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

Meet Moscows Punk Priest, the Rev. Sergei Rybko

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.

Video: Orthodox priest is using punk music to lure young people to church.

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.

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