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‘We really need help from Heaven for this war,’ says Gennadiy Mokhnenko, whose followers tread in dangerous territory to support those still living near the front lines

Pastor Gennadiy and his followers begin each day by singing a few alleluias, followed by a soft prayer at their base in the industrial district of the city of Zaporizhzhia. Then they load boxes of food aid, each closed with red-and-white “God loves you” tape, into a van and a pair of pickup trucks.

Soon their small convoy of chaplains and volunteers begins a bumpy and dangerous journey toward the front line. “Go with God,” they murmur to each other at a roadside stop to pull on their bulletproof vests and helmets before they drive into the hot zone.

The Chaplains’ Battalion, as Gennadiy Mokhnenko and his followers are known, is one of the few volunteer groups brave enough to still approach this part of the battlefront to deliver aid to civilians. Fighting here has intensified, as a major Ukrainian counteroffensive aims to drive the invading Russian troops out of the country.

An artillery shell narrowly missed the group Tuesday as they distributed aid in the nearby town of Orikhiv, which lies just south of Zaporizhzhia. The area is one of the main mustering points for the counteroffensive and thus a frequent target of Russian fire.

On Wednesday, a Russian air strike was reported in the area just 30 minutes after the volunteers – and The Globe and Mail team – left the district.

Pastor Gennadiy says the Chaplains’ Battalion, which has no actual affiliation with the Ukrainian army, has about 90 members delivering assistance on three parts of the front line. That number is bolstered by three of the 36 children that Pastor Gennadiy adopted before the war – when he was best known for rescuing troubled kids off the streets of the now-shattered city of Mariupol and helping them turn their lives around at his Pilgrim Republic rehabilitation centre.

“I am a pastor all my life. We do all that we can to help people,” he said.

Pastor Gennadiy achieved a small measure of fame in North America five years ago as the subject of the documentary Almost Holy, which followed the Protestant preacher and his Church of Good Changes as he waged something of a vigilante war against Mariupol’s drug epidemic. Now his city and his country have much larger problems.

“War is a big challenge for my country, and people have many needs – like food, medicine and heating systems, so many different things,” the muscle-bound preacher said, speaking in English. “We’re just an answer for the problem. We saw a problem, so we go and change something.”

Pastor Gennadiy alternates between optimistically predicting a Ukrainian victory – and a return home after the liberation of Mariupol – and saying he and his team will need divine intervention just to survive the day. “We really need help from Heaven for this war. We need many, many miracles for our safety. Because right now we will go under shooting, and nobody knows what will happen today. We don’t have guarantees.”

Pastor Gennadiy and the Chaplains’ Battalion say their morning prayers in Zaporizhzhia before the day's missions in towns near the front lines.
The battalion has packages of food donated by Christian organizations, packaged in Ukrainian blue and yellow. Today, their destination is Hulyaipole, where a ruined building lies behind an ‘I love Hulyaipole’ sign.
Pastor Gennadiy meets locals in Hulyaipole. The 3,000 or so people remaining say they are determined not to leave.

Wednesday’s convoy was delivering boxes of dry goods, as well as fresh fruit purchased along the way, to the town of Hulyaipole, just eight kilometres from the front line.

Evidence that Hulyaipole is within range of Russian artillery is everywhere. The city’s main administration building, largest school and central market have all been destroyed by direct hits. Locals say the hospital was struck on Monday, killing two people and wounding five.

And yet, an estimated 3,000 of the town’s prewar population of 13,000 improbably remain here, ignoring a long-standing official request to evacuate. A small crowd of 10 women, three men and a child with an apparent mental disability gathered on a dirt road as the Chaplains’ Battalion arrived. Prayers were said as the food was passed out.

Life is scary and grim, but the remaining residents can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I was born here and I will not leave – as much as everyone is trying to make me. I just want to live in my own house,” said Olena Yalanska, a 54-year-old who said she lives alone. She was standing in front of a row of small houses that all appeared to have been damaged by shelling and gunfire. “If they shoot at us, we hide. If it’s a quiet day, we come out and do some gardening.”

Another woman in the crowd said the delivery of 60 small boxes of food was the first aid they’d received in a month. “No one’s allowed to come here.”

Hulyaipole has lost many of its public buildings to Russian shelling. Residential areas like this one have been abandoned; only about 3,000 of 13,000 pre-war residents are still living in town.
Hulyaipole, like many Ukrainian communities, has an official help station, or Point of Invincibility, where people can go for food, a haircut or basic necessities.

Pastor Gennadiy knows what it’s like to feel cut off. On the first day of the Russian invasion, Feb. 24, 2022, he received a phone call from a police officer who told him Russian troops would soon surround Mariupol.

