Pastor of the Protestant Church of Good Changes (Mariupol, Donetsk oblast) Hennadii MOKHNENKO is a legendary personality. He has been working with homeless children for 15 years. This is how the Center of Children’s Rehabilitation “Republic Pilgrim” appeared, where nearly 3,000 local waifs have undergone rehabilitation. The pastor has adopted 31 children. (At the moment 14 children are residing at his place. Many have gotten married or found a job and are living separately.) The gems (although I am not sure that such division should be applied to children) include Ukraine’s boxing champion among teenagers Serhii Kucheruk and student of the Donetsk Conservatoire Andrii Dudin, who is working on his first album. Incidentally, the movie A Diamond from a Basement has been shot about Andrii, you can found it on YouTube.
The members of the church have adopted nearly 100 boys and girls. The most sensational adoption was when the Isaievs dared to adopt seven children with terrible diagnoses. Incidentally, namely Yevhen and Svitlana were the first in Ukraine to adopt an HIV-positive child, of course, they were supported by Pastor Hennadii.
Pastor Hennadii Mokhnenko and his teenagers have conquered Elbrus and Ararat. These days (in summertime) they go on bicycles around the world. Their purpose is to travel in a matter of 6-7 years across the world, calling to adoption. They have already traveled across Ukraine and part of Russia, where they have reached Ufa, Samara, Chelyabinsk, and Yekaterinburg. Now they plan to visit Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, and then – the US and Europe.
I could not miss the chance to talk to the pastor when I met him in Kyiv – he was taking part in the interdenominational East-European Summit of Priests “Protect an Orphan – Change the Future.”
“Like most of my friends who have adopted children, we never thought of adoption. But there are many orphans in Mariupol. Many tens of homeless children were living at the nearest crossing from the place where it was planned to build a church and a half-ruined building was bought for this aim. And we tried to show Christian mercy and started bringing them to eat. It was simple food, but fresh. Then for the first time children came and asked to live in our half-ruined building, which was a bit better than the basements: oilcloth instead of glass in the windows, blankets instead of room doors.”
Did many children come?
“Four. Then they started to bring friends. In a short while there were 30 of them. And we became witness to numerous miracles shown by God.”
What kind of miracles?
“Once I heard a voice at night. (I am not a mystic, but a rationalist. I like to play the chess. And on the whole people who hear voices alert me.) But then I heard a voice that said clearly: ‘These are My children. I will give you everything you need.’
“I remember I woke up my wife. She tried to reassure me, ‘Why are you so nervous? If God promised, He will keep His promise.’
“Three days later I was brought to the office of Volodymyr Boiko, the head of the Ilyich Mariupol Metallurgical Plant, one of the country’s biggest enterprises. There had always been a long line near his office. Mildly speaking, I stood no chances to get there. And I did not try, as I knew that Boiko quite openly declared his atheistic worldview. He heard me out and wrote on the letter, where I asked for 20 bags of concrete and 3 cubic meters of wood: ‘Do everything we can.’ As a result, four months later children moved in the newly-built house. However, it all started to collapse right away. They broke several doors on the same day. And they blew up a toilet sink. Someone threw a petard - he wanted to check the sound effect. That is the way the Center of Children’s Rehabilitation ‘Republic Pilgrim’ started its work.”
Do you remember how many children have undergone rehabilitation in your center? Did you meet there the children you adopted later?
“Overall, 2,700 children have undergone treatment in the center. (Most of them drug addicted and HIV positive persons. Unfortunately, many of them died.)
“We have worked for many years in the regime of the center. However, in the first years we saw that if we take a homeless kid from the street and send him to the boarding school, from which he, like one of my adopted sons, has escaped 80 times, he will run away again. And we cannot be sure that next time we will find him alive. That was the time we started to take the children under our guardianship. That was how my wife and I adopted our first kids. Besides 31 adopted children, we have three biological ones - we use the word ‘biological,’ because they all are our own kids.”
Have you adopted only boys?
“Girls, too. My first adopted daughter is 25. She is married and raises an eight-year-old son. I took her from the street when she was 12. She was living in sewer manholes and earned money by working as a prostitute on the highway.
