Our Russian Sanctuary

by Mai Vu, sophmore

The sanctuary of the Russian church in Vladimir.

Emmanuel Church in Russian city of Vladimir could be mistaken for a large boarding house.  From the outside, the façade does not include stained glass windows or a large cross bearing its name.  Instead, it blends in with the other simple apartment buildings that surround it.  Sixteen identical windows cover the building’s face with a seventeenth window in the center tying it all together with six panels. The pinkish-tan paint color with a darker mauve trim reminds me of the convalescent home in Garden Grove that I used to visit and sing karaoke for the residents.  The only thing that hints at its purpose is the colorful banner on the outside proclaiming, “Jesus Is Risen!” with a little icon in the corner saying, “ЗММАНУИЛ.”  Yes, there is a sign, but in quick passing, the building does not scream Pentecostal Church.

As I pass through the iron gates and through the brown metal front door, I am greeted by two sets of stairs, giving me the choice of up or down.  One set is made out of tile, bright like the road with sun rays piercing through the trees.  The other is the worn down cement with cracks and uneven-footing like the dark road filled with dead trees and vicious animals.  Sure, it only leads to the basement, but who knows what lurks down there.  Choosing up, tile and light, I walk up the stairs, through a white metal door and into the sanctuary.

Some things about this room remain consistent.  The floor is always cold and hard like the counter at a Cold Stone Creamery.  It is speckled linoleum, the kind that can hide dirt so that it does not have to constantly be cleaned.  It does get cleaned though every week.  I found that out this morning when I wanted to have some quiet time in the main sanctuary.  The men and women that live at the church clean it on Wednesday mornings.  They push aside all of the benches and sweep and mop the floors just like they would in a normal house.

The lights of the santuary, when on, shine a bright money-saver white.  It is the kind that burns your eyes when you look up at them.  Luckily, the off-white, almost cream walls somehow change the light so that it reflects a sleepy yellow tint.

Another item that remains constant is the bench that I sit on.  It is simple and practical in design.  About six and a half feet in length, the bench is able to accommodate five people comfortably.  The backrest and frame is constructed out of a light polished wood and it is carved at the top into crests and swoops like waves.  The cushion is not fancy by any means, but it is comfortable.  Its fabric, warn down and dirty, holds indentations from the numerous bottoms that have sat there.  I am thankful for the wear and tear of the seats because the fabric is soft like a worn in sweatshirt or pair of old jeans.  When I first look at it, it is inviting and tells me to sit down.

Sitting in the bench, I now face the front of the sanctuary.  The drum kit, electric piano, and microphones still remain on the left, and the pulpit is off to the right.  The carpeted stage is a darker, off-salmon color and it, un-like the linoleum, cannot hide stains.  To my left are carved pictures of Moses and the Ten Commandments and a man knocking on a door — “Seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be open unto you.”  At night, both paintings radiate because the white money-saver bulbs shine right on them and deepens the shadows and enhances the shine.  In the morning however, the paintings go unnoticed because they are eclipsed by the brilliant rays of light that shine through the two windows that sit on the same wall.

In the morning the room becomes contradictory — its purpose shifts from being a sanctuary to a classroom, to a stage, and to an escape.  The pulpit transforms into a podium where Professor Lee and Professor Norton teach on Stalin and the Cold War.  Sergei comes to chat about growing up as a child in Russia and Marina lectures about her opinion of The Gulag Archipelago. Students sit in the benches just like they would sit in class with laptops open and books strewn around, pens everywhere.  Today, Annemarie is wrapped up in her green FINNAIR blanket and I sit cross legged with my candy-corn Halloween socks.  Macho has on his green hunting cap.

How bizarre. This is a place of worship, not studying.  Hats off, shoes on because I am in church, not at home on the couch.  Every Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday there is a church service full of believers praying out loud, some in tongues.  Loud music and singing fill up my ears, the Russian language still not presenting itself as a barrier as I sing along to “More Love, More Power.”  The love of God transcends all barricades, including language.

Yes, this is the room’s purpose, a room of worship and prayer.  Though, as I sing along it shifts once again, this time transforming into a stage.  In front of me I see Masha singing vocals for the praise band.  Bright lights shine down on her cute skirt, shirt, and heels and she dances around with the microphone raised to her lips.  Her arms are raised to the ceiling and her face is furrowed into a pained expressing almost saying, “Here I am, thank you for loving me!”

Then again, what is her motivation?  Is the front of the sanctuary a stage to her where she puts on a show, closing her eyes singing and praying because it is the thing to do or is the platform an area for Christ to do His work and use her as a vessel? I want to look at her and think that she is truly in a state of worship and is singing in complete abandon, “Here I am Lord, thank you for loving me!”  Only God knows the true desires of our hearts.

The room modifies itself once more, this time into one that is silent.  I walk in to find Aaron sitting up on the off-salmon colored carpeted platform reading his Bible.  The room is an escape for him who seeks solitude.  Aaron does not look up as he reads his Bible, instead, quickly looks to the side, jots down a note and continues reading.  It is late tonight and the white, money-saver bulbs shine just like the night before, giving the room a soft, sleepy, yellow tint.  With a final sigh, Aaron closes his eyes and sinks into prayer.

The room transforms for the last time, back into a sanctuary.  I sit staring at the wooden cross on the opposite wall with the soft worn in bench under my thighs and bright, white, money-saver lights glowing above me.

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