There's no place like home
By Ivonne D'Amato
In 1989, brothers Sergey and Vladimir Maslov packed all the belongings they could into a suitcase and left Russia.
They, like many Christians in what was then the Soviet Union, took a giant leap of faith to pursue a better life in the United States, free of religious persecution.
Nearly six months later, the brothers arrived in State College, where they joined two other families -- about 20 people in all -- and became part of a fledgling Russian-speaking community.
Now, 16 years later, the Maslovs are credited by their friends with spearheading a project to build a new Russian Baptist Church for a congregation that now boasts almost 500 members.
Christians in the Soviet Union were treated differently, said Vladimir Maslov, 48, who works as a groundskeeper at Foxdale Village and was an original builder of the development. They had a hard time pursuing higher education, were under scrutiny at work and saw their children teased at school.
"When we came to America, we were glad we got more freedom, especially for Christian people. You could go to any church you like to and nobody would stop you and say, 'No, you can't go to that church,' " said Sergey Maslov, 43, owner of Maslov Construction and master builder of the church project.
At the time the brothers came to State College, there were no Russian-language Baptist churches in the area. For two years, they attended services in English, trying to learn the language and determined to exercise their new religious rights.
By 1991, the Russian-speaking community in State College had grown to include 60 people. They pooled enough money to rent space from Calvary Baptist Church on University Drive to hold Russian-language services.
To be granted visas to leave Russia, the Maslovs had to abdicate their Soviet citizenship.
They were able to do so when former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev created a loophole that allowed Christians to emigrate to Israel as Jews under the guise that Christians worshipped the same God.
Vladimir Maslov recalled the gut-wrenching fear he had of approaching the government office to ask permission to leave the Soviet Union. "We were afraid to go there because we did not know what was going to happen after," he said. "What if they said no, then it would be worse. We were scared we might be put in jail."
Once their visas were in hand they were in limbo, with no place to call home. "The government said you don't belong to anyone," Sergey Maslov said.
"It was scary," his brother added. "Until you got to the airplane, we were scared. Once in the airplane and we left Russia -- relief."
Although granted visas to go to Israel, the Maslovs changed their final destination while at a refugee camp in Vienna, Austria. They then traveled to Rome, where they stayed for several months until they were granted a work visa to go to the United States.
A place to call their own
Sergey Maslov worked in mining in Russia. His brother worked in a warehouse. They left those livelihoods behind them, with all else that was familiar.
In the U.S., they found their niche in the construction industry, although they had no formal training. The skills they developed came in handy when their congregation decided to build a Russian church.
The plan originally was to purchase an existing structure and, since 1993, the members, now numbering almost 400 people, had scrimped and saved to make that happen. But they couldn't find a facility large enough for their congregation.
So they decided to build.
Church members donated more than $1 million, and members of other Russian churches across the country pitched in too, Vladimir Maslov said. A loan for another $1 million covered the rest of the building expenses.
In December 2003, members found a 25-acre parcel of land on West College Avenue and construction began.
Every day, members contributed their time to help build the church, Vladimir Maslov said. Many members of the congregation worked in construction. Those who didn't pitched in where they could, helping keep costs down.
"Every day it was growing in our eyes," said 21-year-old Ruslan Moroz, a member of the church.
A firm foundation
Building plans for the church project were found on the Internet at churchplansforless.com.
An octagonal design was chosen and several modifications were made to the base plans, said Greg, marketing director for churchplansforless.com. He consulted with members from the Russian Baptist Church when the plans were purchased and helped design the modifications.
Base plans called for nine rooms wrapping around the "core sanctuary," Greg said, but the Russian Baptist Church added a 10th room. The choir area and altar were expanded, the baptistery access was altered and the total square footage was expanded by 5,000 feet, he said.
Although the octagonal shape is popular and has been used by other churches, Greg said, "the design is unique." The personal touches and modifications have made the church "a one-of-a-kind, at this point, through our company," he said.
A work in progress
In the choir room, reams of burgundy- and cream-colored material evolved into choir gowns as youth group members stained wood trim, painted or cleaned windows and experienced craftsmen cut drywall.
Friends from Philadelphia came to help with the woodwork and a group from Massachusetts helped hang drywall and lay carpet, Vladimir Maslov said.
Work that was not completed by members was contracted out. There were more complications and setbacks than anticipated.
The sewer lines, work on which had been contracted out, took the longest to pass inspection, Sergey Maslov said. After several delays in installation, the lines failed inspection nearly four times, delaying the issuance of an occupancy permit for the building, he said.
Every month that passed without a green light was another missed opportunity -- a chance to hold an Easter Egg hunt for church youth, or to celebrate Mother's Day or Father's Day as a congregation.
But despite the setbacks and disappointments, members eagerly watched the progress being made toward completing the work.
"People were very excited, and we still don't believe we have the church," said congregant Denis Smirnov.
After countless hours, and dozens of failed inspections, the church received its occupancy permit June 21.
Twelve years in the making and 18 months under construction, the nearly 20,000-square-foot church stands as a symbol of a community's accomplishments, and a testament of the bond between its members.
"It's been one year, six months and nine days," said church pastor Alexsander Tishchenko of the congregation's wait for the building to open.
Church members have held their first services and an open house. A dedication ceremony, with guests from Russian Baptist churches from across the country, will be held today.
The church's doors are never closed for those who want to worship.
"It's all about Jesus Christ, it's not about the Russian culture. This is the place we want to worship him," Smirnov said. "We try to preserve what our fathers and grandfathers passed on to us. Many of them were put in jails for being Christians -- for not denying him."
Services at the church are held in both English and Russian. "It's important for our parents and grandparents to hear services in Russian," Vladimir Maslov said.
Russian-language services are held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday, with translators available.
"We value life here," Smirnov said. "We appreciate it very much, especially the freedom of religion."
Ivonne D'Amato can be reached at 231-4619.