They are a growing force in the Sacramento area, and they fear their adopted homeland is endangered by permissiveness and corrupting influences. Local gay groups say their tactics are hateful and often violent.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
Organizers of the annual Rainbow Festival were prepared for trouble.
The Q Crew, a local “queer/straight alliance,” distributed cards telling people what to do if approached by hostile demonstrators. Sympathetic local church groups formed a protective buffer along the festival ground’s cyclone fence. Mounted police were on patrol.
Jerry Sloan manned a table for Stand Up for Sacramento, a recently formed gay self-defense organization.
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“So far, so good,” he said. “No Russians.”
The festival, held last month amid the gay bars, restaurants and shops of midtown’s Lavender Heights neighborhood, went off without conflict. But the elaborate security preparations reflected growing tensions between Sacramento gays and the city’s large and vociferous community of fundamentalist Christians from the former Soviet Union.
Over the past 18 months, Sacramento Russian-language church members have picketed gay-pride events, jammed into legislative committee meetings when gay issues were on the agenda and demonstrated at school-board meetings.
Incited by firebrand Russian Pentecostal pastors and polemical Russian-language newspapers, the fundamentalists turn out en masse for state Capitol protest rallies.
In most instances, Russian-speaking demonstrators far outnumber representatives from all other anti-gay groups combined. Anti-homosexual rallies that a few years ago attracted a few dozen participants now regularly draw hundreds and sometimes thousands, many with a heavy Russian accent.
After a wave of religious refugees that began coming here in the late 1980s, Sacramento now has one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in North America, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Slavic immigrants, community members say. They came primarily from Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and the other southern Soviet republics, settling mostly in Sacramento’s northern and western suburbs.
“The main issues in the Russian community here,” said Vitaly Prokopchuk, a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, “are gay issues, abortion issues and family-definition issues. To these people, these issues are very cut-and-dry in the Bible.”
Sacramento has more than 70 Russian fundamentalist congregations. One of them, Bethany Missionary Slavic Church, has 3,200 members and claims to be the largest Russian-language church outside of Europe.
Sacramento has a 24-hour Russian-language cable-television station, two radio stations and several newspapers, all of which push a conservative message marked by strident opposition to homosexuality.
For Sacramento gay leaders, the sudden appearance of organized demonstrators was a major shock after years of building support in the state capital. “We’ve been accepted and were just perking along,” said Sloan, a 69-year-old church pastor and co-founder of Lambda Community Center, which serves the gay community. “That’s why this Russian thing was such a jolt to people.”
Gay civil-rights activists, meanwhile, accuse the demonstrators of hateful and aggressive tactics that they say sometimes lean dangerously toward violence. Signs displayed by the demonstrators often equate homosexuality with pedophilia and describe the AIDS epidemic as a message from God. One of the common tactics of the demonstrators is to tap gays forcefully on the head and announce that they have been “saved.”
Nathan Feldman said he formed his gay self-defense organization, Stand Up for Sacramento, after he was surrounded by dozens of Russian-speaking demonstrators at a June gay-pride parade.
“I ended up getting spit on and yelled at,” said Feldman, whose organization recently staged a counterdemonstration outside Bethany Slavic Missionary Church.
Many refugees learned about Sacramento from two sources: a short-wave fundamentalist religious radio program, “Word to Russia,” that originated here, and a Russian-language newspaper, “Our Days,” that was printed in Sacramento and distributed to underground churches in the Soviet Union. A local Russian Baptist church persuaded several Sacramento evangelical churches to sponsor the refugees.
Prokopchuk, the Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, attributes the recent political activities in the community to culture shock and anti-homosexual prejudices imported from the home country.
“Back home, homosexuality was looked at as kind of a disgrace and a lifestyle for immoral people and prisoners,” Prokopchuk said. “I came from a town of 30,000 people but did not know even one openly gay person.”
But an even bigger factor, Prokopchuk said, is the widespread fear in the Russian-Ukrainian community that the American popular culture will capture their children.
“It’s not only about homosexuality. It’s also about drinking, about premarital sex and about drugs,” Prokopchuk said. “Some of these people even regret coming here because they have a feeling they are losing their kids.”
Like the Calvinist Puritans who were the first to settle in the New World, many in the Slavic religious community have an apocalyptic worldview. To them, the United States is a chosen nation but the American church is apostate and hapless, not up to the job. The Slavic Christians view it as their duty to cleanse and save the nation in preparation for Jesus Christ’s return to Earth.
“We feel the American church already lost the battle 20 years ago by remaining silent,” said Victor Chernyetsky, 47, a Soviet-trained engineer who serves as administrator for the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church. “We can’t remain silent. There are a lot of sins.”
One of the first Slavic immigrants to jump into politics was Galina Bondar, an energetic 39-year-old registered nurse from Ukraine whose father is a leading fundamentalist pastor.
Bondar said she was inspired by a radio interview with Randy Thomasson, the president of the Campaign for Children and Families who took her under his wing.
In 1997, Bondar started her own weekly Russian-language radio program, “Heal Our Land,” which tracks legislation of interest to the Russian church. She began speaking at Sacramento Russian Baptist and Pentecostal churches, urging political action.
Bondar, as much as anyone, was responsible for organizing and directing public protests, including a raucous 2005 appearance at a legislative hearing on gay marriage that marked the political coming out of the Slavic community.
“We hate government oppression of religious freedom and family values, whether in Russia or California,” Bondar said. “We just have more we can do about it in California.”
On Sept. 5, the day after the Sacramento Rainbow Festival, several hundred sign-wielding demonstrators appeared at the Capitol to oppose a state Senate bill that would have banned negative references based on sexual orientation from state textbooks and classes. In the crowd were Bondar’s mother, father and grandmother.
The next day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, stating that protection against discrimination already existed in state law.
“We may not have gotten the veto without them,” said Thomasson, who spearheaded the lobbying effort against the bill.