A Most Exotic Exile

The church is Russian. The priest is from Boston. The founders were midgets. And the congregation is slim to none.

"Orthodoxy is a very involving religion," Sonia comments, overcoming her shyness. "Even if they weren't the children of a priest, I'd still be trying to weasel them up into the choir." As it is, the children don't have much choice, since without their participation, there isn't much of a service.

Few parishioners also means crimped finances. St. Vladimir operates on an annual budget of about $30,000, made up mostly of rent from two neighboring houses once owned by the midget Fillin and Velikanoff families, who bequeathed them to the church. Congregants pay monthly dues of three dollars each, and contribute to the collection plate after each service. McKenzie's family gets by on his modest salary of $11,000 and food stamps.

An obvious source of new congregants would seem to be Dade's growing Russian community. Although most of the area's 5000 Russian residents are Jewish, the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought an increasing number of Christian immigrants. McKenzie has tried to reach out to them by placing ads in local newspapers announcing services and feast days, but so far the response mostly has been requests for funerals, specifically for young Russian women drawn by the easy glamour of Miami Beach and done in by an overabundance of recklessness and bad luck. In the past two years, at least four have died of causes ranging from a traffic accident to a drug overdose and a violently jealous boyfriend. But McKenzie attributes the demise of all to their homeland's spiritual decline.

"Most of the Russians who come from Russia don't come to church," he laments. "Seventy-five years of atheism and most don't know anything about God, much less the church itself." In recent years, Russian women have materialized briefly during services only to disappear just as suddenly. "A woman will appear before the mother of God, before the Virgin Mary, and weep and put up a candle. They don't stay long, maybe fifteen minutes. Different women come from time to time. I can't say anything about them except that they are very beautiful, and they seem to be alone, and they seek God's help."

For McKenzie these mysterious women are proof that the spirituality of Dostoyevsky's Russia still exists. "Russia was Orthodox for 1000 years, and though the past 75 years has destroyed almost everything, it hasn't destroyed everything," he asserts. "That's what makes the Russian immigrants so vulnerable. That's the tragedy of the girls.

"For those who get to know Russian girls -- they are special," he continues. "I think it has something to do with the stappke, the spirituality of holy Russia before the revolution. It's something that Western people can't understand at all. However, wise men, when they meet Russian girls, they always recognize this admirable side that Russian girls have. A guy once called me and said, 'I want to meet a nice Russian girl. I can tell that Russian girls are different.' And I said, 'Well, you're exactly right, and the best way to meet them is to go to Russia. I told him to get a ticket on Aeroflot to Russia and go to the countryside and meet some Russian girls. I told him the best part of the Russian girls is this remnant of holiness from the 1000 years of holiness in Russian life."

McKenzie likes to imagine those times as an era of idyllic social harmony. "There was sin," he concedes. "There was corruption. There was dishonesty. But it was condemned openly. It was fought openly. It was not accepted as just another way of living."

This is the ideal that McKenzie strives to attain at his church. If only he can preserve a spark of the original faith, even if it's kept in a church that few people attend in the heart of Cuban Miami, there may be salvation for the Russian nation. "The main purpose of this church is to protect the Russian Orthodox Church," he declares. "Many many people in Russia are gratified and have their hope in us, in the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile for the renewal of the church."

McKenzie's newborn daughter Helena is baptized on a Sunday, and for once, the entire congregation shows up. Viera Mutch, a 33-year-old Russian-Venezuelan woman living in Coral Springs, is the godmother. She accepts the infant after baptism in a great silver pan of water, and wraps her in an embroidered white christening gown made by Viera's mother, Ekateryna.

There is some fumbling as the baby protests the unfamiliar hands on her body, and Ekateryna steps forward to help. Holy oil is dripped onto the infant: onto the mouth so she will never say an untruth, onto the eyelids so she will see the Lord, onto the ears so she will hear the Lord, onto her hands so she will do the Lord's work, onto her heart so she will love the Lord, and onto her feet so she will walk in the Lord's footsteps. A lock of hair is carefully clipped, symbolizing the baby's membership in the flock of Christ.

The baptism completed, Viera collapses on a chair in the McKenzies' living room, a paper plate full of food on her lap. In Spanish she explains that she and her mother have been attending the church for about three years. Although she doesn't understand much Slavonic, St. Vladimir's helps her keep in touch with her culture.

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