Last spring, the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in west Phoenix seemed ready to implode.
Families and friends -- most of whom had fled the oppressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980s for a new life in the States -- had become blood enemies. Elim's controversial pastor, Dorin Druhora, had taken to routinely calling police, once after parishioners physically tried to keep him from entering church to lead a Sunday-night service.
Tucked away in a middle-class residential neighborhood near 19th Avenue and Cactus, Elim (the word comes from the Old Testament, and means "oasis") had turned into a place where many worshipers had become as adept at citing Arizona law as the Golden Rule.
The roots of this conflict ran deep, indeed, back to Romania and the onerous world from which many of the church's parishioners had escaped.
Last year, for example, Pastor Druhora's naysayers at Elim publicly accused him of having spied against fellow Christians in the late 1980s for Romania's notorious secret police. Druhora denied the allegations, which were front-page news in Romania for a time. His detractors also accused Druhora of laundering church monies, with which he allegedly increased his Romanian property holdings.
Druhora left Phoenix in June, and moved to a church in Missouri. But his departure did little to ease the ill will between the bitter factions. Within months after he quit, a few hundred of Elim's 700 or so members started a new church, named Maranatha -- which translates into "Jesus Is Coming Soon." For now, the splinter group is worshiping at a junior high auditorium/gymnasium in west Phoenix.
In some cases, members of the same family have gone their separate ways, an almost unfathomable turn of events in a community where "church" means much more than a building where one prays.
"Church for us is not just church," explains Jacob Cotan, a Scottsdale apartment complex manager who also is an ordained minister. "It's a social, cultural and spiritual environment -- everything in one package. This country gave us a chance in life to be free. But Romanians are very stubborn, and we don't operate sometimes unless things are difficult."
Cotan is correct in that the strife at Elim does parallel that of Romania itself. Located in southeast Europe, the nation embraces family, religion, the arts and hard work. But unrelenting suspicion of each other and of authority -- much of it fomented during Ceausescu's evil reign -- still dominates the average Romanian mindset, as it does at Elim.
"We were living the lie in Romania for 40 years," says Elim's Emanuel Farkas, referring to the length of the Communist regime, which collapsed in 1989. "I think what has happened in our church goes back to history -- where those in power do anything to keep that power, including lie, cheat and steal."
Add to that what expatriate scribe Andrei Codrescu once wrote -- that Romanians are raised in a land where embellishment, fantasy and fact often blur -- and you have the ingredients for what's happened at Elim. And accusations, rumors and innuendo still rule the day at the church, even with Pastor Druhora's departure.
"The Romanian people are good people," says former Elim church secretary Leo Isfan, who now attends the new church. "But we've got it in our blood to disagree on things. I have been a witness to the whole unhealthy circumstance at Elim. One day, God will grab us by our ears and discuss with us what we said and what we did."
About 85 percent of Romania's 23 million people are members of the Orthodox Church. About 500,000 Romanian citizens count themselves as Pentecostals.
Pentecostals say that, after the "Rapture" and the "Millennial Reign of Christ," God will judge the living and the dead. Some will be rewarded with eternal life, while others will face eternal punishment.
Pentecostals also believe that God divinely calls their minister to the fold, a most ringing endorsement. But Ted Oprea says he had no intention of being a full-time pastor when he started preaching to fellow Romanian immigrants after migrating to Phoenix in 1979.
"No one else wanted to do it," says Oprea, a tough guy originally from western Romania, who now buys and restores apartment complexes.
Oprea was born a Baptist, but decided as a young man to become a Pentecostal. He left Romania in 1979, when he was in his mid-20s: "I didn't have nothing but my family and the Bible. But we don't scare easy. We escaped from the Communists, you know."
In Phoenix, Oprea worked long hours on construction jobs to support his family, and build his savings account. He also opened his doors and pocketbook to other Romanian newcomers, and preached the Gospel out of his West Valley home.
