KYIV – Gennadiy Mokhnenko, pastor of the Church of Good Changes in Mariupol, Ukraine, and founder of the children’s rehab center Pilgrim Republic, was presented with the Light of Justice Award during a ceremony in Kyiv on December 3.
The award was given by the Institute of Leadership and Management at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) to Mr. Mokhnenko, who is a father of 38 children.
Speaking during the award ceremony, Borys Gudziak, metropolitan of Ukrainian Catholics in the United States and archbishop of Philadelphia, noted Mr. Mokhnenko’s modesty, selflessness and fidelity to moral principles.
“The award’s laureate was born in 1968, and then was born again in 1991 when he experienced a complete conversion together with Ukraine renewing its independence,” Archbishop Gudziak said.
In 2000, Mr. Mokhnenko founded Pilgrim Republic, among the largest children’s rehabilitation centers on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Mr. Mokhnenko, who was born in Mariupol, Ukraine, also started a network of rehabilitation centers for adults in the region. While some have criticized his work, Archbishop Gudziak praised Mr. Mokhnenko for his grass-roots activism.
“Our laureate, inspired by the example and words of Christ, went to the poorest, to orphans on the street, to people with drug addiction. Gennadiy Mokhnenko is a man who has unique energy and courage, and I admire him, his openness, his smile and his example of how to serve those who are the poorest,” Archbishop Gudziak said.
Mr. Mokhnenko began his acceptance speech by mentioning a premiere of a movie that was made about his life called Almost Holy, produced by legendary Hollywood director Terrence Malik.
“There was an episode in my life when I was standing on the red carpet in Hollywood. They made a movie about me, but I wasn’t worried at all then. Now I am very worried,” Mr. Mokhnenko said, referring to the problem of injustice in Ukrainian society.
“Justice will rise; I believe that one day justice will prevail [in Ukraine]. And today we have to stand by its side and nurture it,” Mr. Mokhnenko said during his award acceptance speech.
Later, Mr. Mokhnenko discussed what it meant to be honored by and receive the Light of Justice Award from two highly-regarded, moral Ukrainian leaders.
“It is a great honor to receive [the Light of Justice Award]from the legendary dissident Myroslav Marynovych and metropolitan archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and president of the famous Ukrainian Catholic University, Borys Gudziak,” said Mr. Mokhnenko, who noted that he did not expect to receive an award for his work.
“The winners of the Light of Justice Award are people who, at the cost of their health and their lives, but certainly not at the cost of their principles and values, do for society what we all want for a better and more valuable life,” said Iryna Bek, director of UCU’s Institute of Leadership and Management.
For Mr. Mokhnenko, the award ceremony was symbolic for another reason. Speaking with The Ukrainian Weekly, social activist and entrepreneur Vladyslav Greziev, who is a friend and colleague of Mr. Mokhnenko’s, said it was the first time Mr. Mokhnenko gave a speech in Ukrainian. Although he is an experienced speaker and public figure, Mr. Mokhnenko typically speaks publicly in Russian, though he promised to switch to Ukrainian in 2022. Instead, he did so during the award ceremony.
Following the award ceremony, Mr. Greziev spoke more about Mr. Mokhnenko’s work and mission in Mariupol, Ukraine. More than 20 years ago, Mr. Mokhnenko began what has become a mission to house homeless children who had taken up drugs and crime.
Speaking with the BBC for a story published in 2016, Mr. Mokhnenko said he began his work because of an inadequate response by the government to social problems in Ukraine.
“They didn’t have a strategy for what to do with homeless children,” Mr. Mokhnenko told the BBC. “It was a terrible situation. First of all, we started to prepare some food for them. Every day, people from my church, my friends, we collected food to give. But, after this, some of [the children]came and said, ‘we want to live inside your church.’ I felt it was not possible to say ‘no’ to these children. Soon, though, they started to invite their friends from the street, homeless kids, drug addicts.”
Mr. Mokhnenko was so affected that he began to adopt the children. He is now the father of 38.
“He is truly a legendary figure. To pull teenagers out of the life situations in which he finds them, to give them love, save them from drug addiction and guide them on the path of development and happiness is incredible,” said Mr. Greziev, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the human resources company LobbyX.
“Mr. Mokhnenko himself says that the greatest privilege in life is to cause positive change in the lives of others, and this is absolutely true,” Mr. Greziev said.
“According to certain philosophical teachings, the true meaning of life is when an element changes and improves the system in which it is located. Gennadiy does just that,” said Mr. Greziev, an organizer and licensee of TEDxKyiv.
Three years ago, Mr. Mokhnenko gave a speech on TEDxKyiv that impacted Mr. Greziev.
“When I am asked why we put so much effort into TEDxKyiv on a volunteer basis, I answer that all those efforts are justified even if just one child finds a new family thanks to the speech of Gennadiy Mokhnenko at TEDxKyiv in 2018,” Mr. Greziev said.
In addition to a monetary prize, Light of Justice Award winners also receive a crystal statuette made by a master of glass art, Stanislav Kadochnikov. The statuette depicts a person who reaches for light, symbolizing the desire to strive for the ideals of freedom and justice.
The Light of Justice Award, which is presented for moral, spiritual and ethical leadership, was founded in 2010 by Dr. Anastasia Shkilnyk, a Ukrainian Canadian philanthropist, author and academic who died in 2014 and Archbishop Gudziak in honor of Ms. Shkilnyk’s father, Dr. Mykhailo Shkilnyk, a lawyer and public and political figure during the 1917-1920 liberation movement in Ukraine.
Previous winners of the Light of Justice Award include doctors Olha Martynenko and Ivan Venzhynovych (2020); environmental activists Dmytro Karabchuk and Julia Melnyk (2019); sociologist and editor-in-chief of the publishing house Dukh i Litera (Spirit and Letter) Leonid Finberg (2018); investigative journalist Nataliia Sedletska (2017); former Ukrainian military servicemember Nadiya Savchenko (2015); human rights activist Larysa Zalyvna (2012); leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement Mustafa Dzhemilev (2011); publicist, philosopher and human rights activist Yevhen Sverstiuk (2010).