KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
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Well, it’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year and a half since Russia invaded Ukraine. And this news shook the world. A few months back, we spoke with former God’s Big WORLD editor Vicki Drake to talk about war and how we discuss those difficult themes with children. But the suffering in Ukraine hasn’t ended. And you know, in our teen level magazine, we make a point of trying to keep this ongoing situation before our readers, to remember the people there—what they’re dealing with, what they’re going through, the good and the hard and the bad. And your kids, especially your older kids, may still have this conflict on their minds. So today, we’re thankful to have with us a guest with firsthand experience of what’s been happening in Ukraine and what it has meant for the church and for kids and families.
KELSEY: Doug Shepherd earned his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and a ThM in missiology from Fuller School of Intercultural Studies. He first went to Ukraine in 1994 with MTW—Mission to the World. He met his wife Masha, who has her Masters of Arts in theological studies from Covenant Seminary—and she was in Ukraine. And they were married in 2000. They returned to Ukraine in 2006 to plant a church in the western city of Lviv. Doug leads the MTW Lviv church planting team and Masha oversees children’s and women’s ministry. They have three children: 18, 16, and 11. Welcome, Doug.
DOUG SHEPHERD: Thank you, Kelsey and Jonathan. It’s great to be with you.
KELSEY: We’re so glad that you’re here with us today. Thank you for taking time out of your day and out of your schedule. We know that is about five o’clock over there, so we understand that that’s a very important time for families. So just thank you for taking time away from your family to speak with us and to the families that are listening today.
So I want to start with kind of a “lay of the land.” We love to start with kind of the survey-level work to get a big picture of what we’re talking about, and even who we’re talking to. So tell us what your life was like in Ukraine before this latest invasion.
DOUG: Okay, thanks, Kelsey. Before the latest invasion, our family was involved in normal, what I would say normal missionary work. We serve the Ukrainian Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They’ve asked us to plant churches on their behalf. And so we are trying to plant a church that will plant churches. And because of that challenge of first-generation believers, a lot of the work is modeling ministry. So having robust enough ministry so people can, the next generation can, grow up in different ministries, understand what their gifts and calling are, and hopefully some of those are called to go on to the pastoral ministry. And so you can imagine all the things you would need—the resources, publishing house, things in Ukrainian, normal catechism stuff, resources, teens, ministries, children’s ministries, women getting together, men, um, trying to talk. And all the normal things you would do in church planting. And I lead a team that has Americans, Ukrainians, a South African—and I’m a Texan. So a very international group. And so we were seeking to raise our children in this church plant and also help raise up the next generation of people that understood the gospel and its impact on all areas of culture. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
Ukraine is about the size of Texas, at about 40 million people before the war. Not a large evangelical presence. It considers itself Christian due to its history. And in 2014, when the president fled, that’s when Russia took Crimea and invaded the eastern part of the country. And so the context really before February of 2022—we knew war, we had already been through some of the challenges as a missionary team. We have teams in Kyiv and Odessa around the country, all united—and this is going to be a key point later—in a Presbyterian Church, which shares this ecclesial structure and network.
So we’ve already been through, is this worth dying for? Like, what are we doing here? Like, this is dangerous. Are we going to raise our kids here? And that wave came over in 2014. And everything had been sitting at a calm, and the conflict was isolated in the east. So we’re going about our business. Kids are in Ukrainian school. We’re all asking ourselves: What does the Lord want us to do?
Whenever the collapse of the Soviet Union happened, there was the Commonwealth of Independent States. So you’re looking at the early ’90s. And the Ministry of Education, which oversaw all the former republics, saw that there was a massive problem with immorality and corruption and you name it. So they asked foreigners to come in and teach Christian ethics. And so that call went out across North America, and there was a comity, a comity agreement among a lot of different groups that responded. The Presbyterian Church in America was given southern Ukraine. So they sent teams there, but they’re the only group that I know of that followed it up with a church planting team. And that resulted in about 10 churches, small churches, mission churches, that then became their own denomination. And so that started in maybe ’96. ’97. And so since then, they’ve added some other—not big—but persistent, added other cities, and it’s that church that invited us to come back and work with them and plant churches on their behalf.
