KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Pastor Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian preacher, understands why some in Ukraine are suspicious of him.
He’s black in a nation where racism is blatant, Pentecostal in a country considered the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy, and a foreigner whose lively, conversational preaching style — punctuated by pompom girls and electric keyboards — stands out from the subdued, centuries-old practices of Ukraine’s traditional faiths.
But the 39-year-old preacher laughs at critics who suspect black magic, hypnotism, brainwashing and even hallucinogenic drugs explain the hundreds of bopping, clapping white worshippers who fill his converted sports hall every Sunday.
By delivering a you-can-do-it message of hope and redemption — along with such direct help as free meals and addiction counseling — The Embassy of The Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations church has ballooned from a ministry for society’s troubled into this ex-Soviet republic’s first true megachurch, claiming a membership of 25,000 people.
The church, informally called God’s Embassy, boasts a TV ministry and plans for a $15 million church stadium, and aims to reach 5 million people — 10 percent of Ukraine’s population — with its message of salvation.
Adelja’s church has dispatched missionaries to Western Europe and the United States, and is eying China. Kiev’s new mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, is a member. Many analysts credit the church’s get-out-the-vote efforts with his surprise win in March over a two-term incumbent and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.
“I knew it would grow, I just never knew it would grow to this extent … in a way it is unexplainable,” said Adelaja, who came to the then-Soviet Union to study journalism but was inspired by a dream to establish a church.
Adelaja’s church is part of a Pentecostal movement that has flourished in Ukraine, which has been more politically and culturally open to new faiths than some of its other ex-Soviet neighbors, even as the dominant Orthodox faith has looked on warily.
Ukraine has long been an important religious center. Legend says the Apostle Andrew traveled the Kiev hills overlooking the Dnieper River, planting a cross and prophesying that someday, churches would be sprinkled over the landscape. Some 900 years later, a Slavic prince marched the population into the water to baptize them into the Christian faith.
While the Russian Orthodox Church made its base in Moscow, more than half of its registered churches were in Ukraine, including its most sacred monastery. But after the Soviet Union’s breakup, the Orthodox church in Ukraine splintered, weakening its influence.
“I don’t think there is the assumption that because you live in Ukraine, you must go to a particular Orthodox church … that makes it very different from Russia,” said Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, a group that promotes religious freedom. “Orthodoxy is very pluralistic in Ukraine. There is not one dominant church overshadowing everybody else.”
That has given other faiths more confidence, and Ukrainians more choice.
The non-governmental Religious Information Service of Ukraine estimated that some 60 percent of Ukrainians still identify with one of the Orthodox churches, and Protestant churches account for less than 1 million believers.
But the Pentecostals’ increased visibility has the traditional faiths nervous. Patriarch Filaret, who heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate, said he had written a letter to the new mayor “expressing fear that this sect will only become stronger with his election.”
At Adelaja’s church, the mainly young congregants come early for the three-hour service to mill around tables set up in the back that offer everything from specialized training programs to legal counsel.
Men whose knuckles are stamped with prison tattoos brush shoulders with young Ukrainians such as Anna Chizhebska who came with her husband and two children looking for an anchor amid the increasing materialism of Ukrainian society.
“I think a lot of people are searching right now,” she said. Her husband, Serhiy, added: “Everyone is seeking peace, a sense of how to live.” Both pledged to return.
The gregarious Adelaja, who addresses the congregants in accented Russian, pushes the audience to interact with him, trying to break through their customary wariness about revealing too much of themselves. Adelaja said he is trying to teach the congregants that religion “can be used to solve problems in their daily lives.”
“In many ways, it is simple common sense,” said Konstantyn Permylenko, as he quietly read a Bible in a corner of the sports hall while other members huddled in small groups, their hands laid on one another in prayer.
Despite his popularity, skeptics continue to question Adelaja.
He’s been accused of using the church as a moneymaking venture and investigated by a medical commission to ensure that he wasn’t claiming to be performing medical miracles on stage.
So when Kiev’s Mayor Chernovetsky recently invited the Orthodox patriarch — rather than Adelaja — to bless the city government buildings, the Nigerian pastor shrugged off the snub.
“Kiev is the motherland of the Orthodox church, it is a cultural thing to be Orthodox and people feel it is a disgrace and insult to have a Protestant mayor who goes to a black man’s church,” he said. “If you are a white politician, you have to cool that down … but let me tell you, he’ll be here on Sundays.”