Md. man takes Word to Russia Missionary: A Carroll County man, his wife and 10 children are battling the language barrier and bureaucracy to turn Muscovites into Baptists.

November 29, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Baptist Pastor Alan Fluegge is here on a mission from God.

What other inspiration could there be to bring his wife and 10 of their 11 children to live in Moscow, where they've had to squeeze into a three-room apartment, make six-hour treks for basic groceries and even learn a new language?

The Carroll County preacher has come to save Russian souls from hellfire.

In taking on this spiritual challenge, he has deposited his family into a social crucible that, by comfortable middle-American standards, is a form of hellfire itself.

To watch this missionary family from Maryland negotiate Russia's hazardous bureaucratic whims, nasty officialdom and fierce religious nationalism is like watching a raft of laughing innocents unknowingly headed for the falls.

But the Fluegge (pronounced flew-gy) family always seems to miraculously turn up downstream from disaster, joking and praising the Lord.

"I know God wants us here. We have a burden to reach the Russian people with the word of Jesus Christ and see them saved," says Fluegge, 49, who ran the independent Westminster Community Baptist Church for 10 years and founded the Christian Heritage Academy there.

Ultimately, Fluegge wants to build a Baptist congregation to leave in the hands of a Russian Baptist minister.

The time frame? As long as it takes.

Given the official Russian reception for foreign missionaries, Fluegge's task could take a long time indeed.

The Russian Constitution guarantees religious freedom. But in practice, the law is heavily weighted in favor of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church, which officially views Protestant churches as heretical sects.

Fluegge traveled more than a year of canceled appointments and impossible paper chases, doubt, prayer and inspiration to crack the bureaucracy that prevented him from holding a public meeting.

The strong Russian suspicion of Baptists blindsided the Fluegges last year when 9-year-old Christopher came home with a Russian playmate who let them in on the gossip raging through their 22-story apartment building.

The large Fluegge family seemed to be living proof of the old Russian tale that Baptists eat their children.

Nationalist authorities such as former Kremlin national security adviser Alexander I. Lebed, who called Mormon missionaries "mold," see missionaries as a Western threat to Russia's culture.

The Orthodox lobby is behind new federal and regional legislative efforts to restrict any missionary who would "ignite religious dissension" or "violate generally accepted norms of behavior" -- situations that could apply to anyone who disagrees with Orthodox doctrine.

"I didn't know any of this before I got here. When I realized this, I said, 'What about perestroika?' " says Fluegge, whose uncommon trust in God can be as disarming as it is disconcerting.

Loophole ends stalemate

In September, he finally found a loophole in the regulations that allowed him to work under the umbrella of a government-registered Baptist group.

So, last month he was able to reserve a 200-seat theater for a regular Sunday afternoon "family seminar."

Fluegge hopes a congregation will form from this regular service and a weekly Bible study group of about 12 Russians he has held for a year.

At his first public meeting, in mid-October, 50 Russians turned up to hear him and receive free Bibles. In the end, five came down front to be "saved."

Fluegge, who does not speak Russian, must preach one sentence at a time so that a translator can keep up with him. His homespun American cliches don't always translate. But he keeps his audience attentive by jumping and shrieking "whoopee!" and "yippee!" to punctuate his joy over one blessing or another.

At his first public meeting, one woman who was "saved," Valentina Petrova, 69, had seen a handbill about the program 20 minutes before it started.

An Orthodox Church member, she never did seem to realize this was a Baptist gathering. But she said she liked the personal touch of Fluegge's Bible stories and the children singing hymns on stage.

Indeed, it is the personal aspect of Fluegge's evangelism that draws Russians alienated by the very formal Orthodox Church, where the congregation stands for hours during services conducted in Old Slavonic, a language they don't understand.

"Whenever you enter the [Orthodox] church, no one asks who you are or what you are," complains Olga Alexakhina, a housewife who has attended Fluegge's weekly Bible study with her husband for the past year.

"Alan knows us. He knows the Bible really well and he answers every question we have," she explains.

"But at the Orthodox Church we failed to get anything -- they never answer our questions, or if they do, they talk to us like we're illiterate children. If you want to talk to the priest, you have to do it standing up in a corner of the church."

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