KELSEY: This mission of engaging and equipping people to plant their own churches and lead their own churches, but coming alongside—that rings true with so much of what we’re thinking about in terms of our own mission with Concurrently, that seeking to “come alongside” and equip, raising up leaders, equipping leaders. So I just really appreciate that mission and its expression.
So you’re giving us some touch points of what life was like, what life and ministry was like, the purpose. But it sounds like, of course, that the mission has had to shift in its expression, because of responding to what’s going on culturally. But give us a little bit more—lean a little further into what was generally going on in Ukraine. I hear some touch points of history, of corruption, things like that, that you’ve mentioned. But what was happening on the ground in 2022?
DOUG: Well, Ukraine, historically, they’re a separate people group. Due to the neighborhood they’re in, we have a neighbor, Russia, that has more imperialistic aims than Ukraine has had in their past. And so the Soviet Union was another place for them to get rid of local culture, kind of wrap it up into a bigger Soviet Republic narrative, while eliminating any nationalistic tendencies among the populace. So those people were exported, et cetera. So Ukraine, since independence in 1991, has had a very strong desire of—the further west you are in Ukraine, the more this is passionate—to define clearly that Ukraine is Ukraine. It has its language. And that has kind of shaped the arc of Ukraine. Is Ukraine going to be a democracy? So they had an election after their first president. It resulted in a second president. That happened later to the third president. So it seems something was happening as far as the democracy goes.
The elected president, who was a little more pro Russia, was in power in 2014. He had promised to the next generation—and the next generation was looking to the EU, not necessarily for all that was going on there, but there was freedom there. There was definitely economic power. And so he had promised that that he was going to sign a European agreement. And he traveled to Europe and in the European meeting stood up and said, “I’m not signing it. We’re going to join a cooperative agreement trade agreement with Russia.” And the students go into the street of the capital, Kyiv, and protest. And in good old-fashioned fashion, the police came out and beat them bloody. The problem was that all the kids had smartphones. So that was uploaded, spread like crazy. So you had thousands of students that were beaten one night, and then in several days, the parents were out saying, “We may not like, we may not want NATO, but we don’t want you to beat our kids.” And so they came out, they beat the parents. And so the more that went on, it kept building and building and building. That was called the “winter on fire.” You can see that in some movies about it.
And so the president runs, immediately Russia invades, and the country has to deal with “Who are we?” And Russia had put themselves and their people in all levels of the military, the government center. So they’ve been fighting for kind of cleansing themselves of Russia’s dominance while fighting with their own corruption in the system. Because if there’s no corruption, Russia has no foothold. So that was the narrative that’s been going on. And then the oligarch was replaced with the latest Zelenskyy. Well, Zelenskyy is, he’s a lawyer by trade, who created his media empire, and was very adept with social media, and ran on a ticket of being against corruption. And so being a non-politician and non-oligarch, people were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” People were nervous because he was a Russian speaker. Ukraine has Ukrainian and Russian speakers, but they’re all ethnically Ukrainian.
KELSEY: So let me ask a quick question. Was Zelenskyy a lawyer by trade? Is that what you said? Yeah, wow, I did not realize that about him. Okay, that is so interesting.
DOUG: The message is, “Here’s a clown comedian, who, you know, kind of bumbled his way into the presidency.” There’s actually—he was in a TV show about a history teacher who becomes the president. So it’s all kinds of weird stuff going on here. But he’s a lawyer, so he knows what he’s doing. And he had created his media empire, and pivoted over to take on corruption, and was elected. And when he was elected, I think that was the last straw. You cannot have a democracy on the doorsteps of Russia while they have an ongoing dictator who has been in power 20 years plus. And so I think that was the last straw. So there’s been this Nazi thing going on, and the “We’re going to protect Russian speakers” or whatever, all the other propaganda. But that was the last straw, when Zelenskyy came to power, and he was not playing the games that they had played with other oligarchs. And so Russia began to build up their troops.
