Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in Spokane/SpokaneFāVS File Photo

Spokane Slavic church creates cultural meaning

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Guest column by Patrick Jones

Throughout American history, the United States has supported ethnic diaspora and immigration to support millions of people who are facing persecution or discrimination in their home countries. This has allowed the U.S. to diversify culturally, ethnically and religiously. It gives the inhabitants of the country many different perspectives of the different worldly cultures and those who practice those different cultural ideologies. Washington state is no different; we have two large metropolitan areas that house different people of many cultural and ethnic backgrounds and heritage. 

Here in Spokane, we have a large population of Slavic-speaking people. In 2000, 2 percent of Spokane’s population was of Eastern European heritage; that is about 4,900 people. That is unfortunately the most recent data point I can find about the presence of Eastern Europeans in Spokane. That number however is most likely less than what was accurate in 2000. According to a 2002 article in the Kiev Post, Ukraine’s Global Voice, there are many other Eastern Europeans living in Spokane that have not been reported.

This column, which was originally a study I did at Gonzaga, aims to capture how the third wave Slavs of the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church create cultural meaning through their speech community, how they use their language to maintain and strengthen their ancestral culture in church context.

Site of Study

The Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church is a Slavic speaking church in Spokane. The church is located in the downtown area of Spokane right next to the I-90 Highway. It has been around since 1994 and has served the Baptist community of Slavic speaking members in Spokane since then. Ever since the third wave of Slavic migration in the early 90s, the Spokane area has been a hotbed for immigrants from the previous sovereign state of the USSR. The third wave immigrants were Slavs that were primarily leaving the USSR due to religious persecution. This led to the rise of Baptist and Pentecostal churches in and around Spokane that only preached and worshiped in Russian. There are dozens of different churches to this day that operate with plenty of Slavic patrons to stay afloat and worship.

Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in Spokane/SpokaneFāVS File Photo

Upon entering the church, a security guard greeted me at the door and asked me if I had needed an English translation. I said yes and he led me upstairs to get a receiver with headphones to hear the live English translation from a church member. I sat down and listened to the English translations while also observing the surroundings of the church.

The church also boasts multiple choirs, a brass band and a symphony orchestra therefore showing the importance of music to the congregation. The church also has ample classes throughout the week. One of note is the Russian language classes for the younger Slavic Baptists to learn their cultural language. Most of these children’s first language was English, since that is the language that they learn to speak in school. Therefore, going to a church that primarily uses Russian is difficult, which explains the need for the classes. The church is constantly busy with numerous events, camps and rehearsals. The grounds are almost always in use throughout the week. 

Most of the information that I have received about the church was found on their extensive site. Their website has all the information about the church that one would need with many different tabs to engage with the church from your computer or tablet. The site is home to a detailed history of Russians in the United States and in Spokane. The site also has descriptions of all of their camps, bands, events and ministries in great detail. Lastly, there are many local news articles about how Spokane and United States politics will affect the U.S Russian community, and their church in particular, in order to help the many church patrons that may not speak English. 

The church has a social media presence with profiles on Facebook and Instagram. Most of the posts were of different church events, new lectures and thematic series of church sermons. After the live services, the church would advertise fun events and ways to continue to connect with them. Most of these advertisements were in English and occasionally, they would put up the same advertisement in Russian as well. 

This church has multiple generations of people that are different and grew up in different ways. The older generation spent most of their days in the USSR and moved over to the U.S as adults who already have their cultural identity. But many in the younger generation were born in the U.S, specifically in Spokane. This generation is farther removed from their heritage and cultural background, and they align more with the cultural identity of those from the U.S. This divide is also seen in the languages that the two generations tend to speak. The older generation tends to speak in solely Russian while the younger generation tends to speak in mainly English; for both groups, that was their first language. This divide fragments their speech community and fragments their common culture.

Other than the difference of language, the services were typical for a modern day Christian church service. The service held songs which the whole congregation sang, the sermon was given by one of the many pastors of the church, children were hard to control and teenagers often talked silently in the background. Every member that I interacted with was nice and welcoming of my presence. The church community made me feel extremely welcome and did not mind that I was not a typical member of their community. They embraced my curiosity and tried to help me the best that they could. 

