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Up close and personal

BACKSTORY | A reporter’s mission to live the stories he writes about

Fleeson (right) takes notes while interviewing a Ukrainian soldier on the front line. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Up close and personal
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When William Fleeson emailed us from Kyiv earlier this year to offer on-­the-ground coverage of the war in Ukraine, we jumped at the chance to work with him. His career includes reporting all over the world, and his stories have appeared in BBC Travel, National Geographic, and Newsweek. His first story for us involved taking a trip to the front lines with a Ukrainian pastor sharing the gospel with soldiers. His story, “Flowers of the field,” in this issue explores the way flowers have become a potent symbol of Ukraine’s resilience.

A lot of reporters who travel to the site of breaking news “parachute in” for a short time and leave as soon as possible. But you approached your work in Ukraine as a long-term assignment. Why? Going to Ukraine presented the opportunity to pursue several goals of mine at once. My ­surpassing motivation was to more thoroughly understand the war. This would require some time, I knew, and I planned my season in Ukraine not as a reporting “trip” but as a life experience lasting several months. I wanted to talk with people, hear their stories, and develop better-informed opinions by witnessing events with my own eyes. I also felt my reporting could serve as a cultural go-between for Ukrainians and for American readers who might want a Biblical journalism perspective on a war that keeps grinding on.

You regularly attended a church in Kyiv while you were living there. What differences did you observe between the church in America and the church in Ukraine? The church in Ukraine is theologically similar to that in America, but culturally, Ukraine’s Protestant evangelical believers walk a very different path. According to the Razumkov Center, a Ukrainian independent policy research group, less than 2 percent of the population of 44 million are professing Protestant believers. That’s fewer than 800,000 people. Those who attend Protestant churches tend to really believe the ­theology, since a Protestant cultural Christianity, in the American sense of churchgoing or observing Christian holidays without much personal, heart-level engagement, doesn’t happen much in Ukraine.

What is the most important thing you learned during your time in Ukraine? The single biggest lesson from my time in Ukraine is: The war continues. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the globe. That was a year and a half ago, and many have turned their attention to other events. But the fighting in Ukraine hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s been running since 2014, and now on a horrifically larger scale. Ukraine’s ongoing war is a battle for independence, for a culture, and for one’s hearth and home. In these ways, the Ukrainian fight mirrors some very American values.

Leigh Jones

Leigh is features editor for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD News Group. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.


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