Oprea's brother, Zack, joined him in Phoenix in 1980. Zack, too, came here with little, but was thrilled to be in the States, he says, "a free man, with a free family, just free."
Zack Oprea had served in the Romanian Army as a teen, and says the Communists targeted him as a potential future member.
"I was a good boy," he says sarcastically, "and I had opportunities to go all the way to the top. But the Communists were big liars, saying all the time we were equals, when they had their own everything -- stores, restaurants, money. I said no to all that."
Instead, Zack Oprea worked for years in a factory, aware at all times of Securitate agents who lurked on and off the job: "You could not go to get a cup of coffee without someone watching you. Spies everywhere. Can't practice your religion. Can't say nothing about nothing."
He says he and three friends tried to escape Romania through Hungary in 1976. The "plan" was to somehow get his family to join him wherever he found refuge. But Hungarian authorities returned Oprea to Romania, where he was imprisoned for six months.
"My wife didn't know I was alive for weeks," he says. "No lights there. Freezing cold. Bad food. I thought I was gonna die. I got a little crazy. But I still believed in God."
Three years later, the Communists allowed Zack Oprea and his family to leave Romania. The Opreas were among the lucky ones. Life for most Romanians during the 1980s was exceptionally cruel. Already living in one of the poorest nations in Europe, residents routinely found themselves without heat, hot water and electricity.
During that time, the Ceausescu regime outlawed birth control, and mandated couples to produce five children, in hopes of boosting a shrinking work force. The Securitate was more potent than ever, using its web of impoverished citizens to spy for money on friends, neighbors, even family.
Romania's Pentecostals weren't allowed to practice their faith freely, if at all. Government agents infiltrated those churches that were allowed to operate, and made life unbearable for clerics who dared even to allude to Ceausescu's shortcomings.
"We would worship in back rooms, with the lights down low, after hours, and always be frightened of getting caught," recalls Jacob Cotan. "You're always thinking, 'Who is a spy? Who is my friend, but not my friend?'"
By the late 1980s, about 200 Romanian Pentecostals had migrated to the Valley. Almost all made a beeline to Ted Oprea and his network who knew the lay of the new land.
By now, they could call themselves a congregation.
The Romanian Pentecostals rented, then bought a building on North 23rd Avenue, south of Missouri. Ted Oprea continued to share pastoral duties, but he knew the budding church needed a full-time pastor to lead it into the future.
In 1992, the church hired Dorin Druhora to do just that.
Dorin Druhora would not discuss his past for this story, other than to stress, "You cannot believe anything that the people who hate me say about me."
Aspects of his background, however, are verifiable through public records and other sources. Born in November 1958 in the northwest Romanian city of Cluj, Druhora in the late 1980s attended the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Bucharest.
He came to the U.S. in 1992 to study at evangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia. When Ted Oprea learned from school officials that a Romanian Pentecostal was attending the Christian institution, he contacted Druhora.
"My wife and I decided to support him financially at school," Oprea recalls, "then to help him and his family establish residence in Phoenix. I thought he was the angel of light when he came here in 1993."
Even those who came to despise Druhora admit he's an excellent orator. His stirring sermons lured dozens of immigrating Romanians to the growing flock in the early and mid-1990s.
By then, church members had donated much of the money and labor needed to purchase land and to build a new church. In 1997, for example, records show that Druhora and the church board collected $675,000 in cash from parishioners for construction costs.
The new Elim church opened in 1998, and is an impressive structure, with a high-vaulted ceiling and lovely stained-glass windows. It comfortably seats about 700, and features state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment and other amenities.
The celebrations that marked the opening of Elim went on for weeks. But the excitement soon was dimmed by what had been the simmering concerns of many parishioners. Though no one can point to a galvanizing incident, some church leaders, including Ted Oprea, say they had begun to suspect that Druhora was stealing money from Elim.
The pastor denied wrongdoing as Oprea and others started to air their grievances. But the animosity was palpable by 1999.
"We found out that this guy is a Communist, 100 percent," Zack Oprea says. "The Devil brought this man to us. He did whatever he wanted with people and money."
