Uncivil War

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin