Archbishop Janis Vanags on Finding & Keeping the Faith in Post-Soviet Latvia
Janis Vanags is Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. He spoke with William J. Tighe in 1999 in Riga, Latvia.
William J. Tighe: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Perhaps you might tell us something about your personal and religious background.
Janis Vanags (JV): I was born on May 25, 1958, during Soviet rule. My father taught German in the Pedagogical Academy in Liepaja, and my mother taught music in the school that I attended there.
I was trained in chemistry and became a schoolteacher, but because of my religious belief I was fired. Then I worked as a window-washer in the railroad station and also as an operator in the City of Riga sewage system. In the railroad station I washed windows together with a Baptist, and in the sewage system there were many Christians and students of theology.
During this time I began to study theology in the seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL). It was more like a correspondence course, because it was not allowed to meet full-time. So we came together for just three days a month for lectures and exams. Otherwise, we mostly read books or compendiums that had been prepared by the teachers—typewritten and copied.
In my second year, 1985, I was ordained and sent to Saldus. It was like a sign from heaven. I had two jobs, but it was not quite legal in the Soviet Union at that time to have two jobs. The authorities found out and said that I had to give up one of them. I was very puzzled about which one to choose. The deadline was December 8th. Then a letter came from the Lutheran Church Consistory saying that on December 1st I would be ordained and on the 8th I would start my ministry in another city, Saldus. So I had to give up both jobs!
I accepted this as a sign from God and moved to Saldus and worked there for almost eight years. I had a congregation in Saldus, and four others as well; so I started with five. It was normal for one pastor to work with many congregations. (The record was fourteen congregations for one pastor. He died.) In my congregations mostly old people were coming to church, but the Saldus congregation was quite strong nevertheless.
Then in 1988 and 1989 things started opening up with perestroika and glasnost, and suddenly it wasn’t forbidden to speak about God openly. The congregations started to grow very fast. In one year church attendance grew from about 50 people on Sundays to over 300—the church could hold 300 and not all could come in. In these years the ELCL opened—or rather reopened—over 100 churches that had been closed, and even founded some new ones. Such were the times.
From what you said about your parents, I take it you didn’t come from a Christian family background.
JV: Correct; my parents were teachers, and for teachers it was impossible to be practicing church members. Teachers could be imprisoned for three years if they used their positions to tell their students anything about Christianity.
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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