Evidence of this, however, was inconclusive.
In mid-1999, Elim's governing board asked parishioner John Hactu, an accountant, to examine the church's ledgers. Hactu later said Druhora repeatedly refused to give him the records he needed to properly do his job. Still, his audit revealed that Elim's finances were, to be kind, a mess.
Thousands of dollars in "personal loans" to Druhora hadn't been repaid. And the pastor quietly had billed Elim for numerous personal items -- cell phones, furniture and the like.
Druhora's response was to damn the report as biased, and to disallow its presentation to the church as a whole.
Then, in an unexpected August 1999 maneuver that outraged many, Druhora disbanded the church board and installed his own supporters. The pliant new board later expelled John Hactu and others from Elim for conduct allegedly detrimental to the church.
One of Elim's newer members was Jacob Cotan. Cotan had known Druhora in Romania, and at first had respected the pastor's oratorical and leadership prowess. In November 1999, the church elected Cotan as an associate pastor, an honor he embraced.
But Cotan was one of a growing number of parishioners soured by what he considered Druhora's machinations: "The lies, the manipulations of good people, the twisting of things by this guy became apparent to me. He was keeping a grip the Communist way, Romanian-style, which is something else again."
Then, that December, a Romanian evangelist named John Pop sent the first of three inflammatory e-mails to the Elim church. He alleged that, while in seminary school during the late 1980s, Pastor Druhora -- a onetime colleague -- had spied on fellow students and others for the Securitate.
Pop claimed he'd happened upon Druhora's name while researching old Securitate files in Bucharest. Someone at Elim later distributed an anonymous letter that summarized Pop's allegations:
"Mr. Pop found out from the secret police files that Mr. Druhora was not a true brother in Christ, but one that betrayed so many of their [religious] meetings, brothers and sisters and, ultimately, Christ to torture, prison, loss of employment, and public shame."
Druhora's woes were escalating. On September 8, 2000, a daily newspaper in Romania's Transylvania district ran a front-page story headlined "The Red Reverends Incriminate Each Other: Feud Among Security's Evangelists."
The story said former Securitate officer Marius Matei had filed a court "declaration" saying he had been in charge of working Druhora as a spy. Matei was a former chief of the Securitate's "Neo-Protestant cults department," and his allegations carried weight.
"Mr. Druhora was admitted to the Seminary under the condition of informing, working for the secret police," Matei wrote in an affidavit. "Under the code name, 'The Hawk,' [Druhora] supplied, over the four years as student at the Pentecostal Seminary, activities of the seminary . . . and of foreign evangelicals and dignitaries. . . . The information provided about them was used to blackmail, to compromise and recruit them as informants."
Matei later retracted his statement, allegedly after one of Druhora's supporters paid him to do so.
On December 3, 2000, tensions at Elim escalated to a new level. As often happens in highly charged situations, almost everyone has a different spin.
Druhora and his supporters say a pack of parishioners barred him from entering Elim for the 6 p.m. Sunday service. The pastor claimed one detractor, Emanuel Farkas, told him, "You're going in over my dead body."
Farkas admits he said that, but only after Druhora allegedly "charged into me like it was a football game." To the contrary, Alex Westwood, one of the church's founders, later testified at a court hearing that Druhora literally had crawled under his foes into the church.
The mood at Elim was anything but pacific.
"They call you a crook and they call you pig," recalls Druhora supporter Leo Isfan, speaking of the pastor's enemies. "A church relationship is to love and trust each other to the death. But once you say, 'I'm right, and nobody is right but me,' there are problems. How can people who worship the same God who loves them be pushing, shoving, taunting their pastor over and over?"
Within days, Druhora requested a court injunction against harassment against eight members of Elim. He alleged that, on December 2, 2000, his enemies had held an "illegal meeting inside the church . . . rebelling to overthrow the pastor (me)."
As for the December 3 clash, Druhora accused his adversaries of "pushing the pastor, to stop him [from going] inside the church to start the service."