And so now we’re talking about the fall of 2021. From there, they begin to build up troops and people don’t know what’s going happen. Russia had already been talking about wanting to split up Ukraine into New Russia, like just break it apart. And so the people on the ground like me are like, “Okay, what are they going to do?” They’re putting up military stuff everywhere. We’ve got no powerful military. We do know how to fight, because we’ve been fighting since 2014. And we don’t know what’s going to happen. Being in the far western part of the country—Lviv is only about a 60 miles from the Polish border, so that puts us in a very strategic spot, which will become more and more important as the story unfolds. People further east have already evacuated from some of those cities that were invaded. Families that are in Odessa and Kyiv have to really ask some serious questions. “Is Kyiv going to be invaded?” Et cetera. So we’re all watching as a mission community, as churches, trying to figure it out. Nobody knows. And that was how the winter went, all the way up till the day they invaded.
KELSEY: So I’m hearing not only the story of a culture unfolding, in a specific sense, but I’m hearing this conflict of ideologies. Europe and that area has been so diverse for so long. It’s a hotbed of ideological conflict, and it has been for centuries upon centuries. So we just are hearing that and its specifics in your experience in the nation of Ukraine. And so thank you for helping paint that picture in clear terms that we can engage well with our families.
And that pivots me towards this question about what the immediate changes were for your family, and for family life in general and ministry, due to this invasion. How did it affect your family specifically?
DOUG: That’s a good question that—I’m not an expert on this area. Timothy Snyder did some Yale lecture series that are available for free, and he goes back and does a whole history of Ukraine in a very responsible way. So he’s a very good touch point.
But as a parent, believer, someone that—I mean, my mother-in-law is, you know, in the country. We’ve got family. What are we supposed to do? What’s going to happen? And everybody’s got an opinion. We started preparing like a church, like, if they invade, they’re going to hit the east. They wanted to connect Crimea to the east. So we knew they wanted a land bridge. This was just public discussion. If they could have their way, they would take Odessa as well, then the next thing they could take Kyiv, and finally, if they could reestablish dominance in Kyiv, maybe they would come after the west.
Now, where I live the west, these people fought against the Soviets well into the ’50s. Every family that we’ve worked with in the university ministry here has someone who has been killed by the Soviets further back. So there is a deep, there is a deep knowledge of history here, and a great suspicion of Moscow. As we were getting ready, we thought, well, people are going to go from the east, are going to come to the west. So let’s go ahead and start thinking about how to have some kind of an aid response.
So we created a team in the church. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. And so I went online and looked up aid. Like, how do you set up an aid center? And I found a Dominican Republic hurricane relief stations manual. It was really, really extensive. And it was how to police things, how to report crime, all kinds—so we got it down and looked at it and said, “Okay, what can we do?” We’re like Barney Fife, we’ve got one bullet, we can’t deal with all the problems. What can we do? Well, we had, the missionaries had an office. So they said, “Okay, let’s turn that into a shelter.” We just finished repairing it, so it was super clean and had different bathrooms and showers that, okay, we’ll turn that into a six-room shelter. So we can put people in there. But the goal was to get people in and out, so they can have their own space as soon as possible. Not a long-term solution. And we knew that people might be evacuating to the EU. So we could put you up for a few days, manage your transport out, and then, you know, figure things out. I mean, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And you prepare for, okay, people are going to come this way, the city is going to have its robust response, they’re pretty organized here. And I knew that we would kind of have to surf behind their bigger wave and figure out, how do we show faithfulness to the church members across the country that are going to come. And then as guys send their wives, we can say, “We got you.”
And so when the invasion happened, what’s key is none of the guys could leave the country. They locked that down. So if you’re 18 to whatever, 60, you can’t get out. So guys would say, “Okay, I’m sending my pregnant wife to you in Lviv, can you take care of her? And can you figure out how to get her to Poland?” or whatever. So we set up the aid station there and just started preparing. And the aid station before a crisis is just very easy to manage, I found out. And everything just went crazy once the invasion happened.
