Reverend B. Herbert Martin Sr. was Mayor Harold Washington’s pastor. And he is still Dorothy Tillman’s. But things have been a little dull for the pastor since Mayor Washington died–that is, until glasnost kindled Reverend Martin’s interest in the international political scene. So on Sunday, as Mikhail and Raisa visited farmers in Minnesota, Nikita and Oksana visited the Progressive Community Church at 48th and Wabash.
Oksana Moysina is an actress with Moscow’s Spartacus Square Theatre, and Nikita Tkachuk is its scenic designer. Both are here working on the production of Dear Elena Sergaevna at the Victory Gardens Theater, in which Moysina plays a Soviet high school teacher terrorized by four students who want her to cooperate in changing the scores on their final exams.
The members of the Russian theater group have visited many points of interest in Chicago: Sears Tower, Lincoln Park Zoo, ethnic neighborhoods, private homes, and a Dominick’s, where the women of Spartacus Square were less interested in a tour of the frozen-food department than they were in the seemingly limitless brands of hair spray. (Despite whispered advice to buy it at a nearby discount store, they took no chances. Once the spray was discovered, they wouldn’t let go–it was to be theirs at any price.)
The visit by the two members of the troupe to Reverend Martin’s church was the result of the efforts of mutual friends in Chicago’s religious community. On Sunday morning Doug Lyons, a church steward, picked Moysina and Tkachuk up in a white BMW and drove them to the south side–they have no transportation of their own while they’re here. Joining them was Moysina’s husband, John Freed-man, an American who fell in love with her when he went to study Russian drama in Moscow two years ago, and who has made the Soviet Union his home. He translated for them.
The Russians were seated in the middle of the regular congregants, many of whom were dressed in flowing white gowns or starched white tailored suits. After the choir’s processional, Moysina enthusiastically joined in the singing of the hymn “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” Someone who was trying to be helpful handed her a hymnbook, but her English is not good. She put it down in favor of clapping heartily to the beat while she swayed. Just like the parishioners.
“Welcome, visitors, to our praying ground,” said Martin to the Russians. “The world is coming together in this place. God is doing a good part of his work at 56 E. 48th Street.” A big white banner with big red letters hung above his head: “One Goal, One God, One Mind.”
Then the pastor introduced Moysina to the congregation. She stood and smiled, and then threw a kiss like Dinah Shore used to.
“The last Nikita we knew was Khrushchev,” Martin said when he introduced Tkachuk. “Any relation?”
After a moment’s pause for Freedman’s translation, Tkachuk chuckled and said no.
“As President Bush sits with the key leader of the Soviet Union, we have Soviet citizens in our house of prayer. Love converts the heart–not nuclear disarmament,” said Martin. “People have to come together–not just the leaders. And I can’t think of a better place to come together than 56 E. 48th Street in Chicago.”
The congregation voiced its approval, and the pastor grinned.
“I have a challenge for Oksana when she goes back to the Soviet Union,” said Martin. “There is no way she will forget us. Seeds are being planted now. Our children will be leaders of government and churches someday, so I want to start a pen-pal writing program with the children from Progressive Community and the children from the Soviet Union. I can hear God speaking.”
Moysina nodded vehemently as her husband translated.
Then a young man, Brother Keith Niles, led the congregation in a rousing chorus of “I’m Gonna Wait on Jesus,” after which he collapsed, hugging, kissing, and clinging to Martin, who had a vaguely bewildered look on his face. Niles had to be carried off the stage. The Russians stared, but took it all in stride.
The tithing box was placed in front of the congregation, and row by row the congregants came up front and put little white envelopes of cash in. The Russians too dropped in a few bucks.
Just before Martin’s sermon the Russians had to leave so they could make their Sunday matinee performance. Martin embraced them, shook their hands, and blessed them. Doug Lyons, who was to drive them back, walked out with them.
“Absolutely stunning,” said Tkachuk in Russian as he got into the car. Freedman translated. “Their sincerity is astonishing. What a sense of holiday and joy. It is extremely unusual–to be so very human and understandable. What marvelous faces.”
Moysina said that though she was never baptized, she occasionally visits the most famous Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, which is near the theater where she works. Then she said that she was taken by the “openness” at Progressive Community Church. “There is no sense of an unnatural atmosphere–everyone behaves naturally. Their eyes shine. The joy comes out. I love gospel music.
“I had no idea what an African American church was like. Everyone at an Orthodox church is quiet and subdued. There is so much life here–joy, colors, flowers. It’s miraculous.”
As Doug Lyons started the car he said visits such as theirs make a deep impression on the members of his church. “At first there is cultural shock, but then the spirit of God is easily understood.”
A few hours later the TV news would be dominated by presidents Bush and Gorbachev, by the Lithuanian situation, arms control, Jewish emigration, and most-favored-nation status for the Soviet Union.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.