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A revered past and a bright future
By ERICA HALL
A local Russian church is experiencing terrific growth and member participation, with a level of youth involvement any church would envy, a solid core of older regular members, and exciting plans for expansion.
But, like any large organization, growth has brought some growing pains, and the church is in the process of learning how to preserve and respect the past while moving forward to remain relevant to its young people.
The Slavic Gospel Church, located east of Interstate 5 in Federal Way, has an active membership of 1,500 adults and 1,500 youth.
During a tour of the church's expansive grounds near Weyerhaeuser headquarters, Russell Korets, the 22-year-old Ukrainian youth pastor, opened the doors to a youth sanctuary that's larger than many churches' main sanctuaries. It's the place where young men and women, generally between 16 and 22, fill the pews every Sunday and during services held frequently during the week.
"Our young people stay pretty active. We get our youth involved," Korets said. "Our focus is not just the youth service. We do a lot of outreach."
Slavic Gospel youth have for some time volunteered in the community. They regularly visit retirement homes, homeless shelters and, recently, prisons to sing, perform plays and visit people.
Church leaders also provide travel opportunities for youth, sending kids 16 and older to camps and training seminars and on missions to various parts of the world. To help offset the costs, Slavic Gospel youth work part-time, families save and the church collects money from its general membership.
The church places a lot of emphasis on its youth, and the cost is worth it in terms of the what the young people bring back with them. Many of the youth take what they learned to college, into adulthood and into their own family lives.
"They come back and they can't live a normal life again," Korets said. "They come back fired up."
Though Slavic Gospel's young members are already busy, Korets said the youth group has a lot of new plans for the future.
The church's young people are working to organize regular citywide litter clean-up efforts, with the intention of involving youth groups from other local churches. One day last summer, 400 kids from several local Russian and Ukrainian churches picked up litter in every park in the city and along every major street.
"We filled a construction Dumpster," Korets said. "It was a lot of fun. We love our city. If we don't help our city help businesses to be clean and prosper we're not doing our job."
In addition, the Slavic Gospel Church is trying to build relationships with other local American and Korean churches, whom they're hoping to include in future projects.
Meanwhile, the church has plans to build a new sanctuary that will be able to seat a couple thousand people, Korets said. Currently, Easter services overflow into the wedding banquet room.
And soon, an adult service, probably the second service on Sundays, will be given in English.
Changes bring anxiety
English is one of the hallmarks of change at Slavic Gospel, and it's causing some anxiety in some of the older members of the congregation. Like many immigrant communities in the United States, the older members of the church are concerned a preference for English could mean younger members are slowly beginning to assimilate and forget the older generation's values.
"This summer, we baptized people who were born in America already. Our youth service is 80 percent English now," Korets said.
"One of the biggest things we struggle with is the relationship between parents and youth. The older generation was imprisoned. Our senior pastor was imprisoned for being a Christian. They grew up having to go to services in the woods at night," he added. "The Communist Party didn't want kids learning. They felt the country needed to get God out of the country. (Adult congregants) look back at it as an experience they cherish. It was hard, but they stayed faithful.
"The adults think the young people are too Americanized. Our older people are scared of American culture, and so are our youth. The divorce rate in our church is 1 percent. When the rate is 50 percent (in the general public), that's unacceptable. If someone (in the church) gets divorced, everyone's talking about it.
"Most people get married within the church and stay here. We haven't really had any Ukrainians marry Americans yet. Adults don't want people to marry Americans Americans believe in divorce. If something starts going wrong, they'll divorce you," Korets said, laughing.
While cultural differences are proudly maintained at the church, young people have many of the same goals and concerns as the American kids they go to school with. Some want to go to college and most want to become successful in American society. Most of the young women have plans or are currently enrolled in nursing school, Korets said.
There is, however, a problem with some of the boys dropping out of high school to work construction, he said, and that introduces another conflict. Not all parents, particularly the ones newer to the United States, are concerned about their sons' disinterest in higher education, but others feel differently.
"Some parents want them to go to college 'You're not going to work hard like I had to,'" Korets said.
Many of the church's adult male members have started their own trucking or construction companies, and the boys view the line of work as respectable, stable and well-paying. Making good money at a young age and foregoing the expenses of college is difficult to pass up for some young men. "We have some young people driving pretty nice cars," Korets said. "Our young people work hard. They see a stable future in construction."
"You are the light of the world"
English services and job prospects aside, the level of activity for young people at Slavic Gospel Church keeps the kids interested and involved, and that keeps church leaders pleased.
In addition to services several times a week, the church provides a tremendous amount of activity for its young members. "We try to keep our young people as busy as possible," Korets said. "We get them so busy they're begging for a night off to do homework."
Membership and participation in the Slavic Gospel Church provides many young people with a chance to shine. Youth services are open and free-flowing; anyone can take the mic and offer testimonial, discuss portions of the Bible or sing. Some groups of young friends meet independently to practice songs they want to perform during services.
"It's one of the things we cherish very much. We tell our young people, 'If you go to American church, you're not go to be able to get involved,'" Korets said.
The general values taught to young people are similar to those taught to youth in American Protestant churches: Belief in the Bible, salvation through a crucified Jesus Christ, and personal purity. The Slavic Gospel Church's youth practice low rates of pre-marital sex "That's just something our young people stay away from," Korets said as well as obedience to parents and maintenance of good relationships with families.
"Our families are very close. We tell young people about family time, spending time with family," Korets said.
On the wall facing the rows of pews in the youth sanctuary, Slavic letters spell out the church's belief in its young people: "You are the light of the world."
Behind the podium is a painted screen depicting the Seattle skyline at night. It was a somewhat controversial addition to the dais, Korets said, but one the kids wanted and the adults ultimately allowed.
Many congregations in a variety of faith traditions across the United States are lamenting the loss of youth participation, but that trend hasn't seemed to have touched the Slavic Gospel Church. For many of the younger members, church provides community, friendship, opportunities and a focal point in their lives. There might be tension with older generations, but there isn't a question that youth will be at church.
"Going to church is very big for our community. In the former Soviet Union, you couldn't go to church freely. Parents say, 'You need to cherish this freedom,'" Korets said. "If someone stops going to church, I know about it."
Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, firstname.lastname@example.org