The injunction form included a standard question, "If the Court does not grant your request today, what serious harm may occur?"
"More emotional and physical harassment," the pastor wrote. "Potential for violence."
Phoenix city court judge Karyn Klausner had a daunting task on the morning of January 7, 2001. Her job was to decide whether to order the eight parishioners -- including the Oprea brothers, Ted and Zack -- to stay away from the church and from Pastor Druhora.
"This is a very sad day for the Romanian community here, for the church, and for the Gospel of Christ," Jacob Cotan testified during the tempestuous hearing.
Cotan told the judge about eggs and stones that someone -- he suspected the pro-Druhora camp -- had been hurling at his home, and of vicious late-night calls from the pastor's supporters.
Druhora's 16-year-old daughter sobbed from the stand as she described how an adult parishioner had berated her in the parking lot on the evening of December 3.
"He said, 'Aren't you ashamed of your father? Aren't you?'"
Later in the hearing, Rad Vucichevich, a Phoenix attorney representing the anti-Druhora camp, raised the specter of the pastor's alleged stint as a Romanian spy.
"Everyone is free to write whatever they want in the newspaper," Druhora responded during his cross-examination. "It was proven I wasn't a spy. I was found not guilty."
After eight hours, Judge Klausner announced her decision.
"This is a very sad time for this community, no matter which side you fall on," she said. "At the minimum, it's a hostile environment. I'm not trying to say what should be done. The peace is not being kept at the church. People are on the verge of being hurt because tempers are hot. The situation is so at the risk of becoming riotous. I feel it could endanger other people at this point."
Klausner then granted civil injunctions against six people, including Emanuel Farkas, his wife, Margareta, and the two Oprea brothers. Citing a lack of evidence, she declined to issue injunctions against two others.
Though they were barred from initiating contact with Pastor Druhora, the Farkases drove to Elim the following Sunday morning, January 14, and stationed themselves across the street. Their 19-year-old daughter, Eva, entered the church more apprehensive, she says, than contemplative.
"We have been living a soap opera," Eva Farkas explains. "In soap operas, lots of stupid things can happen."
The church board that day had hired two off-duty Phoenix police officers as security guards. Shortly before 9 a.m., a church usher told officers Carlos Rodriguez and Garrick Ward that three men inside Elim weren't members, and were trespassing. Officer Rodriguez cornered two of them before they entered the sanctuary.
Officer Ward says he was told Jacob Cotan was the third alleged trespasser: "I caught up with [Cotan] before he entered the sanctuary of the church, at which time I grabbed the coat arm of Mr. Cotan just as he entered the sanctuary, and he retracted and pulled away. . . . I didn't realize that I was that far into the sanctuary during services."
As it turns out, though Cotan despised Druhora by then, he still was a member in good standing at the church.
The cop had collared the wrong guy.
A potential riot ensued.
"I tried to calm everyone down," Ward wrote, "but it was not working. . . . [It] appeared to be out of hand on the part of the church members, because there were various members saying that the pastor was a Communist security agent from Romania and was acting as a dictator. The entire situation was a complete hazard to officers for at least 15-20 minutes."
Cotan told the cops he wanted to go to an emergency room for his injuries, which the officers later suggested he'd exaggerated.
Cotan's version goes like this:
"I'm with my wife and my 1-year-old daughter, who's in a stroller. Police are patrolling the premises. The scene is rather more like a Gestapo movie than a church. You must remember that we Romanians obey the law, but we are suspicious of authority. Imagine how I felt when I saw the cops there. Is this America?
"I told [Ward] that I was a member and a pastor of the church. Inside the sanctuary, I felt someone grabbing my arm, twisting it, and pulling it toward my upper back. I tried to resist, and I heard a crack in the lower part of my shoulder. [Ward] led me out by my vest . . ."
About a dozen police officers responded to Elim, leaving only after being convinced that tempers had cooled. They were wrong.
