A Russian Orthodox Church in the predominantly Jewish area of Brighton Beach is now in dire financial straits, after years of community-building — a growth that reflects a broader turn toward Orthodoxy among both Russian citizens and immigrants.
After a religious celebration at the Church of Our Lady the Inexhaustible Chalice on a Tuesday morning in Brighton Beach, the golden oldie regulars are having tea and cake in what could be a scrapyard. A woman with a paisley headscarf brings a spilling-over pot of tea down uneven wooden stairs; a layered cream cake, rye bread and salo (frozen lard) follow.
Her name is Elizaveta Yefreeva. She came from western Ukraine to Brighton Beach in 2001, looking for work, and was there from the church community’s beginning in 2002, when around a dozen people first started getting together for informal prayer in someone’s basement. She was there when they got enough money together a couple of years later, with a priest, to rent a room in a local nursing home once a week.
And in 2008, when the Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Synod helped them rent an entire house on Brighton 1st Place, in a quiet residential area not far from the Boardwalk, she went to work for the church as a general helper. Yefreeva sells candles, keeps a tab on church supplies and cleans the church. “This church is as close to a home away from home for me,” she says. She has a family of her own — some in Brighton Beach, some in Ukraine -, but refers to the church as her “second family.” Yefreeva says that she only occasionally attended church in Ukraine.
The Brighton Beach congregation now numbers around 50 on weekends — bump that up to around a hundred for a weekend celebration –and from 10 to 15 people on an average weekday. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that the global number of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31 percent to 72 percent between 1991 and 2008.
This rise of interest in Orthodox Christianity is reflected in the trends of the Russian immigrant community in New York. Father Andrei Psarev, who has been working at the Orthodox Church Outside of Russia Synod on the Upper East Side since 1990, notes: “Our congregation grew radically in the couple of years after 1991. It is now three times the size it was in 1990.”
Psarev says he thinks many people turned to the church as a support system to deal with the psychological and practical difficulties of émigré life. “The church acts as a fifth corner of comfort,” he says. Father Vasiliy Raskkovskiy, of the Brighton Beach church, offered a similar insight: “I feel like the church is more of a social club than a religious institution sometimes.”
But this Russian Orthodox Church is in the midst of what has become New York’s largest Russian Jewish community. The more recent wave of non-religiously motivated immigration after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. increased the Christian Orthodox population in an area traditionally populated by Russian Jews of the 70s and 80s immigration waves.
On occasion, Yefreeva, helps prepare food for the couple of homeless people living in the church’s backyard, as well as for herself and the priest. The shelter is not an organized charity: the church does not help them to find work or force them to participate in church life. Out of the four homeless individuals living there, only one helps out at the church regularly. Despite the church’s financial hardship, the church feeds, clothes and houses them only on the condition that they stop drinking. Father Raskkovskiy says: “It’s just in the Christian spirit.”
In the church’s backyard, the chai and conversation overflows, from daily banalities into politics. A bare-chested man — one of the shelter residents — wearing an apron appears flapping fresh sardines in his hands before disappearing again. Before eating, they pray to the icons hung above the relics of furniture, wires and a broken TV set strewn across the ground. It is not every day that the church allows for such extravaganzas, but this shack-turned-church is a far cry from the ornate gilded décor and formality usually associated with the Orthodox Church.
Despite the jovial tone of the occasion, Yefreeva says she feels that they are gradually being pushed out of the community. She says the Buildings Department regularly fines the church, because of work permit violations and noise complaints from the neighbors. Yefreeva says that neighbors complain that their backyards now neighbor a “bordello.”
Records of calls to 311 show no such complaints and a couple of neighbors interviewed did not voice any concerns about living next to the church. The church does, however, owe $48,000 in fines to the Buildings Department, for violating occupancy quotas and work permit restrictions, one of which is an illegal conversion at the back of the building — an altar, made of wood and insulated by various bits of material sticking out of the cracks beneath the shiny roof.
Father Raskkovskiy has been serving at the church in Brighton Beach for only three weeks, but has been working in the U.S. for the past decade. He is rakish figure in his official regalia, and fluctuates between extremes of seriousness and joviality. While the backyard festivities carry on, inside the church he speaks for a long time in hushed tones to a woman who has suddenly come in crying. He then comes back out, affectionately slapping people’s backs and cracking jokes.
Father Raskkovskiy is reluctant to talk finances, but says that he ultimately hopes to buy a bigger church with more room for people and better air conditioning. But he adds: “For now I just hope that we don’t end up having to leave the property all together. We don’t have enough money to pay fines on top of rent.”