Wayside Bible Church had a great idea; some 50,000+ Russian immigrants lived and worked in the Portland area, so why not reach out to these people with a weekly Russian service? The church, under the leadership of its pastor of 15 years, Rev. James Kiln, began weeks of planning for Saturday evening evangelistic services for Russians that would take place at the church. All seemed to be going well; the pastor was motivated, the church members were on board with the project, and many volunteered to help out getting things started, advertising in local newspapers and Russian communities around the Portland area. But on the night of the first service things did not go as smoothly as they had planned.
"I was very interested to know more about Christianity and the Bible and things like this," said Sergi Bagachov, one of the few Russian immigrants at the service who spoke English. "We spent many years under Communism where we were not able to hear these things, so this was something I had great interest in. But suddenly this man stands up and he begins to speak English, but not the normal English. He was speaking English but with Russian accent. I guess he thought we would understand him if he just spoke this way."
As the service progressed Rev. Kiln and the rest of the Wayside members who were assisting all spoke English...but with Russian accents to the Russian immigrants in an effort to communicate.
"We feel like it went okay" said Kiln. "I spent a lot of time practicing my Russian in the weeks leading up to the service. I watched Hunt for Red October several times, and it wasn't until too long that I was picking up on it. For instance, I just have to change the "th" sounds to a "z" or an "s" sound, and roll my "r" a lot. I also have to switch word orders around and leave out some words. So when I preach in Russian I say something like, 'Please to take zee Bible and we are to open to zee chapter 9 of book of Gospel of John' or 'We are to be studying zis Bible today for long time.' I really think we reached the people by speaking their language.
"They sang songs in English," said Bagachov. "This man read from Bible in English. One man stood and gave a speech about Bible for many minutes in English, but he spoke his words funny, like he was trying to be a Russian man speaking English bad."
"I thought this man was madman," said Irina Kapilova in broken English. Kapilova, a 58-year old from the Urals immigrated to the United States in 1999 to seek a better life for her and her 5 children. "I hear of this and I say I want to know more. My English not so good, so I only understand very small things. But there were old babushkas (grandmothers) at this place who spoke no English. They told me later that they thought this man is crazy man, and they will not come back."
Many of the Russian immigrants living in the Portland area are over the age of 50 and have very limited English skills. Most immigrated to the United States in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1992 and 1996. While there are already a number of all Russian congregations in the area, a number of local churches have made efforts to reach out to un-churched Russians.
"I'm appalled," said Pastor Mike Lawrence of Temple Baptist Church in Portland. "We've been trying to reach out to the Russians in Portland for the past 10 years. I started studying Russian in my spare time 10 years ago, and I've just gotten to where I can preach without a translator to the people that come to our Russian service. The fact that these people don't realize that speaking English with an accent is not the Russian language just baffles me."
Despite criticism Kiln and his congregation intend to continue with the weekly service for Russians.
"Our attendance has slacked off greatly in the past few months, but my Russian is getting better. I've been watching more movies lately, and I hope that will help things pick up again."