthy parishioner.

“It is very difficult to find the priest who gives all the time he can give to the church,” said Mr. Ivanov, who moved to the United States five years ago. “If a family is broke, he goes up there and puts it together. If there is some divorce, he goes there and puts it together. I’ve just never seen it before.”

Through Father Alexeev, the church has become a place where many recent immigrants who were raised in the forced secularism of the Soviet era can connect to a past they never knew.
For the rest, click here. The revival of Holy Trinity strikes me as noteworthy given the struggles that many other urban parishes (Catholic as well as Orthodox) face as the ethnic communities that founded them leave their traditional neighborhoods and becomes less connected to the institutions that their immigrant ancestors founded when they came to the United States. (For more on this issue, see this post from January.)

The arrival of a new wave of Russian immigrants to New York has obviously played a key role in the renewal of Holy Trinity, and I know of other instances in which a new influx of members of the founding group has helped to rejuvenate ethnic parishes. In most cases, however, churches in straits similar to the ones that Holy Trinity faced a decade ago cannot count on a similar infusion of new blood from the old country. Sometimes, the revitalization of traditionally ethnic parishes actually depends on new parishioners who do not belong to the founding ethnic group; this sort of movement brings its own challenges and tensions, but it can also give old churches a new lease on life.

Even if the revival of Holy Trinity depends partly on uniquely local circumstances, Father Vladimir's example of dedication to pastoral care and evangelization remains one that could be emulated elsewhere. A pastor can do a great deal to make or break a parish, and in some cases (Holy Trinity apparently being one of them) the right pastor can restore a dying church back to health. I pray that Father Vladimir's efforts will continue to bear great fruit, and I pray that other priests may learn from his example. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home