Street Pastor or Vigilante?

The documentary "Almost Holy" is a riveting film about the gritty work of a charismatic and controversial Ukrainian pastor, but it fails to explore pastor Mokhnenko’s Christian faith.

A man dressed in clerical garb is seen addressing a crowd. He tells them, with a visible passion, that if the state won’t stop local drug dealers then he will. And, as we see later, he does. We have witnessed this same man earlier touring the streets of Mariupol, Ukraine, gathering up abandoned children and taking them to a place of safety. Later, we see him smashing down doors to rescue a woman from a life of abuse. Meet Gennadiy Mokhnenko: a man of God, or, as his critics maintain, a self-styled vigilante? Almost Holy ( tells his tale.   

Mokhnenko is a Ukrainian Christian pastor—not Catholic or Orthodox, but some sort of Protestant. Once, he was a Red Army soldier in the former Soviet Union. How he became a clergyman is never fully explained. He is also a husband and father. Mokhnenko and his wife have 35 children, 32 of them adopted. The couple run a rehabilitation facility called Pilgrim Republic. Since 2000 they have helped street children leave those streets to be educated and to lead lives that they could not have dreamed of. Most of these children ran away from abusive parents, or never had a home in the first place. Many started taking drugs and, therefore, were prey to drug dealers and the other varieties of lowlife characters exploiting vulnerable boys and girls. 

In the face of official inertia and hints of police corruption, Mokhnenko decided to take matters into his own hands. He toured the grim night streets of Mariupol and was soon filling his home with disturbed and desperate children. His way was not one of social work alone, however. He took the fight to the people who were deliberately destroying lives, and not just the lives of children. He confronted drug dealers and organized a campaign to drive them out of his city. He likens his actions to those of Our Lord entering the Temple to drive out the moneychangers. 

We see many sides of this pastor. Mokhnenko is very much a family man, playing with his children and educating them in the ways of the world. We also see him with the newly arrived strays that he has picked up from the street, or who have found their way to Pilgrim Republic. He is firm but kind; they must be prepared to change their lifestyles often involving drugs or prostitution; and then he lays before them the possibility of a different future. He tells them that success in his world is measured only by how much you love others. He cites some of his successful cases, men and women who have gone on to be fathers and mothers of large families, and who strive to bring those children up in a decent home. This is moving stuff. 

Pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko is a charismatic figure, and his charisma comes across on screen—he could easily have been an actor. At times, one has to be reminded that this is a documentary and not a scripted Hollywood movie, such is the power of personality on display. Mokhnenko appears a likable man, one with a strong commitment to justice for some of the weakest in society. This is born of his childhood experiences with his alcoholic parents; something he describes in affecting but never self-pitying terms. These experiences could have crushed him; instead, they have helped turn him into someone who is, he believes, following the Gospel imperative to love one’s neighbor. 

There is another side to Mokhnenko: the one who confronts drugs dealers, telling them to stop ‘selling death’—or else. The one who haunts the abandoned areas of the city and rescues women held in abusive situations. One woman, who is mentally ill and mute, he finds and takes to a woman’s centre. He is also seen on screen dealing, in no uncertain terms, with the man who she says has raped her. As someone says of Mokhnenko, in the eyes of the world he is ‘almost holy’. It is as if the world does not know what to make of this unique man and his mission.  

Needless to say, Mokhnenko has come under the scrutiny of the authorities. They were suspicious of him at first. Now they recognize the good he has done, and is doing, in transforming the lives of many children and vulnerable adults. It seems there is no way to stop him. In any event, the authorities seem unable to address issues that he does not flinch from tackling. These things, he says, ‘are not God’s problems but my problems’. 

There is footage of a television debate. A man sits with Mokhnenko before a studio audience. The man is criticising the pastor. In all too vague terms, he outlines his ‘concerns’ that what Mokhnenko is doing is vigilantism. It sounds a limp argument but in light of what we have just seen, it also seems like a conscience-salving excuse to do nothing. The pastor listens patiently; one suspects that he is finding it hard to restrain himself. Finally, Mokhnenko bangs the table, and says that he would do it all again, then cries unto the Lord to make his fist even stronger in smashing down the doors of drug dealers and their fellow travllers. The studio crowd goes wild with applause. The pastor’s accuser looks embarrassed. 

If there is criticism of Almost Holy, it is that it fails to explore in any depth the Christian faith of the man at its center. In the film, there is use of Christian iconography; and, dressed in religious garb, it is impossible not to know that Gennadiy Mokhnenko is a Christian pastor; but there is no explanation or exploration of his religious motivation. 

Similar in theme to last year’s excellent The Drop Box, this new documentary, Almost Holy, shows a man who is part street pastor, part ‘super hero’, but, above all, a full-time Christian. 

“Almost Holy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Discussion of drug use, domestic abuse and sexual abuse.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.