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BRIGHTON BEACH, N.Y.- Leslie McMillan hears voices wherever she works. They used to be the voices of politicians in Olympia, capital of the state of Washington. Now they're voices with thick Russian accents in this Brooklyn neighborhood (adjacent to Coney Island) where store awnings and windows display names and prices in Cyrillic lettering.
McMillan since 1998 has been director of the Russian Community Life Center, which provides English language and Bible classes to Russian Jewish immigrants. Eight staff members and numerous volunteers make possible weekly classes for 100 students, most of whom are middle-aged; a majority are women. Most heard of the opportunity from leaflets handed them in the street or from ads in the weekly Russian language newspaper. They then walked past a shop selling vitamins and herbs and a liquor store, through a narrow hallway, up a flight of stairs to the second floor, and into a different world.
The center advertises clearly that its English language classes include Bible teaching. Most students say they have never opened a Bible-the former Soviet Union, with its strict atheism, stamped out much of the religious heritage of the Jewish population-but a 30-minute Bible study starts off each class, and McMillan says, "Russian Jews are the most open group of Jews in the world." Some who came as staunch atheists leave as Christian believers.
That's what makes McMillan remain by the Atlantic Ocean, 3,000 miles from the state by the Pacific that she and her husband loved. They were both politically embedded in Olympia when, while attending a conference in 1988, they accidentally ended up in a church service and found themselves responding to an altar call-God taking two self-described "bad heathens" and "radically saving us." Then something that was also strange happened: "God gave me a heart for Jewish people as soon as I started consistently reading the Bible, which was the first day after being saved."
McMillan took Hebrew classes, subscribed to publications concerned with Jewish evangelism, attended conferences, led Israel-oriented activities at her church, and visited Israel twice-all the while unable to explain her interest and wondering, "Why am I doing this?" But in March 1998, almost exactly 10 years after the conference church service, a woman from a Brooklyn ministry to Russian Jews visited Olympia, spent a week with McMillan, and then told her she was needed to direct the Russian Community Life Center.
Within seven months she and her husband, Del, were in Brooklyn: They could make the move because she was 42, but Del was 72 and retired from the staff of the state Senate. They knew no Russian, had never directed a ministry, and had been to the center only once. Nevertheless, after fervent prayer, two garage sales, and a house sale, they made the cross-country drive with a full van, including a dog and a cat. McMillan was on the job in Brighton Beach, the rough and resilient area known as "Little Russia."
Little Russia swelled in the 1980s as Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika policies opened doors for Russian Jews who wanted to leave the former USSR. Around 300,000 by the 1990s had immigrated to the United States with refugee status, most settling in Brooklyn. For the Russian Community Life Center, the opportunity to reach these immigrants with the gospel couldn't be ignored. For years Americans had been barred from entering Russia; now Russia was coming to America.
Among the immigrants were women like Era, a teacher and administrator in Uzbekistan before she moved to Brighton Beach to follow her son who had already settled in Brooklyn. A well-educated atheist and "very opinionated and skeptical," McMillan recalls, Era walked into the center one day looking for classes to sharpen her English. She then came to class week after week with Bible chapter not only read but memorized. She was always ready to argue, until one day she walked into class and said, "Well, I invited Jesus into my heart." Era is now in her 60s and, McMillan says, has "learned to love Him a lot."
Making their way from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and many other cities and towns, the majority of Russian Jewish immigrants like Era are experienced and well-educated. Once in the United States, however, their lack of English skills and the high rent of New York City create a difficult barrier. Regardless of past experience, the top three jobs for women living in the Brighton Beach area are home attendant, live-in babysitter, and housekeeper. Most men work construction, find odd jobs, or serve as drivers. To make ends meet, long and diverse hours are a necessity. Finding the time to study English is difficult: According to McMillan, "Almost everyone is universally depressed for about three years after they get here."
And McMillan herself has sometimes been depressed. A few years ago, she experienced what she describes as a test: "I had been looking at the house, I had some pictures, and I went home and burned them. I said, 'God I give this to You. I've said no. That's it.'" The few photos were snapshots of a newly remodeled home in Olympia, Wash., which from its kitchen window had an unobstructed view of the Washington State Capitol dome.
The house had recently been bought and dedicated as a house of prayer for Christians in Olympia, and the McMillans had been invited to run it. It was an ideal fit for many reasons: They knew the political territory, and they could live for free in a beautiful house to lead a prayer ministry in a community they loved. McMillan thought that perhaps God was saying "Well done" and providing a rest. How could they say no? But they did, out of the firm conviction that God had called them to the Russian Community Life Center, and they could not leave.
A year ago the McMillans traveled to Olympia for their biennnial trip to visit supporters. They went to the prayer house. It was "fabulously gorgeous" and the view of the Capitol dome was as imagined. But they returned to Brooklyn, recently celebrated their 27th anniversary, and plan to stay. The center now rents out its classrooms, chapel, and kitchen to American, Russian, and Messianic congregations as well as to other Christian groups, clubs, and organizations. Leslie McMillan's goal for her center, and her life, is for both to be "24/7/365 Jesus."