By Scott Robertson
I am praying for Doug Shepherd.
Doug is a man doing God’s work in a war-torn country (see Mission Conference, page 5). He lives and works in L’viv, Ukraine, where his mission is “church planting” for the Presbyterian Church of America’s Mission to the World program.
As I first meet Doug in Johnson City, he is about to be part of a panel discussion on doing mission work in “difficult places.” Ukraine certainly qualifies.
The unrest there began in Nov. 2013, when the government dropped a plan to improve trade ties with the European Union and instead moved to establish closer ties to Moscow. This happened despite the fact that Ukraine had seceded from the USSR in 1991 with a 90 percent positive vote.
Tensions immediately escalated. First there was a peaceful 100,000-person protest in Kiev (Doug and his family – his wife is Ukrainian – spell it Kyiv). It grew to 800,000. Russian President Vladimir Putin began “giving aid” to the Ukraine’s government. By January 2014, there was open rioting in Kiev. One BBC reporter called the town square, “a vision of hell.”
On Feb. 20, 2014, government snipers shot and killed 88 protesters. Two days later the president was removed from power. Within a week, gunmen wearing uniforms bearing no insignia began seizing buildings in Crimea in eastern Ukraine. By mid-March Putin had signed a bill absorbing Crimea from the Ukraine into Russia.
Since that time, a new pro-western government has been elected in Ukraine while the European Union and United States have levied sanctions against Russia for its actions. But more military action has not been ruled out by either side, and on the day I met Doug, the President of Ukraine announced the creation of a new U.S.-led military training program to be based in Doug’s home city, L’viv.
The American trainers will almost be on a one-to-one basis with their Ukrainian students. Twelve hundred members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Guard of Ukraine will receive training from 1,000 U.S. servicemen and women.
In addition, from July to October, the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security in L’viv will host joint Ukrainian-U.S. “Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident 2015” military exercises. The total number of participants will be up to 2,100 servicemen with weapons and military hardware. There will be up to 1,000 men from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, up to 500 U.S. servicemen and women, and up to 600 from NATO member states and countries participating in the Partnership for Peace program.
On one hand, an international force capable of giving pause to Putin is coming. There is new light for a country in the shadow of the bear. But at the same time, psychologically, the trappings of a war that had been on the far side of the country just moved into Doug’s backyard.
As Doug and I talk, he admits he is having some trouble with his emotions. He’s fine when talking about things that have no bearing on his life. “You have children? How old? Really? Now, is he going to college?” But when someone asks about his work in Ukraine, Doug tenses noticeably. His brow furrows as he ponders a diplomatic answer. He interrupts himself in the course of giving it. He doesn’t seem satisfied with his own answers, but stops talking after a short time.
Doug Shepherd is not a man at peace.
One can hardly blame this preacher if he has a hard time finding the right words. He is in a room half a world away from the place he now calls home, while that home descends into further uncertainty. And he is answering generally uninformed questions from people who, while they are good and kind and decent at heart, will within 30 minutes be thinking about whether they left the garage door open, or whether there’s fresh milk for the week in the fridge, or some other first world banality.
Doug must be be the strong one in the room, though. He has a wife and children who need that. He has a community of faith in L’viv who needs that. And he needs it of himself. Doug knows he works in L’viv because he was led there. But just because God calls someone to be somewhere, there is no contract that states God will make it easy.
When MTW missionaries are pulled out of dangerous situations, they are brought back home and offered counseling. I asked Doug’s country director John Eide about the stresses they face. “There is something like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Eide said. “Now, soldiers have this a hundred times stronger than we do. They step over the bodies every day.” But it’s real.
As the panel discussion goes on, Doug’s discomfort remains on display. He chooses to let Eide answer some questions directed to him. He sits with his legs tightly crossed and his fingers twined together most of the evening. When he does open up to answer a question, he rambles.
John makes light of Doug’s obvious tension later in the evening, but I cannot help but worry. It is hard for a missionary to convey the strength of his faith when his eyes dart and his hands wring.
I pray God brings peace back to Ukraine, and I pray America can help.
Our country is trying to shepherd Ukraine back to peace through our strength.
I pray God allows Doug Shepherd to find strength by granting him peace.