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Saturday, January 27, 2007 - Page updated at 12:21 AM

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Gay-rights foe finds new allies in Slavic churches

Seattle Times staff reporter

On a recent Sunday morning, at a strip mall in Kent, a few hundred people gathered to worship, rocking out to a band playing contemporary worship songs and cheering on the fiery pastor -- all in Russian.

This might seem an unlikely place for Ken Hutcherson -- Redmond's Antioch Bible Church senior pastor, who is known for outspoken views against homosexuality -- to look for allies in his effort to overturn a state law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But then Pastor Andrey Shapovalov asked the children to come forward. Bless them, he said. "Pray that none of them become homosexuals or lesbians or have abortions or live a life of crime."

At Transformation Center Church, a nondenominational, evangelical Slavic church, the theology is "very biblically conservative," Shapovalov says. "We are on the same page" as Hutcherson.

The unusual alliance began last spring, after a debate on gay rights between Hutcherson and King County Executive Ron Sims. A local man saw it and approached Hutcherson to arrange a meeting with his uncle, an evangelical pastor in Latvia who heads a network of churches in 14 countries, including the U.S.

The nephew "said he didn't know who I was or how important I was," Hutcherson says.

The relationship with the Latvian pastor, who is visiting Hutcherson this week, has led to pro-traditional-family, anti-gay-marriage conferences in Bellevue and Sacramento, Calif. And it resulted in a recent trip to Latvia, where Hutcherson says he met with top evangelical government officials to talk about stopping "the homosexual movement saying they're a minority and that they need their equal rights."

Quest for signatures

Hutcherson now hopes the alliance will result in signatures for an initiative he filed last week seeking to repeal a state law, passed a year ago, that adds sexual orientation to a state law banning discrimination based on race, gender, religion and other categories.

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"We've got a lot of churches to reach," said Hutcherson, who must gather at least 224,800 valid signatures by July 6 to put the initiative on the fall ballot.

"We want to get the Slavic churches, the Russian-speaking churches, the Korean churches, Philippine, Chinese, white, cross-cultural. ... If we're going to win this fight on protecting traditional marriage, we're going to need all churches to work together."

It's too soon to say whether Hutcherson's actions will yield the results he wants.

About two-thirds of the estimated 300 people who attend Transformation Center Church are U.S. citizens -- and thus eligible to sign the initiative petition. And although Transformation's involvement may signal the beginning of political action on gay issues by conservative evangelicals from the former Soviet republics, it's unclear where other such local churches stand.

Other questions include whether Hutcherson can mobilize other evangelical churches at a time when the public debate is centering mainly around domestic partnerships and gay marriage.

Even if his initiative makes it onto the ballot, Hutcherson's opponents doubt voters will take away a legal protection.

"I just don't believe the people of this state are going to support discrimination," said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who championed the gay-rights bill.

That isn't stopping Hutcherson, who says an earlier effort to repeal the bill failed in part because "we waited too late to get the churches together."

All of which has local gay-rights activist Bill Dubay musing: "I don't know why he cares so much that people have legal protections. ... It seems to me he needs a lot of attention, and this gets it for him."

"Tremendous ego"

Hutcherson, who had a brief National Football League career as a linebacker with the Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers, acknowledges "I have a tremendous ego."

"That's why I played pro football," he said. "I'm taking that same ego and energy that benefited me in football and now putting it in for the glory of God to do his will and his work."

In that regard, his ambitions are bigger than ever. He talks of organizing an international summit: "I am building a force around the world."

Back at Transformation Center Church, a guest speaker talked about "divine penicillin."

"I consider myself more American than those who were born in this country who are destroying it," said Wade Kusak, host of a Russian-language radio show in Sacramento and publisher of newspapers there and in Seattle.

It's no coincidence, he said, that states with growing evangelical Slavic communities are the most liberal, full of people "trying to destroy our families."

That's why God "made an injection" of Slavic evangelicals. "In those places where the disease is progressing, God made a divine penicillin."

Shapovalov said Kusak has spoken to his congregants on how to conduct themselves at political demonstrations.

In Kusak's home base of Sacramento, which has the nation's largest conservative evangelical Slavic community, church members have picketed gay-pride events and packed legislative meetings, often far outnumbering other protesters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The emigration began in the late 1980s, when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed victims of religious persecution -- among them Baptists, Pentecostals and Jews -- to leave the country, said Susan Hardwick, a University of Oregon geography professor specializing in Russian and Ukrainian immigrant communities.

Many went to Sacramento -- home of a Christian radio show that had been broadcast in the Soviet Union -- or settled in the Pacific Northwest. They established churches, which sponsored more families.

Many to draw from

Western Washington has at least 60,000 immigrants from former Soviet republics, said Charles Richter, a University of Washington graduate student studying Russian religion and immigrants. Roughly one-third are evangelical, one-third are Orthodox and the rest are of other or no faiths.

Shapovalov estimated that the Puget Sound area has about 30 to 40 evangelical Slavic churches. They haven't really worked together, he said, but he hopes he and Hutcherson can mobilize them.

Shapovalov, 32, a father of two, came to the United States from Ukraine in 1991 because he wanted to live in a "very Christian nation."

Now, he said, he sees signs of erosion everywhere.

"When we used to live in Russia, there is no drugs," and homosexuality was hidden, he said. But in the community here, some youths started drinking and a few engaged in homosexual behavior.

Church member Aleksandr Zadniprovskiy, 25, a Port Orchard auto-shop owner, said he wants his children to grow up the way he did. "I'm for doing things right. There's a right way to do it and a wrong way."

It's unclear where other local evangelical Russian-speaking churches stand. Pastors at some of them could not be reached for comment.

The larger community

Also uncertain is the extent to which the larger evangelical community will mobilize for the initiative.

Gary Randall, president of Faith and Freedom Network, a lobbying group for the state's conservative Christian community, said he would be happy to work with Hutcherson, although he said he doesn't know if people are still fired up about the issue.

Pastor Alec Rowlands, president of Sound the Alarm, a group for conservative Washington pastors, said his group's focus this year will be on re-energizing pastors. "That's not to say we won't engage in political things," he said. "But we've honestly not committed to any particular initiatives or campaigns."

That doesn't diminish Hutcherson's zeal. He said he was meeting this week with the visiting Latvian pastor, Shapovalov and possibly representatives of other local evangelical Russian-speaking churches.

"We better wake up," he said. "This is a war."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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