“It was a competition between the Russian tanks and my convoy,” he recalled. “A military officer called me and said, ‘Pastor, you have a last 40 minutes to evacuate your orphanage because the Russian army is coming from Crimea very quickly and they want to blockade the city.’ … On the way, they called and said, ‘More quickly please, gas! Because they are very close to stopping your convoy.’ ”

After escaping Mariupol – and finding places for most of the Pilgrim Republic’s 100-plus residents in Europe – Pastor Gennadiy found himself looking for a way to help the war effort. He sees the Chaplains’ Battalion as a natural continuation of the work he did in Mariupol.

“Now, half my country is homeless. I’ve worked with homeless children many years, but now I’m homeless. Millions of people are homeless,” he said. “So maybe I’m just still helping homeless people.”

Several of his fellow clergymen quickly signed up to the Chaplains’ Battalion, as have dozens of admiring volunteers – including a Japanese journalist who converted to Pastor Gennadiy’s church – and three of his adopted sons.

“I’m back with my family,” said 37-year-old Mykola Karpov, who lived with two alcoholic parents until he was adopted by Pastor Gennadiy at the age of 15. Mr. Karpov served in the Ukrainian army early in the war but was discharged after he was struck in the head by shrapnel from a grenade last May. Since recovering, he has been doing aid missions with the Chaplains’ Battalion.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Chaplains’ Battalion has united people of disparate backgrounds: The pastor's adoptive children, fellow clergymen and volunteers from abroad.

Seven of the pastor’s other adopted sons are serving in the military – two of them were fighting near Hulyaipole this week. After that, Pastor Gennadiy admits it’s tricky to keep track of the rest of his kids. In addition to his 29 adopted sons and seven adopted daughters, he has three biological children – and his family is still expanding.

“I’m like the parents in Home Alone – it is difficult for me to count my children,” he said with a hearty laugh during a roadside stop on the way to Hulyaipole, pausing to show a photo on his phone that he took at the wedding of one of his soldier sons this week. “I need to check my list because last week I had two more grandchildren and I think I must check how many I have completely. I think it is 41, but I am not sure.”

Pastor Gennadiy, who was himself the child of a home plagued by alcoholism, established Pilgrim Republic in the late 1990s and said he began adopting some of the orphans who lived there when it became obvious they had nowhere else to go. While he has been criticized for his methods – in Almost Holy he refers to Pilgrim Republic as “half a prison” and says he sometimes acts as a parent, sometimes as a police officer – he was a folk hero in prewar Mariupol because he was the only one willing to work with the city’s troubled teens.

Mr. Karpov said religion was always a central theme at Pilgrim Republic, though it wasn’t forced on any of the kids. He said he only embraced religion years later, when he was fighting in the trenches of Ukraine’s Donbas region during the eight-year proxy war that preceded last year’s full-scale invasion.

“In Pilgrim, of course, we talked about faith and studied the Bible, but I was 50-50 about it,” he said as the convoy accelerated through heavily damaged Orikhiv. “I believe that every person has a moment in their life when they start believing. Mine was a very difficult one – we were ambushed, and I survived only by a miracle.”

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In Zaporizhzhia, Pastor Gennadiy visits the grave of a member of his church family, buried after the fight for Bakhmut.

Pastor Gennadiy’s charisma and fame help him navigate through Ukrainian army checkpoints, allowing him to reach places like Orikhiv and Hulyaipole that are closed to most other volunteer groups. They also draw people into his orbit, including Tom Brewer, a Nebraska senator and U.S. Army veteran who joined this week’s trip to Hulyaipole, where he helped pass out food.

It was Senator Brewer’s third aid convoy with Pastor Gennadiy. On Wednesday, he donated a set of VHF radios to the battalion to help its members stay in touch with each other in places where there are no mobile phone signals.

“I kind of got hooked when I saw Gennadiy in the field. He works a lot with the elderly, because they’re the ones who get left behind. Some of these people have been stuck in their basements for a year now. If it wasn’t for him, they would have starved by now,” Mr. Brewer said. “Yesterday we had artillery landing all around us. I spent 36 years in the military and eight tours in Afghanistan. I thought I’d seen a lot of action, but I think he sees more.”

Wednesday was quieter, and by the third and final aid drop in Hulyaipole – at the city’s main bomb shelter, which after almost 16 months of war is now equipped with shower capsules and laundry machines, as well as satellite WiFi and a wood-burning stove – Pastor Gennadiy decided it was time to relax a little.

Askold Kvyatkovskiy, a member of the Chaplains’ Battalion from Mariupol – and a hero in his own right for repeatedly driving an evacuation bus in and out of the besieged city last year – pulled out a saxophone and leaned into an angry version of Let My People Go, punching the air along with the chorus. He followed with a more upbeat My Way, as staff at the shelter sank into plastic chairs and tapped their feet to the unfamiliar sounds of music and good cheer on the front line.

Leaning against one of the cement walls and watching the scene, Pastor Gennadiy smiled. It was almost as if he’d adopted another huge, troubled family. Surrounded by people who needed his help, he looked completely at home.

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