So we’re talking about February 24, 2022. So when that happened, you have half the population saying “I can’t believe this is going on.” My wife was in that group, like, what? I’m like, “We’ve been talking about this for six months, you know?” And she’s like, “I can’t believe they would—what are they thinking?” Like, you cannot fathom that. And then they start bombing the cities and civilians across the east. So immediately, people got a bag, some people left a little bit earlier. Others, the church in Kharkiv, which is in the far east, northeast, the church members already had a chat and said, “Okay, if we have to evacuate, who’s in what car?” Because not everybody has a car. You can get stuck on the train, but you remember those pictures, that’s a mess. So everyone’s trying to work together to get family members out, pets, some kind of valuables. And then some people don’t want to go, or the elderly can’t leave. Like they’re just like, nope, I mean, I can’t make a trip. Just all kinds of problems.
And so people start moving west. So it took people maybe three days to get here. And people started showing up. And the shelter can take so many, everyone opens up their home like good Christians. But we’ve got people living in our house who are massively traumatized. And as a parent, a lot of the parental work is calibrating the fallen world to where the age and stage of the child is, and having conversations that are appropriate. Occasionally, the fallen world crashes in and you have, you know, other conversations. But a lot of it is, you know, even individually with kids trying to fight against your parental instinct to prevent pain. So you don’t you want them to deal with the painful world, but you want to calibrate it to what they can process. Well, when people that are massively traumatized and highly anxious move into the house, and the air raid alarm goes off—so these air raid alarms go off around the city. It’s just horrible. So when that happens, people that are guests in our house fall on the floor, start wailing, the kids are saying we’re going to die, some of the women are—not catatonic, but they can’t do anything. And you’re looking across the room like, what? You can’t pull your 11-year-old aside and go, “You know, let’s talk about it.” You just have to get together with your wife and recalibrate, like what are we supposed to do here? And so that starts within the house. The anxiety is going through the roof. And I’m starting to think, what kind of damage is this going to have long term to children? I mean, I don’t know. But I imagine it’s not going to be good.
So our plans of doing this aid and having it work, we just did not calculate having the traumatized all in the house and us being traumatized at the same time.
KELSEY: What a challenge.
DOUG: So that was within days. Nobody knows what’s happening. People are dying. Things are being bombed. People are trying to connect with who’s where. And so there we were in our house. And I—remember now, I’m responsible for a team of multiple families that have kids from really young all the way up to 18. And so I’ve got a responsibility for that. We’re also the pastoral staff of the church plant, so you can’t go riding off into the bushes. You’ve got everybody at the church you’ve got to think about too. So that was our situation. And my wife Masha and I, we got together and like, “We’ve got to—I don’t think the youngest one is going to be able to handle this.” And I don’t know if we’re going to be able to handle this, but I’m fairly sure that the 11-year-old is having big problems, because she’s just crying because the other kids are crying. And every time the air raid siren goes off, we’ve got to get on the stairwell, and the other kid who’s staying in our house is talking about all the different ways we can die. So we’re like, “Okay, we’ve got to evacuate the family to Krakow,” because we had a church plant there. It’s only about six hours, probably, by driving. But we’ll announce it at the church because there’s a lot of people in our situation. I just had a friend of mine from church, he drove his pregnant wife to the border the day before, and she had to take the car further and go on without him with their—they had like a 16-month-old and she’s pregnant, and he had to send his wife away. It’s just horrible.
So we announced it in the church and said, “In two days, we’re going to leave,” something like that, 24 hours. Now this, this is where the story, for your listeners—kind of different things. One is, the family, my wife goes to the kids. Okay, you can pack one bag, and you have 24 hours. So she talks about like, Okay, what am I going to do here? She didn’t care about a lot of the stuff. We were missionaries, right? So the stuff we have is a little bit chipped anyway. So she said that what was important to her were all the photos that weren’t digital. I didn’t have to think about that, because I was going to take them to Krakow and come back, you know. So I kind of eluded that by just avoidance. There’s probably some deeper issues there. The kids though, how are they going to respond? The one just collected their favorite books. One took all the stuffy toys. And there’s a lot, like so much. So it was like, mom was like, “Look, we can’t get them all.” What, like, you’ve got to take underwear. You can’t just take the stuffy toys. So there was that conversation. But then the horrible conversation with her is like, you know, am I going to come back? And all that stuff. And the other one took the stuff that was oldest. So this would be a blanket that grandma made when he was born, or something that a friend of ours gave the children.