Findings

The Russian language is central to the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church’s cultural identity and the continuation of their heritage in Spokane. To many Slavs in Spokane, the preservation of their culture in the next generation of Slavs and in the Spokane area is extremely important. Others Slavs do not care if their children pass on the Slavic languages or cultural practices. This threatens the existence of Russian language, Slav culture and the church itself. There is a definite divide in the generations of church goers when it comes to the language they speak and practices they follow in relation to their cultural background. The church knows the existence of this divide and is doing everything they can do close it and retain their culture.

One of the most important things that the church does is Russian language courses for young people. This shows how important language is to this community and how influential language is to the understanding and practicing of culture. The abnormality of hosting a class for a language not often spoken in the country of origin shows its great importance and necessity. The difficult nature of learning a new language is seen in the children’s time during the service. They have great trouble speaking Russian due to their typical use of English in school and their struggle learning a language they are being forced to study and learn outside of school is apparent. Language is an inherent aspect of culture as it creates separate meanings than other cultures and speech communities. Different language perceive certain objects and phenomena in unique ways. This is proven through untranslatable words between popular languages. When a language does not have a word associated to something that another language does, that shows a complete difference in understanding and perceiving. Therefore, these classes were teaching Russian and preserving the cultural perception and ideology of the Slavic region where most of the third wave immigrants, the younger generations parents, were born and raised. The more of the younger generation that speaking Russian, the more likely the next generation will attend this church and use Russian in church, which will lead to a continuation of the Slavic tradition.

The necessity of the English translation and the demographic that uses the translation shows the resistance that exists within the younger generations of Slavs. The younger generations grow up speaking English since that is what they hear every day in school, and they do not seem to feel that the culture of their ancestors is important enough at that age to take the time and effort to master another language. Mastering a second language is difficult and if there is no perceivable point, a young kid is not going to want to take more time to study. But, their parents still speak Russian and choose to keep the language as part of their worship, and this is what brings the English translations to the ears of mainly young children.

The churches online presence tells a lot about how they are trying to bring people into their church by what languages they use. By this point, I have noticed that the younger generation and the older generation have a language gap between Russian and English, where the younger generation is speaking English and the older generation is speaking Russian. This method of thinking translates perfectly into how the church uses their social media platforms in relation to language. As mentioned above, Facebook is largely used by older generations, and Instagram’s demographics are mainly those who are a part of the younger generation. The church uses mostly Russian for Facebook and mostly English for Instagram. This is playing directly into the demographics of the two platforms. In reaching their older audiences, Russian is used due to the older populations’ mainly Russian-speaking tradition. And in reaching younger audiences, English is used due to the younger populations’ English-speaking tradition. This demonstrates the marketing tools that the church uses not only to keep the church afloat, but to keep the tradition alive. Their Instagram, which is geared toward the younger people, mainly advertises fun events, new interactive and enjoyable lecture series’ and other things that younger populations would enjoy. When I first saw this divide, I noticed the generational divide due to the drastic difference between the two platforms in what they advertise. The drastic difference proves that a generational divide exists, and show how most of it is defined by language.

Their easy to use website shows that the church is attempting to put themselves out into this technological age and keep people coming back. This website will make it easier for younger generations to start an engagement with them and to engage with them on a consistent matter. Technology and the internet run the modern world and the church understands that it is necessary to be relevant with the younger crowd. Bringing the young crowd in leads to the continuation of the Russian language which perpetuates the Slavic culture in Spokane. 

Their language perpetuates the method of praise and worship that accompanies the Slavic languages, and creates a whole different atmosphere. After my first time visiting, I went home and felt strange, like I had just left a whole other country and came back home. I felt as if I had entered a completely different world that was not Spokane. In this regard, the Russian language creates a whole new atmosphere that is unique to other American and English speaking churches. Russian brings the culture together, making it stronger and uninhibited by location or borders. Language is keeping the church and the way it worships afloat. Language to the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church is their staple method of praise and membership.

About Patrick Jones

Patrick Jones is a Gonzaga University graduate of the class of 2020. He has a degree in Communication Studies and minored in Journalism and Psychology. Currently, he is looking for work as a journalist or writer full-time. He has plans to attend a graduate program for journalism after a few years of work experience.

Patrick is interested in ethnography and linguistics which led to his senior capstone study on the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in Spokane, WA. His capstone was his final project for the Gonzaga Communication Studies Department. He is also interested in writing about the arts, especially music. One day, he could see himself working as a reporter covering music or a reporter for a local or national newspaper.

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