A few hours after the January 14 disturbance, Pastor Druhora addressed his parishioners from Elim's pulpit.
"The church cannot tolerate this anymore," he said. "Today, we need to reestablish order and discipline."
Druhora invited those who wanted to speak about the goings-on to raise their hands. He didn't specify men only, but that was implicit in a church where women are not allowed to preach (though they may sing and read poetry to the congregation).
Eva Farkas and her grandmother took a seat in the front row.
Eva is an earnest young woman who writes poetry, is a popular employee at a West Valley home-furnishings store, and is fiercely loyal to her family.
Now 19, she came to the States when she was 8, shortly after the 1989 revolution in Romania that ended with Ceausescu's removal and execution. She says that, during the uprising, she saw the burned bodies of a chief of police and a security agent on the streets of her native Cojia.
The Farkases proudly became American citizens in 1996. The next year, Eva was baptized in a ceremony performed by Pastors Druhora and Dorel Michula at Estrella Lake.
"When I came to God, you could say I was gullible," she says. "I thought everyone was godly. Elim used to be such a loving church, not hateful like it got. Druhora preached so good -- I thought it was God himself talking. Gradually, another influence got to him. I have wondered, how could I have been that wrong?"
The young woman instructed her grandmother how to operate a video camera -- point, shoot, and hold steady. Then Eva asked to be put on the list of speakers.
"Only men can talk," church secretary Leo Isfan brusquely told her from the pulpit, a few feet away.
"What is this, Communism?" Eva retorted loudly. "Please let me talk up there. Is this discrimination against women now?"
Her grandmother added, "This is Communist church. Not Pentecostal church."
After huddling with Druhora on the altar, Isfan added Eva's name to the list of speakers.
First, longtime church member Nelu Serban said mournfully, "Where are we now? My child said to me last night, 'Do we not pray for the Holy Spirit?' I said, 'No, we don't have prayer meetings anymore. We just have meetings.' I was walking on the streets the other day, and I told God, 'Take me, because I can't take this anymore.'"
When it was Eva Farkas' turn, she said -- in English -- that she was there to defend her parents.
"Speak Romanian!" several people immediately shouted at her.
"You guys just believe any lies," Eva continued in her native tongue, undaunted. "I lost everything because I stood for this church, but I'm not afraid of this church."
She went on to say her younger sister, Diana, was refusing to attend Elim anymore because of the strife, and that had broken her heart.
Dorin Druhora stared impassively at Eva Farkas as she stepped off the pulpit, and returned to her seat next to her grandmother.
Last April, about 400 people gathered at Elim for a Sunday evening service. Conspicuous by their absence were still-exiled Ted and Zack Oprea, and the others who had been kept away by the court's injunction.
At the pulpit, a grade school girl standing behind the altar shyly approached a microphone.
"Since I was a child, I have believed in God," she sang in the sensuous language of her parents' homeland, her voice vibrant. "The kingdom of God is what we're searching for."
The service featured a wide selection of music, from entrancing folk melodies (many with lyrics about how wonderful mothers are) performed by a girls' choir, to a men's tuba orchestra doing oompah music. The latter was fronted by a girl on the piccolo.
Later in the three-hour service, associate pastor Dorel Michula spoke to the assemblage.
"A child's character has a lot to teach us," he said, his voice trembling with passion. "A child forgives easily. Adults take so long to forgive. Adults say hurtful words. We need to learn that God's kingdom is for those who forgive."
Hearing Michula, a weathered woman started to sob softly, soon joined by others around her.
"We are desperate," he continued, gesturing skyward. "Many times in this church, we have lost hope and don't know what to believe. I don't know what to believe, except that Jesus wants us to have peace. We need to give this peace to each other. Why is this not so? Only He knows."
Dorin Druhora sat in a chair a few feet from Michula, pokerfaced as ever. Weeks earlier, he had announced plans to leave Elim in the early summer.