So now I’m busy trying to organize who’s going with us. And Masha is having that discussion with the kids. And a lot of what’s happening parentally in the trauma is not having a lot of conversations in the trauma. It’s being directive, maybe intentional. But now’s not the time to dig deep emotionally and say “Let’s have a come-to-Jesus moment.” I mean, for us—you can get the specialist that will correct this—but it was like, okay, how do we keep it together, so we can get to the next day? Is everyone okay? Okay. Does everyone have some small thing to do? Think about it, pack your stuff. And we’re not saying we may not ever come back, like, just try and—we need to go to Krakow.
So the message got out. The church families are doing the same thing. I have several guys show up at church and they’re giving me, there’s the wife, again, another pregnant wife and a child, he’s saying, “Here, can you get her to Krakow?” That was happening across the board. We have seven cars of pregnant women, children, all kinds of stuff going on. And a cat. I didn’t know about the cat till we got to the border.
And because the border—everyone had run for the border—there was a three-day wait at the Polish border. And it’s February, so it’s minus something. I told you about that friend with the pregnant wife. He had gone the day before and he said, look, you can go to Romania and you can get across in under five, seven hours. And so we loaded up all these cars and drove across the mountains like some kind of, you know, The Sound of Music. And three, two days later we get to Krakow. And everybody’s a little bit of a wreck. We land in a hotel, set everybody up, and we’ve got to figure out, what are we supposed to do? I’ve got half my team now in Krakow; I’ve got another family back in Lviv. We’ve got to—church things are, they’ve been blown up. The community has been blown up, families are being blown up, wives are leaving husbands because they have to get out of the country. And people are dying daily. So that was that first response after February. And then I come back. So I’m living in Lviv, and I tried to get there every 10 days for maybe like two days.
Being traumatized—we knew to train everybody in trauma care. The good news about trauma care is it’s not complicated. I mean, the low level stuff, it’s just “Don’t be an idiot.” I think it’s, let people tell their story. Don’t say your story is more important or whatever. You can’t violate those basic things. Everyone had kind of been trained, and at the same time, everyone had language to understand they’re traumatized at the same time. It’s something that was very interesting. And I don’t know what this means, but everyone that you would meet would say, “Don’t take care of me; there’s someone who has a greater need.” So I met people that evacuated out of Mariupol—that city, we don’t know how many tens of thousands of people were killed in that. They were the last bus that got out. Talking to them, they say—they didn’t have water, they didn’t have anything, they barely made it out alive. And they said, “Don’t worry about us. Take care of the people in the city.”
So everyone had that kind of knock-on effect of “Don’t think of me; think of someone else,” which was great. But then you had to get the message of, look, we all kind of need to stop and take care of ourselves too. So it was just nuts.
KELSEY: I’m going to make some observations that draw out some of the categories that you’ve been able to allude to in this story. It touches on so many points of our humanity, of our faith process. I mean, it is quite the narrative for pushing into and for allowing to wash over us. And think about these categories that we’ve pointed to at other times in our work here at Concurrently, how we handle high challenge. And this is the epitome of high challenge. This is the highest challenge you can imagine facing. And what do we do amidst high challenge and amidst trauma, in order to engage for the sake of continued growth and maturity in Christ? You know, we say—and we’ve used this term before—we say that there’s this risk of falling into what is called miseducation, when we’re talking about educational terms, that we really aren’t learning anything, really potentially spiraling into mental or emotional unhealth, and nothing else can be done with us. But when you come alongside the person who is engaging in an experience of high challenge, how do you give them the support that they need? What are the structures? I’m hearing in your story, let’s do some just very basic care for self, basic, attuned care to the different developmental stages. You know, what do you need to bring for you to feel right with the world on some level, you know, that you’re anchored to the world, in some objects that are comfort objects—the books, the stuffed animals, the gifts from people in the family that supply you with that greater sense of even the story that was previous to this crisis moment in their lives, you know, connecting to the past, connecting to the faithfulness of others. And then I also heard this category of a ministry of listening, that thing that we, I think, are most woken up to do when we are in disequilibrium—here’s that term that I’ve used a few times. And we are dealing with so much dissonance that we have to pause, and instead of adding words to what’s going on, we actually have to drink deeply and listen and observe and weigh out what we’re experiencing, and weigh out the experience of another.
