Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s manner is more brash and imposing than you’d expect a priest’s to be. His English is imperfect, but he speaks quickly and passionately about the problems facing the people of Mariupol, Ukraine. Every word is uttered with the urgency of someone fighting to stay alive — or in this case, to keep others alive. He could have been cast as the bad cop on a crime show, but with no good cop on the scene, he is relied on to fill both roles.
Mariupol, where Mokhnenko lives, is in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, where war between Russian-backed rebels and the federal government in Kiev still smolders. He founded his own church, called the Church of Good Changes in 1992, and is affiliated with the Pentecostal Church of God in Ukraine. Since then he has taken on self-appointed roles as policeman, prison warden, hospital, activist, social worker, and father to 32 adopted children. He has dedicated himself to ending the dual epidemics of drug addiction and homelessness among Mariupol’s youth, but operates with seemingly little regard for the free will of his wards, or even the law.
“Fifteen years ago we had so much homeless children there,” he told BuzzFeed News during a Skype interview earlier this month. He described a large intersection 500 yards from his church where many children lived and would beg for money. His church began bringing them food and talking with them, urging them to change their lives. One day, some of the children responded. They “came to my church and said we want to change [our] life.”
Mokhnenko is now the subject of a documentary called Almost Holy, which followed his work from 2000 to 2015, and opened in the U.S. on May 20. Addressing Mokhnenko’s devil-may-care approach to social work, director Steve Hoover told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that “almost every situation I was in was morally confounding.”
Mokhnenko established Republic Pilgrim in 1998, and according to their website, it is the largest drug rehab facility for children in Ukraine. Drug addiction skyrocketed in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Although hard data for injection drug use in Ukraine is limited, a 1999 report from the International Narcotics Control Board states that drug related crimes doubled in Ukraine between 1993 and 1999 due to a “rapid increase in the number of drug abusers.” Mokhnenko said he was distraught by the government’s failure to address the problem. “If nobody take them, I will do it,” he said.
In the early days of his crusade, the Protestant pastor would drive a van around Mariupol and grab kids off the street or from the tents, shanties, and sewer pipes where they lived. They were dragged to Republic Pilgrim where they were bathed, fed, and forced to get clean. Mokhnenko rejects the accusation — “Children must be free, but freedom is not drugs, criminal, they kill themself. It’s not freedom, it’s tragedy.”
In one scene in the documentary, he is shown berating a boy in front of a room full of other children. The boy, sick and whimpering from the pain of a drug-related blood infection, lays on a mattress in the middle of the room as Mokhnenko asks the others to raise their hands if they have received drugs from him. When a few do, Mokhnenko tells the boy he doesn’t deserve to live and the money used for his medicine would be better spent on shoes and ice cream for the “good” kids.
The son of alcoholic parents, Mokhnenko credits an older neighbor with showing him the value in helping others. Yuriy Shakhman, who now works at Republic Pilgrim, took an interest in his young neighbor, asking about his exercise regime and occasionally offering food. Reflecting on it, Mokhnenko cited Greek philosophy, declaring that each person is like the cosmos: “if we help one people, it’s like changing the world”.
His efforts didn’t stop with his forced detox program — he soon took up activism, leading protests, criticizing the government for perceived inaction, confronting pharmacists who were accused of selling narcotics, and defending his actions in debates on television. “We need civil action. We don’t even need laws,” Mokhnenko says in the documentary.
Despite Mokhnenko’s disregard for the law, the city’s government — such as it is — now refers troubled kids to Republic Pilgrim. They also cover the cost of some of his utilities in exchange. But even with this semi-official sanctioning of his work, Mokhnenko is still operating in a legal grey area. The “biggest help is…when they don’t bother us,” he says.
Battles lines have run through the city since war broke out in 2014. Mokhnenko has had to evacuate his family and Republic Pilgrim twice because of shelling.
Republic Pilgrim has begun serving those who lost their homes in east Ukraine’s fighting, and Mokhnenko has become a Chaplain for the soldiers loyal to Kiev serving in Mariupol. “This Russian intervention give me this new role — I hate this role. I want to be just priest, I want to be pastor, I want to be father for orphans. I don’t want be priest for soldiers, but they have problems, they stay against our enemy, against very very criminal guys,” he says. He also mentions that he dreams of shutting down the orphanage, but as with the homeless children of Mariupol, “they need help also and we serve for them.”