Last fall, the Rev. Alexandr Kaprian knelt on the cold floor of the hollow sanctuary at First Baptist Church and prayed for a miracle.
Sunday, Kaprian prayed before a standing-room-only crowd of immigrants from the Ukraine and Russia who breathed new life into that church.
It was the first day of the Russian spring.
For almost three hours, they celebrated the sale of First Baptist Church, 212 S. Lincoln, to the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church.
Married women covered their heads with scarves and ushered piles of children into pews that miraculously expanded to hold them all. Skinny pre-teen girls paced the aisles with fat babies on their hips. Boys with slicked-down hair and sweater vests clustered in the balcony.
Babushkas nodded their heads to the brass orchestra, where the pastor doubled as the drummer. The choir - dressed in red and gold robes that came with the building - sang a mixture of village folk songs and formal hymns.
If every weekend is this crowded, Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church would be one of the 10 most popular places of worship in Spokane.
Kaprian was modest.
“We only have about 150 adults, 150 children and 50 youths,” he said. “But we have a lot of visitors.”
Kaprian, 33, immigrated to America with his wife and children five years ago. He founded his church three years ago as a splinter from the Spokane Slavic Baptist Church, which is currently building its own house of worship on Five Mile Prairie.
The Pilgrim Slavic Church has been renting space from Central Baptist Church, 19 W. Shannon, for two years.
The Rev. Wim Maulden addressed the patient crowd Sunday, bidding a fond goodbye to his renters and hearty congratulations to the new congregation in town.
“I am glad that we could be a part of your past,” he said. “And I am even gladder that we might be a part of your future.”
Many of the immigrants present Sunday describe the sale of the building as nothing short of a miracle. There were three churches for sale last year in Spokane. None of them suited the needs of the growing Russian immigrant church. In the last eight years more than 10,000 people have immigrated to the Spokane area from the former Soviet Union, most of them evangelical or Pentecostal Christians.
First Baptist, meanwhile, was dying a slow death. Founded over 100 years ago, it was once a huge congregation with several services every weekend. Membership peaked in the 1950s, but recently dwindled to two dozen active members who decided last fall to sell the building and disband the congregation. They were asking $500,000.
It was during a tour of the building that Kaprian slipped into the sanctuary and uttered his prayer.
Pilgrim Church offered $250,000. First Baptist sent that bid back.
Eventually the two congregations agreed upon $250,000 up front, and $50,000 more to be paid in five years.
After seeing the spirit of the new owners, the old First Baptist Congregation voted to forget that additional $50,000.
“It was a gift from God,” Kaprian said Sunday. “We are witnesses to a miracle here today.”
The contents of the building - more than a dozen pianos, enough pint-size chairs for 10 Sunday-school classrooms, enough cribs and rocking chairs for two nurseries, the choir robes and much more - came with the sale.
The poor immigrant congregation bought into the middle-class American dream - monthly mortgage, high utility bills and leaky roof included.
“I don’t know how we are going to manage,” Kaprian said. “But I would be without faith if I allowed myself to worry about it.”
In a flurry of activity, Kaprian’s followers invaded the building last week - painting the entire sanctuary, cleaning all the Sunday-school rooms and cranking up the heat.
Word of the dedication spread by mouth throughout the Slavic community.
They came on Sunday in droves, dressed in their finest, overwhelming the five-car parking lot. A few men wore tuxedos. The little girls pinned bright round decorative flowers to the tops of their heads. The big girls gathered in the doorway, looking like images from teen fashion magazines.
A dozen video cameras documented the event.
A banner hung from the balcony quoting Genesis 28:17 in Russian: “How awesome is this place! There is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Nelli Kovalenko, who emigrated from Latvia two years ago, brought her son to the service. She does not belong to the church but wanted to celebrate with family who do.
She and others hope the building will serve as a community center and a source of pride, as well as a church.
“I am very happy for our children, They can come here and learn Russian, because some of them don’t want to talk Russian anymore,” she said. “And the old people, for many of them immigration has been very difficult. It will be a place for them too.”
Kaprian hopes to welcome all members of the community.
“This is a place of peace,” Kaprian said finally. “This house was built with God’s peace and love. There is no room for conflict. Here is a place for everyone.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FAST GROWING In the last eight years more than 10,000 people have immigrated to the Spokane area from the former Soviet Union, most of them evangelical or Pentecostal Christians.