October 18, 2009

Meet Moscow's Punk Priest, the Rev. Sergei Rybko

A Russian Orthodox Priest Is Trying to Help Young Rockers Find God

MOSCOW, Oct. 16, 2009
ABC News

On a Tuesday night, a dark rec hall on the outskirts of Moscow is hosting its weekly "Rock Festival." It's really nothing more than an open-mic night for local hard rock bands to showcase their talents, something some of the acts could use a touch more of.

Teens and 20-somethings mill about, a handful in front of the stage, the rest scattered throughout the low-ceilinged room sitting at tables or standing in groups. Skinny jeans and studded belts are de rigueur.

At 8:30 p.m., the door to the hall opens and a man who decidedly doesn't belong here walks in. Bald and bearded, he walks with the gait of a large man and the confidence of someone familiar with his surroundings.

A cursory glance immediately identifies the black-cassocked man with an oversized gold cross around his neck as a Russian Orthodox priest.

The Rev. Sergei Rybko makes his way up through the middle of the room and plops himself down in a chair 20 feet to the right of the stage. For someone who is so clearly out of his element, he doesn't get many looks from the hipsters and headbangers. They've seen him here before.

As the alternative band OffiGella finishes its set, Rybko, 49, gets up and heads to the stage. He waits in the wings while his long-haired sidekick, Yuri, introduces him as a former hippy and regular rock festival attendee. The audience of 30 in front of the stage cheers when Rybko takes the microphone and flashes the peace sign.

He keeps his talk short, keenly aware that the crowd won't put up with a long religious discourse. They've come together this night because in a way, he tells them, they're a club of lonely-hearts, like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Together here, their hearts are united but, afterward, they will be all alone.

"You don't have to be alone," he says. "If you reach out to God, you will never be alone."

Another peace sign, a slight bow, and the crowd cheers as Rybko leaves the stage. A heavy metal band starts up, with a "singer" whose roar could shatter windows.

The Rev. Sergei Rybko: Once a Rocker, Now a Priest

A young man makes a beeline for Rybko as he comes off the stage. "I wanted to say a big thank you for coming and for his support," the young man says afterward. "I had some questions I didn't know who to talk to about, so I asked him and he explained everything to me."

Rybko dallies for a few moments, watching a mosh pit form before making his exit. He leaves before Gella, the lead singer of "OffiGella," has a chance to talk to him. A pretty red-haired girl, she is pregnant and her bandmates had been urging her to ask him if it's OK to keep singing at these shows.

His mission comes by way of the church, asked by the patriarch (the head of the Orthodox Church) to reach out to young people in the rock subculture.

Despite the charge from on high, however, Rybko is realistic about how successful he can be. "At least they didn't throw anything," he says when asked for a self-assessment. "My job is to sow, it is up to God to cultivate.

"If what I say changes someone, if it makes someone purer, closer to God, then that's a successful evening," he says.

It's no coincidence that the patriarch picked him for the job. Rybko has some street cred with this group because they know that before he walked around in a cassock, he rebelled against Soviet communism in the 1970s by starting a band and leading a small group of anarchists before becoming a wandering hippy. "I used to be a rocker and I will always be one," he says. "For the average person behind the Iron Curtain, it represented the only truth that you could listen to."

His first job in the church was at 19 as a bell ringer where he would mix traditional ringing with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs. The old ladies in the congregation loved it, he says. Working at the church wore off on him and, at 28, he was ordained as a priest.

Two days after Rybko's appearance at the hall, he's standing in front of an entirely different audience at the morning service at the St. Sergius of Radonezh church in the Moscow suburbs.

It's a full house, the congregation is older, mostly women with scarves covering their heads. They follow Rybko in prayer and take communion before the service culminates with the traditional walking of the icon around the church.

Rybko Has His Own Rock Club

"These people have already discovered Christ and the Orthodox world is the essence of their lives," he says near the gates of the church. "In the club, I talk to people who are far away from God, from Christ, from the Orthodox religion.

"If I open the Bible [in the clubs] and start to talk like a priest, they will all run away. So I have to use their language but make sure they understand that a priest is speaking to them and that Christianity will solve their problems," he adds.

When the worshippers leave, he heads around the back of the church to a small building where he has set up what he calls his own rock club.

It's the kind of small, dark room with a funky smell that any rebellious 16-year-old would have in his parents' garage. Instruments and amplifiers lie about, multi-colored lights flash and graffiti is spray-painted on the walls.

But, then, you spot the religious art and large cross on the ceiling.

