Before he became a priest, Father Sergij was for many years a police commissioner with the murder squad. He daily witnessed the evils that enslave people and make them capable of such terrible deeds. His experience taught him that every crime starts with smaller things. „Before someone commits criminal acts and breaks the laws, he invariably begins by breaking the moral laws“, he explains. While at the height of his career, he felt himself drawn to the priesthood. He explains: „Serving as a policeman and the vocation to the priesthood might seem to be two very different things. But in reality both of them are different ways of confronting evil. I was determined to help people, and eventually it came to me that a more effective way of doing so than simply fighting crime was to offer them spiritual support and to help them to overcome sin, with God‘s help and through the Sacraments, the Scriptures and prayer. But ultimately, we must also remember that a vocation does not spring from our own human will, but that it is God who calls us to the service of the priesthood.“
Drugs are often the beginning of an ever deeper entanglement in evil and crime. Consequently, as a police officer he was already familiar with the problem of drugs. But after he was ordained in 1992, and again and again heard the confessions of drug addicts, he felt a call to devote himself completely to these people. And so, in 1996, in Sapjornoe, a town around 100 km (65 miles) from Saint Petersburg and close to the Finnish-Karelian frontier, he set up a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts which aims to address the whole person, including in his spiritual dimension. For it was clear to him now, as a priest, that addiction is much less a matter of a medical or a sociological problem than a spiritual sickness, which demands a spiritual and pastoral response.
The centre takes in young men aged between 18 and 35, who have already been through a physical detox programme in a clinic. The centre is organised like a family. Father Sergij and his wife Ljudmila welcome each young man who comes in, like the prodigal son in the Gospel. „We make no distinction between our own children and the young men who come here. The most important thing is to see the child in them, as we do in our own children“, says Ljudmila. The young men are like brothers to one another, with the older ones helping the newer ones to grow into this new life. And of course there are many other helpers who likewise belong to this big family. In such an environment something soon changes in the hearts and souls of these young men.
One of them, who has already turned his life around, is 22-year-old Mikhail. In his own words, he had become a „walking zombie“ when he finally decided to change. It was clear to him that he would not live much longer if he continued with drugs as he was doing. He had lost all contact with his family, hardly slept or ate, and simply lived for his next fix. He also inevitably clashed with the law. In fact it seemed to him that his life was already over. He went and asked for help at the Alexander Nevsky monastery in Saint Petersburg, and they advised him to turn to Father Sergij. Even before he was accepted in the centre, Mikhail began regularly attending church. He wanted to find out all about the Christian Faith, which was something entirely new to him. As soon as he arrived in Sapjornoe, he was bowled over by the beauty of the place and by the love with which he was welcomed there. And he rapidly adjusted to the way of life. He recalls: „I felt so incredibly happy getting up in the morning to the sound of the bells, hurrying to prayer, then eating breakfast and afterwards going on to work for the glory of God. In Sapjornoe I began to read books again, something I hadn‘t done for five or six years. I loved the beautiful liturgies in the church. And how lovingly and delicately the meals were prepared! It was never like that at home.“ He stayed at the centre for a year. „During this time I re-evaluated the whole of my past life and began to look forward to the future with a deep faith in God. The year in Sapjornoe gave me the impetus to begin a new life. I‘m not sure if I would still be alive if I hadn‘t gone to Sapjornoe. Glory be to God for all of this!“
Each of the young men is given a specific task right from the start. They may work with the livestock, or in the vegetable garden, or they may learn a trade as a bricklayer, carpenter, joiner or roofer. A number of them work in the candlemaking and host-baking workshops. At present there are 60 young men who have been accepted in the centre. In order to provide an occupation for them all, Father Sergij would now like to start up an apiary with 50 beehives. We are proposing to help with 30,000 Euros.