A classic American scene replayed a week ago when more than a thousand Russian and Ukrainian immigrants streamed into the old First Baptist Church in downtown Spokane.
For most Americans, it’s an image out of a distant past: grateful immigrants filling churches with strong accents, fervent faith and hope. So dated that many Americans might dismiss it as sentimental, this image pulses with trust and optimism, two qualities that jar with these ironic times.
It’s easy to predict the cycles that will follow. Countless American families already have lived them. There will be the rebellious, oddly pierced teens, more fascinated by MTV than Sunday morning church services; and the younger, more affluent generations that will come along, too buffered by a new economic security to find the old church services compelling. There will be growth and change, and with it will come the usual gains and losses.
But this group of immigrants arrives at a time in American history when we increasingly embrace the richness of diversity. No longer is America a place where newcomers routinely change their names, seeking an anesthetizing cultural sameness. Now, old names are proudly retained, and new ones created to reflect ethnicity and cultural pride.
Slavic Pilgrim Baptist Church may be lucky in that respect. The larger community may be even more fortunate. In the Slavic Pilgrim Baptist’s message of miracle and thanksgiving, we hear the echoes of our own ancestors’ prayers. We glimpse the gift embedded in this uniquely American scene - the gift of religious freedom.
It’s a freedom we forget to celebrate. These Russian and Ukrainian immigrants give us the opportunity to move away from tiresome religious arguments, to once again treasure this neglected right. Here, these immigrants will never have to attend an underground church or face discrimination because they don’t follow the state-sanctioned religion. In the U.S., we are free to follow any religious creed we choose.
The members of Slavic Pilgrim Baptist Church hung a banner from the church 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.” They were thankful for their new church, a miracle made of an old congregation’s generosity and a new one’s willingness to accept risk.
The rest of the Inland Northwest, looking on vicariously, can join the celebration - with gratitude for the enduring nature of this quintessentially American image and the undeniable freedom it represents.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jamie Tobias Neely/For the editorial board