"It's very unusual," says Dmitry Rock (his stage name), a long-haired guitarist with two piercings in his lower lip. "When I first came here, I couldn't believe a priest set this up. Then we got used to it."

Musicians are free to come here and rehearse; better they hang out here than on the streets, Rybko says.

Rock is not religious and Rybko's overt goal is not to make people like loyal churchgoers. But, as Rybko did when he was younger, they've now started helping out around the church.

Despite his colorful past, Rybko admits that, these days, he feels more comfortable preaching in church than hanging out at concerts and clubs.

"Thirty years ago [that] would have been my home," he says. "[Now] I feel more at home in church, that is closer to me. But it is my duty to go [to the clubs]. If I don't, who will?"

[For a video of this story, see here.]

And here is a story from a year ago:

Renowned Missionary Hegumen Sergei Rybko Compared the Opponents of Pastoral Work amongst Counterculture Youth to Pharisees

Moscow, 30 October 2008 (Interfax):

Renowned missionary Hegumen Sergei Rybko compared those who oppose missionary activity among counter-culture youth to Pharisees and he urged such people to follow the lead of the hierarchs of the Church. In an interview with Interfax-Religion on Thursday, Fr Sergei made the point, “Those folks who wish to fight rock-music and pastoral work amongst rockers are nothing but Pharisees”. He made these comments at a roundtable discussion on Orthodox mission in the youth subculture.

Sergei Chapnin, the editor of the newspaper Tserkovny Vestnik (The Church Herald), said that the Church could work amongst rockers and nonconformists, but, it should give more emphasis to missionary programmes oriented to college and high school students, which are larger groups. Another participant in the roundtable, Zhanna Grigoryev, the head of the division for scientific-theological literature for the MP and editor of the missionary journal Foma (Thomas), said, “Only recently, I heard those who say, ‘Rock is elemental, it is the language of philosophers, poets, thinkers, and honest people’. The beginning of this attitude was traced to people like Hegumen Sergei Rybko and some other lesser-known clergy. But, why rock music, in particular? What about the students at the conservatoire?”

In reply, Fr Sergei said, “The Pharisees very often blamed Christ for directing his preaching not only to the √©lite, but, to everyone without distinction, to gentiles, publicans, and whores, leading them to repentance. The Pharisees were people who respected the letter of law, stressed their √©litism, and believed that Christianity was only for them. The apostles and martyrs heard the same reproaches. There’s nothing new under the sun. St Vitaly, who is listed in the Orthodox Menaion, preached in brothels. So, brothels are all right, whilst young people are under the ban?” he asked.

Fr Sergei urged his opponents “to be more obedient to the hierarchy. It can turn out that if you disparage someone, if you call what is holy sinful, you can unwittingly interfere with the preaching of the Word of God by your insinuations”, he reminded his listeners. In any case, Fr Sergei pointed up that his mission has the blessing of Patriarch Aleksei II. “I am a soldier. Where they send me, I will preach there. If they order me to go to Africa tomorrow… or, to any other place, for that matter… I will go there. As Metropolitan Antony of Surouzh said, ‘If I am ordered to preach in hell, I will preach in hell’”, Fr Sergei said.

He noted that he was nothing but a simple monk that went to the monastery in order to pray to God, to live in solitude, with a love of the church, the prayers, and the divine services. “The work at rock concerts is very tiring to me; I think that I could do as well at the altar celebrating the Divine Liturgy. My pastoral work is a heavy labour that I accomplish as an act of obedience. If they were to give me a different obedience tomorrow, it would gladden me”, Fr Sergei acknowledged. He expressed his exasperation that his critics did not note his publishing activity. “We have now published a collection of works by St John Chrysostom, and works by St Tikhon of Zadonsk. Actually, we have issued them in a single volume. I have a parish in Bibirevo that serves some 200,000 people, I use my own money, and we don’t have any “New Russians” (a slang term for affluent Russians: editor’s note). Why don’t they note this side of my activity?” he asked.

In his opinion, his mission work amongst rockers is only one of his pastoral duties. “It’s probably the best-known, but, it is not the most important”. Speaking about rock-culture, Fr Sergei pointed out that rock “originally opposed many tendencies found in the world, evil, injustice… Rockers positioned themselves as fighters against the foundations of these things. However, the fact is that Christianity is also fighting against the evil in the world. We agree in it and I try to show rockers that their protest finds its answer in Orthodoxy. There’s a straight line way from nonconformity and protest to Christ”, Fr Sergei concluded.

Recently, the Moscow Patriarchate decorated Fr Sergei for his missionary work amongst counter-culture youth.