I think of Job and his situation, the trauma he endured, and that really his friends were doing their best before they opened their mouths. And so this ministry of listening that I’m hearing you identify as a part of the unfolding—how are we going to handle what’s coming next? How are we going to handle even what’s right now in front of us? So, wow.
So you’ve touched on the specific parental challenges you faced, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about just that evacuation, and then the return home. What happened there? How did you even give the support and structure your children needed for the return to Lviv?
DOUG: The unique thing about this that goes on, and this is—the tragedy continues. The loss continues. So the thing that’s different for us as parents, because we’ve experienced death, you know, tragedy, you’re dealing with loss and you go through grief, et cetera. The challenge for this is, it is an ongoing, slow rolling horror. And there is no end in sight. So there’s no hooks to hang anything on that you can say truthfully.
So you have bedrock character of God, right? And thankfully, there was no crisis of faith in the church or the family. That was like, okay, God knows what He’s doing. That’s not really a problem. What are we supposed to do? And how is this supposed to be stopped? So the ongoing nature of it continues today.
Today, we’ve got a kid from the church, responded—he was a law student, one of the top schools here in the country. During the invasion, he signs up to the military to protect his mom and family and dad and everything, gets trained, we give him all the aid we can, he gets hit this week. He’s trying to stay alive in the hospitals. And maybe he makes it, maybe he doesn’t. And that’s what we’re praying for all last night and today. There was a missile strike here in the city this morning at five. And kids have to go to school. And Masha is doing the women’s thing tonight. And there’s no end in sight. So it’s the normalization of an ongoing tragedy, which I don’t—that doesn’t go together.
But all of the things that you said about your categories, it’s that you just kind of turn it up to 11 and say, “There’s no end. There’s no end of the tunnel, and the only light we have is, Christ is with us.” And keep moving forward. It felt for me like I was trapped, though there’s no denial, like, God knows what He’s doing. But how am I supposed to get out of this? You know, so to make it worse, as if it couldn’t get worse, Masha is now on the phone daily with women and children and people, kind of medical evacuees from the east, who find our number because we’re helping get people out of the country. So these are people that experience war crimes, all kinds of horrible things. So she’s on the phone with those people all day. Then she’s got the kids in the house trying to do school, and I’m over here dealing with all kinds of stuff.
So because we had prepared the aid team, and a girl that was on our aid team evacuated to Krakow, and my half my team was there, we were able to set up a team there. So we had shelters there, ways to help kids. So one of the things that was getting us out of this was the question of, “What does God want us to do?” He’s prepared us for something today. And we may not know tomorrow, but you know what to do today. So what is it that He wants from us? And what can we do?
So Masha would drag the kids to this shelter for the displaced that was ours on a Wednesday. They had to work with other kids. They didn’t want to go, but you get out there and you start living, you just start doing it. And the motto was like, “Just get out and live a normal life.” And maybe the normal life, you may have it again, you may not, but we can serve others. Masha would like to crawl up in a ball hearing these stories and be in the dark and like, don’t touch me. Some kids don’t want to say things. Others want to run away, you know, everyone’s having a different reaction. So getting out and serving was good. Getting the people out of Ukraine was good.
And then we started experiencing that people were sending humanitarian aid. And it was like, okay, well, if we’re running people out, we’ll run aid back in. And then we realized that Ukraine had very specific needs of what they needed. But people, if you don’t tell them what they need, are going to send all kinds of stuff, well-intentioned stuff, but vegan cat food and handwoven ear muffs and you’re like—
KELSEY: Oh my gosh.
DOUG: —someone prayerfully and thoughtfully was like, “Look, if I was in a war, I would like, you know, vegan cat food, or like my cat,” I don’t know. And so we put the list of the greatest needs of the wound, kind of the wound care, because civilians are being attacked. So you’re talking tourniquets, chest wound seals, all that for civilians. Basic medical stuff, the vitamins, everything a family would want that just got displaced. What do they need? We took three concrete lists and we told the North American church, “If you’re going respond more than prayer, send these things, pack these things in a crate, fly them to Krakow, and we’ll get it to the people that need.” That was the first thing that happened. We could bypass customs, we could—anyway, it was just a quick response.