“When we so that there was no other alternative than the family, by adopting orphans we started to inspire other people. More and more of my friends dared to do this. Some adopted one kid, others liked it and took the second and third one. Thus children from our church community (we have 650 members on the whole) adopted nearly 100 boys and girls.”
What difficulties have you faced in the process of adoption?
“There were many. (I shake hands of those who go through bureaucratic trials and still adopt the children.) The reason is that Ukraine has no culture of adoption. When you adopt a child, the first question they ask: ‘Can’t you give birth to your own children?’ Over all these years I have become so fed up with it that I had to make an official statement: ‘We can have children of our own.’
“We do believe that, first, today we contribute to fostering the culture of adoption in our society. Secondly, adoption to some extent may become a cure for the Church. One day I was standing near my dying son. At the age of 14 he was dying of AIDS – he used drugs since the age of 10. He was lying, spitting out his lungs into the bowl with blood. About 40 minutes of life remained for him. I will be honest: I could not pray and speak about the Kingdom of Heaven. I was simply crying and thinking: ‘God, where were we when this boy was seven and he found himself in the street?’ We, priests and believers, must experience the pain, pain from the heart of Our Father God. This prevents our motivation from cooling down. You know, as years pass, I understand less and less, when churches waste their energy for interdenominational arguments. As you remember, the Holy Writ reads: the apostles were arguing, which of them was more important. Jesus, aware of their thoughts, put a child in front of them and said: ‘Who accepts this child, accepts also Me and Him Who Sent Me.’ Apparently sometimes there is a need to argue about theological doctrines. But not today. Today we need to work together.”
I have heard the expression that people are ready to adopt a child, but they fear that he will have a bad influence on their own children: genetics, difficult childhood.
“Adopted children is the best psychological-pedagogical method for the biological ones. You will see that your sons and daughters will stop thinking that the equator runs through their bedroom and will learn how to live with other people and for other people.
“Famous physicist Blaise Pascal said that the greatest prerogative God gave to man is being the reason for changes in someone’s life.
“You know, the whole wonderful and colorful world is not worth of the destiny of one of my adopted children.”
When you adopt children, do you try to raise your children as Christians?
“I don’t make any emphasis on religion, no matter how strange it would sound from a priest. My task is to love the adopted sons and daughters and show them an example in life. Speaking frankly, it is not the best of ideas to give children to extremely religious people who think that pedagogy is reading the Bible from morning till night and pray five times a week. Children should get into healthy families with good values. Apparently, healthy Christian families are perfect for this.
“Of course, I rejoice when after years pass my children pray to God, come to the church, and I bring up already my children as Christians.”
They say diseased orphans, when they get into a loving family, frequently recover. Do you know such evidence?
“There is ample evidence. Above all, recovery is based on deep spiritual processes.
“Our medicine is conservative and does not believe in miracles. And we, the believers, do believe in them. By the way, miracles happen to those who believe in them. For example, they said that Sasha, a girl adopted by the Isaievs, would live for two or two and a half years at best. Much more time has passed since then. The girl feels excellent, she has become a real beauty. And she makes wonderful pancakes. Faith, on the whole, works miracles.
“You know at the Christmas table I asked the children what they dreamed to have this year. One said, a bicycle, another one – roller blades, the third one – mp3 player. And our new-comer, 15-year-old Sasha said: ‘Four months ago I did not have a home, parents, brothers, and sisters. I could not even read. What else do I need? I have everything.’ When I heard this, I went out of the room – I needed to come to my senses, although as you can feel I am not a sentimental person.
“I am leading a strangr life of a priest. Not everyone understands it. I have been told plenty of times that a priest should behave differently. Yes, we have spent a lot of nights raiding the basements and sewer manholes of Mariupol. Sometimes in radical stories. Of course, you can live a life for yourself, it is being especially actively promoted these days. But I have a secret of happiness of my own. Christ taught this: those who cry are blessed: they will rejoice. So, if you want to live a happy life, go where there are tears, misfortune, and grief; choose a hard road and bring good changes. If you see at least one life changed and you know that you’ve contributed to this change, love and joy will sweep over you in a stream.
“People suffer from depressions. And I will most likely dies of a happiness attack, when God decides. I have already invented an epitaph for myself: ‘God, thank you for the happy life You gave me to live on earth for You and for people.’”