Agenskalns Baptist Church’s long-awaited steeple returns to Riga’s skyline
By Natalie Meeks
GREENVILLE, SC – For some, this may look like just another church building, but it is so much more. For more than three decades, Agenskalns Baptist Church was a church without a steeple. But to tell this story, we must revisit the past:
Agenskalns was founded in 1879 and by the 1930s, it boasted a bustling church body. The church’s current building was constructed during the years 1913 – 1916. The steeple, long planned, was added in 1936, a beacon of light to pierce the dark skies of Latvian winters… and the dark realities of war. During the Second World War and after, Agenskalns didn’t cease its work.
But in 1961, church members gathered to worship under its roof for the very last time before Soviet authorities seized the building, converting it into a television studio.
They wasted little time in tearing down the iconic steeple, erecting a large antenna in its place, and turning the building into a communist-propaganda factory.
Years passed. In 1987, the church’s leadership turned over to a thoughtful and determined young pastor named Almers Ludviks. From the beginning, Ludviks had one overarching goal – to get his congregation’s building back. He prayed and discussed his vision with the board. Some were in favor. Some were afraid. They had good reason to be. But God is bigger than our fears.
“The crucial moment happened in 1989, when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Moscow,” Almers explains.
A Latvian Lutheran pastor and Almers had jointly written a letter to these leaders – one copy in Russian and one in English – commending the glasnost process and proposing the return of the state-controlled TV station to the Agenskalns congregation. The documents were hand-delivered in Moscow, by a Latvian delegate.
Just a few days later, the KGB summoned Almers and a congregational leader to its Riga headquarters.
“We were trembling,” Almers continues. “We thought we were going to be arrested! But to our surprise, the Soviets stated that they had received a mysterious letter from Moscow, authorizing us to reclaim the church’s building.”
This marked a historical day in Latvian history: Agenskalns Baptist Church was the very first church building in the Soviet Union to be returned by the state to the people.
And the people rejoiced.
So began the lengthy and costly process of renovating the historical building. The church had been restructured to suit the needs of a television station. The steeple was gone. Windows had been blocked out. The infrastructure – plumbing, electricity, heating, and more – was utterly neglected and in disrepair. The reconstruction task was monumental. In fact, the building is still undergoing repairs to the damage inflicted by the Soviets in the 1960s.
But January 31,
It was a crisp and clear winter morning when a crowd gathered around the building. Young and old came out to watch joyfully as Agenskalns Baptist Church’s steeple was finally restored. Senior Pastor (1995 – present) Edgars Mazis shares,
“There were times that we almost gave up hope that this would ever happen. We spent many years praying and collecting money for this project. But out of great suffering, God worked good. One of our church members, a 22-year-old young woman, was tragically killed in a car accident. Her family decided to fund the remaining costs needed for the steeple in memoriam of their daughter.”
The steeple atop Agenskalns Baptist Church now represents hope more than ever – a testimony of faith in the face of public and private suffering
BBI’s President Charles Kelley recalls, “I remember being here thirty years ago. We never would have dreamt all that would happen in the next thirty years.”
Mazis says: “There are church members today who were present in 1961 – who witnessed the destruction. For them, to see the reconstruction finally taking place, so many years later, is a powerful grace. I think that God has the last word. It is not a question of authorities and regimes and systems. We give thanks to God for all that he is doing, and we are thankful for the church’s life – both inside and outside the building.”
The Agenskalns steeple rises high in the sky and can be seen from afar. Once again, a beacon of light announces grace in Riga.
The steeple will be dedicated in September of 2019, on the 150thanniversary of the founding of the church.