ROANOKE, VA (NIRR) – Americans following developments surrounding the millennial observances of the Russian Orthodox Church, including eyebrow-raising changes in church-and-state relationships, may have been short-changed by the press.
Many of the foreign reporters were exhausted from coverage of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Their editors back home seemed to want little more than an advance background story on the church, with maybe a refusenik-oriented glance at the overall religious scene, plus tid-bits on the doings of the Vatican delegation in town for the Orthodox celebrations. As a result, some key stories were not published, and some were never even covered.
One of the under-covered events was the visit of evangelist Billy Graham, June 8-17. The evangelist’s trip was highlighted by the following:
- Addressed audiences of top Russian Orthodox Church clergy, religious leaders from around the world, ranking government figures, and others at the main Orthodox jubilee observances at the Bolshoi theater in Moscow and the Shevchenko theater in Kiev – the first time in over 50 years major religious events were permitted to be held off church premises;
- Preached to overflow crowds at Baptist and Orthodox churches in both cities, including St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, where a throng estimated by church officials at between 12,000 and 15,000 heard him – his largest audience in the Soviet Union so far, and apparently the first time large loudspeakers were allowed outdoors for religious purposes since communists came to power;
- Met privately with key Soviet officials to discuss, among other topics, changes in church-and-state relationships as a result of the new government policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), and he heard candid acknowledgments that the state was “wrong” in some past dealings with the church.
The celebrations, which brought together perhaps the largest array of heads of religious bodies ever, received heavy coverage by Soviet television and the press, another first for Soviet churches. Almost every night for more than a week Soviet TV aired major documentaries or movies on the church. Graham himself was interviewed by Soviet journalists.
The evangelist is fairly well-known in the Soviet Union: the “Hour of Decision” is broadcast across the land by short-wave radio, his books are circulating among Christians, and he has preached there before.
A guest of honor of the Orthodox Church, Graham told reporters he was pleased by the changes he found since his visits in 1982 and 1984, and he expressed hope that progress will continue in church and state relationships. Some new policies, including the lifting of import restrictions on Bibles and other Christian literature, were among reforms he suggested in letters and private meetings with officials in his earlier visits. He also said he is still pressing for greater opportunities for Soviet Baptists, including the right to build and operate a seminary.
In Moscow, Graham joined other religious leaders for a rare meeting in the Kremlin where Andrei Gromyko fielded questions, some of them confrontational, on religious freedom. The evangelist conferred informally with many church leaders from around the world, exchanged pleasantries with Raisa Gorbachev and met pastors of unregistered churches and Orthodox activist, Gleb Yakunin.
Graham also met privately with key Gorbachev advisers, Anatoliy Dobrynin and Boris Ponamarev, but declined to disclose details of their talks.
Additionally, he preached at a Saturday night service at the picturesque Kolomenskoya Russian Orthodox “Church of the Czars” in a semi-rural setting on the banks of the Moscow River at the city’s southern edge. Awaiting his arrival, crowds lined both sides of a dirt road leading to the church. A number of children and young people were among those squeezed into the sanctuary – another new development for many Orthodox churches. The evangelist exhorted his listeners to “open your heart in a new way to Christ” and to be faithful witnesses at work and school.
On Sunday, he made a surprise visit to the city’s main Baptist church. “You are entering a new period of history for the nation,” he told the capacity congregation. “In past years, you faced many difficulties, but your faith has become strong,” he observed, adding: “You could help lead a revival throughout the world.”
The high point for Graham personally was his three-day visit to Kiev, a beautiful city of 3 million perched on verdant bluffs overlooking the Dnieper River – the place where Prince Vladimir in the year 988 baptized the people of Rus, which later became Russia, into Christianity. Here, the evangelist was hosted by Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, the top Orthodox churchman in the Ukraine.
“As Prince Vladimir changed and turned from idols, you must change and turn to Christ,” the evangelist told the thousands jammed into St. Vladimir Cathedral and thousands more under rainy skies outside. Metropolitan Filaret, resplendent in a red-and-gold robe and miter, stood at his side throughout the sermon, symbolizing the church’s approval of the evangelist’s message. Mobile military generators, manned by Soviet soldiers, provided power for the television lights and sound system, which could be heard for more than a block.
The scene was repeated to a lesser degree the next evening. Graham met with a group of Ukrainian Baptist, Pentecostal, and independent pastors, then went to the Yamskaya Street Baptist Church, where a crowd of thousands greeted him. (Just two or three years ago, such a crowd would not have been permitted to assemble.) A number said they had traveled hundreds of miles to see and hear him. Most had to listen to his sermon on loud speakers outside. When he concluded his sermon, some raised their hands in response to his appeal to follow Christ. A teen-age girl in the front row fell to her knees and wept.
Also in Kiev, Graham met with regional political leaders and attended an outdoor dedication service at the Monastery of the Caves, a highly revered site recently returned to the church by the government. The service, which climaxed Orthodox celebrations in Kiev, attracted tens of thousands.
At the very beginning of his 10-day visit, the evangelist traveled from Moscow to the nearby city of Zagorsk to witness the final day of deliberations of an important Orthodox council meeting. While there, he met with Patriarch Pimen, who is suffering from diabetes and other afflictions, and assured the venerable leader of his prayers.
Graham also met in Zagorsk with Konstantin Kharchev, head of the Council for Religious Affairs, the powerful government body that regulates churches in the U.S.S.R. In a conversation characterized by warmth and candor, the government official noted that Graham is well known in the Soviet Union, then briefed the evangelist on many of the changes affecting the church. At one point, Kharchev said the government is trying to correct mistakes made earlier. “Thousands of churches were closed in the past,” he said, “but the believers remained.” He said 150 churches (about 60 of them Orthodox) have been opened within the past few months.
In a press statement issued upon his departure from Moscow, Graham noted a need for “new and stronger bridges of friendship and understanding” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He suggested churches can make a crucial contribution by promoting stronger contacts between believers in the two countries.
Such contacts were already begun by thousands of American Sunday-school children and members of church youth groups who made and sent congratulatory cards to the Russian church on the occasion of its thousandth year. Some were on display at Graham’s hotel in Kiev. One child’s colorfully decorated card declared simply, “Happy birthday, Christians!” Another from South Carolina said, “Thanks for being Christians for so long. Keep up the good faith. I love you.”