From ONE Magazine

Under Mary’s Mantle

In the 1980’s, during the last stage of Communist control in Bulgaria, Plamen Sinov discovered religion. “I was raised with a neutral attitude toward religion,” recalled Mr. Sinov. “My parents were Communists, and I only remembered a few rituals. Religion was for funerals.”

But glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness in the Soviet Union, fractured the antipathy of the Soviet world to religion, and youngsters like Mr. Sinov took advantage of it.

In 1991, he and 20 other young Bulgarians hosted 20 Baptists from the United States, sharing a home in Sofia, the capital, for a month as part of a cultural exchange program. After the Americans left, the Bulgarians started a Bible study group. Mr. Sinov soon discovered that his path lay not with the Baptists, but with the traditional faith community of this Balkan nation.

Mr. Sinov was baptized an Orthodox Christian and joined a parish in Sofia dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, or Pokrov. When he continued his education in Baltimore, he joined an Orthodox parish there, but he soon returned to Bulgaria, taking a position with the Soros Foundation’s Bulgaria program.

His passion, however, remained with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Sidelined from public life for nearly 50 years, the church needed some passion, Mr. Sinov said. It was in “a sorry state.”

To help restore the public presence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Mr. Sinov and five other young Bulgarians established the Pokrov Foundation in 1994.

Its founders are frank about the role of the church following the fall of Bulgaria’s Communist government: “Religion was a terra incognita. The church was a strange place with no particular relation to most people’s lives. God was a matter for reflection of a limited number of old women.”

Over the past 12 years, the Pokrov Foundation has launched an assortment of programs — philanthropic, educational and promotional — that have done much to help restore the role of the Orthodox Church in Bulgarian life. Many are run out of Mr. Sinov’s spiritual home since his baptism, the Church of the Pokrov, located on a quiet street hidden by Sofia’s Hotel Rodina.

In the church’s basement, the foundation operates a parish center that caters to about 4,000 people each year. Here, food, clothes, counseling, financial support and social space are offered to the needy. If the foundation lacks the resources to help someone, then it refers him or her to another nongovernmental organization that can.

“We are open daily, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.,” said Maria Spasova, the parish center director. “Ours is the first parish center in the country, and the idea has spread to about 10 other parishes already.”

The center publishes a quarterly newsletter, which is distributed to parishes throughout Bulgaria. At the same church, the Pokrov Foundation offers various classes for adults, including catechism, Byzantine chant, woodcarving and patristics, the study of the works of the Church Fathers. Activities for children include a catechetical program on Sundays, a kindergarten, a music-for-babies program and instructions on writing icons.

Across town, the Pokrov medical center helps those who lack resources for medical care in Bulgaria’s private hospitals. “There was a sharp decrease in state spending after the economic collapse [of 1997], so certain categories of patients were marginalized,” said Maya Ivanova, the director of the medical center. “This was especially true of patients with psychiatric needs, so we offer them special services.”

The center has also employed many doctors and other medical professionals who found themselves unemployed after the collapse of the Communist state. It also runs a drug awareness program at nearby schools; escalating drug use and criminal activity, rooted in high rates of unemployment, plague Bulgarian youth.

Professional and volunteer staff pay home visits to the elderly and gravely ill. Recently, for instance, Katerina Artmianova looked in on 78-year-old Ivana Gradova, a retired professor of Russian who has problems with her legs. She needs help in all aspects of daily life: cooking, cleaning, shopping and bathing.

“Ivana is a woman warrior. She wants to do things by herself but can’t,” said Mrs. Artmianova, who has worked for the Pokrov medical center for two years. “I felt a need to help people, and that’s why I do it. It’s hard, draining work, but I draw inspiration from it.”

In the suburbs, the Pokrov day care center provides instruction for 20 children, between the ages of 6 and 12, with mental and physical disabilities. The goal is to provide the children with specialized instruction that is rarely offered at state schools and then carefully integrate them into the state system. Children at the center have various maladies, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and epilepsy. While the center employs trained specialists, it also relies on volunteers who have therapy experience.

“For most of our volunteers, working here is an expression of their faith,” said Milen Zamfirov, the center’s director.

Along with its various philanthropic endeavors, the Pokrov Foundation also runs a publishing house, Omophor, through which it hopes to broaden interest in the church.

“Our books are aimed at a religious audience, but not too serious of an audience,” said Elena Alexandrova, the publishing director. “We are trying to fill a big gap in the public’s knowledge.”

Recent titles include Vladeta Jerota’s The Teaching of St. John Climacus and Our Times, Leonid Ouspensky’s classic, Theology of the Icon, and a number of works by the revered Russian-English bishop, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. Omophor also produces a journal, Christ Has Risen.

Most of the authors are not Bulgarian, however. “In the last decade, there has been almost no theological literature by Bulgarians,” Mrs. Alexandrova said. “Most of our books are translations from Russian, Serbian and English.”

Though the Bulgarian Orthodox Church today claims as members 83 percent of the country’s 7.4 million people, most Bulgarian Orthodox know little about their faith.

In the interest of promoting religious awareness, Omophor also publishes books beyond the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, she added. “We are trying to bridge the incompatibility of religions. In fact, we have been accused of being too ecumenical.”

For a relatively young organization, the Pokrov Foundation has had an ambitious start. Other programs are in the works. “We hope to establish an Orthodox high school,” said Mila Ignatova, a Pokrov founder. “There are Muslim high schools, funded by Muslim organizations, so why not an Orthodox one?”

The foundation also hopes to purchase a piece of land, not too far from Sofia, to start a children’s camp. “At this camp we will try to interest the kids in the Orthodox faith,” Mrs. Ignatova said. “Hopefully, they will bring their faith back into their homes.”

Pokrov’s founders have the zeal that often comes to those who become religious later in life, and that zeal continues to drive them.

“For each of us who leads the Pokrov Foundation, the road to faith has been difficult,” Mrs. Ignatova said. “We went through radical changes. And now we are thinking about the future of our church: the body of Christ in Bulgaria.”

Photojournalist Sean Sprague, based in Wales, is a frequent contributor to ONE.