In May, Druhora wrote to Judge Klausner, asking her to lift the injunctions against the six parishioners, but under one condition:
"Please, ask them to give you and to sign a written statement expressing their regrets and promising to cause no more trouble, verbal or physical abuse . . ."
A few days later, Klausner signed an order that allowed the six to return to Elim if they wished, but warned them to steer clear of Druhora. The judge ignored the pastor's request for a written apology from his enemies.
On June 3, Elim was filled to capacity as Druhora prepared to say goodbye. Things had come full circle: Eva Farkas and her parents were there, as were the Oprea brothers, keeping their distance from the pastor as ordered.
Jacob Cotan also was in attendance. A month earlier, on May 1, he'd filed a civil lawsuit against Druhora, the Elim church, its governing board, and the two Phoenix police officers who had the misfortune of working security that January morning. (That suit is pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.)
If the congregation expected a fiery farewell, it didn't get it.
"I don't want to have a goodbye speech," Druhora said, his voice barely audible, "because I don't want to disappear just like that. I will be back if you want me. If I did something wrong, it's my fault and I accept blame. If I did something good, it's due to His grace. You remain the sweetest church for me. I've learned patience and suffering here. You will never be replaced in my heart."
About a dozen people approached Druhora after the service to offer best wishes. But most kept their distance, huddled in groups at the back of the sanctuary.
The pastor bear-hugged a visitor, and made an urgent plea in English, as tears filled his eyes.
"You must disregard what you hear about me," he said. "I am not a bad man."
Soon after Dorin Druhora left for Missouri, the entire church board at Elim resigned.
Then, late last summer, a few hundred church members, including many of those who had resigned, also quit Elim and started the new Maranatha church. Some of them had donated thousands of dollars, and had spent untold hours at the church since coming to the States.
On a recent Sunday night, Marius Chelmagan worshiped at the gym/church with about 100 other parishioners. The 25-year-old Chelmagan explained that the low number was because of a wedding that night at Elim.
"It's going to be interesting over there tonight," he said, chuckling at the thought of ex-Elim parishioners returning like prodigal sons and daughters to their former church home. "People will be seeing each other for the first time since we came over here. Lots of bad blood, bad memories. Stupid stuff. But I'm sure everyone will be polite. At least I hope so." (The wedding went off without a hitch.)
Like most worshipers at both churches, the affable Chelmagan is sick of the dissension that marked his last years at Elim.
"I go to church to praise God," he says. "I don't go to church to show how tough I am, or how much power I have, or to be angry at everyone around me."
Chelmagan is asked to point out his parents in the makeshift congregation at the gym. "Oh, they're still going to Elim," he says. "I just needed a fresh start."
Dorin Druhora apparently has told some ex-Elim members that he'd consider coming back to lead the new church. Not likely, says Leo Isfan, who was one of the pastor's most fervent supporters.
"He's not in our picture," Isfan says. "I feel betrayed because Dorin left us. I do regret many things that happened when he was pastor, as I told Pastor Lascau over there. Dorin made mistakes, but he did have a vision that worked for a long time. I think we should just look forward."
He adds, "Maybe one day, the people still at Elim will drive over to our gym church, and say, 'Let's be friends again.' Maybe. But maybe not."
A few months ago, Elim's new board finally hired a new pastor, Petru Lascau. Lascau moved here in October from Chicago, where he'd headed the 1,000-strong Philadelphia Church of God for more than 15 years.
A courteous, articulate man, Lascau says he's well aware of what he stepped into.
"I have come to a church in turmoil," he says. "There still is turmoil in a lot of hearts. Everything I've done was a picnic to what I have here. But when I was called to my church in Chicago, it also was in turmoil. I began to think that God sent for me, from his remodeling department. I realized then, like I do now, that I have to win these people over. People buy you first, then your ideas. To a Romanian, attitude is more important than the words themselves."
"Sometimes, you have to forgive and forget," he says.
Another pause, then a wry chuckle.
"That's easy for me to say."
Editor's note: Some interviews for this story were done through a translator, Nicole Oprea.
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