Now moving back, we were in Krakow for three months. So I was talking to the kids about this, like, what was it like coming back? And, you know, how long did we stay? They think they were in Krakow for like three years, it was just—they hated every minute of it. God was good to my older son, a lot of his community, the church guys get on and they played video games at night. Every school got displaced. So my daughter is in a class. She’s got a classmate in the UK, one in Germany, one in Ukraine, and we’re in Poland. So it happened that all the kids’ community got broken up. So my son was able to keep it together. My daughter, who had a couple close friends, was able to keep in touch, because of the technology and COVID, there was a lot of gracious ways to connect. So that was great. but they wanted to be back home as fast as they could. We said we should finish school first, because over here we’re losing electricity, there’s air raid sirens, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And people were living in our house. I turned my house into kind of a driver’s hostel, so guys who were driving humanitarian aid, they could sleep in the house and go. My mother-in-law gave up her house to someone else, so she’s living here. It just, it was controlled chaos.
So we got it all tidied up, and we were able to get everyone back. It was so great. And the church community was so huge. We had that in Krakow, because Christians, when they go, you’re going to find the church. We had a church plant, providentially. Coming back home, that church community was the place that we were able to scream, cry, or just be quiet—whatever you needed to do, you could come do it. And we would eat. We’d have a meal, we would read the Psalms, we would cry and pray, and then you could, you know, walk away.
Now the church community had been blown up. So the church now, people are there who speak different languages. They’re from different backgrounds, have different church philosophies of ministry, right? Different vibes. Churches are all kind of different. And now we were all in one place. How are you going to do church when you have eight people from that church, six people from here, you’ve got two different languages going on? So we decided we’re all going to have one group. We all come together on Wednesdays. We eat together, read the Psalms, or pray. We did our 1 Peter, whatever, just any—there’s all kinds of suffering all over the place. You know, throw a dart, you’re going to hit suffering. And then we would eat, do that, we do that again on Friday, and then we do it on Sunday. So there was one group, you can speak whatever language you want. And there was a lot of free space, since everyone’s losing it. It was an attitude of “We don’t have to deal with it,” which parentally is not something that good parents do—you kind of pick, okay, there are 20 issues. Let’s pick one and thoughtfully figure out how to broach it and give your kid a chance of success on the issue. But communally, it was, everyone is so—not out of their mind, but just on the edge and frayed, and it was presenting in so many different ways. If someone blasted you for something, was impatient, or someone just didn’t respond normally, it was like, whatever, that’s okay. Are we generally okay? The Lord is good. He’s here. He’s made promises. Let’s keep moving. So that, I think, really helped take the kind of the record keeping off that you would normally do. Like, “I can’t believe Kelsey said that, like, what does she mean?” Like, hey, Kelsey is probably off, let’s just keep rolling, you know?
And so the church changed. But it also created an opening for many people who would never be in the church to get involved. As the humanitarian aid comes in—and I didn’t foresee this—but the church comes together, and they unpack the aid. They sort it, they reorganize it, and then we send it to the churches. So you have the oldest of the old in the church, all the way down to the five-year-olds, going through tourniquets and chest wound seals and adult diapers, whatever, packing it together, knowing that they’ve received this from church members in the States they’ve never met, who are praying for them. And they get to pass this on to their countrymen in the east or other church members. And they are participating because, we all can’t go to the front and shoot people, but everyone wants to defend or do something. And that was such a big encouragement.
And then people were asking if they could participate who would never come to church, because humanitarian aid—this is a human issue. Christ is obviously answering the deepest of the human issues. But the entry point was just human. Nonbelievers—hopefully, you know a lot, you’re engaging with them, you’re loving them, trying to understand what they believe, and trying to get your kids to think about how to interact with nonbelievers. And people just blow past you, which is fine. So this in the midst of this crisis, the family’s back, and this lady calls and she says—she’s been kind of around our groups, but never came to anything—and she called you [and] said, “Look, you used to ask me to do stuff before, and I was very busy. After the war, I understand that other things are more important.” That was big. The other thing that she says is, “and I know you’re the place to go, and I have a daughter who’s so paralyzed with anxiety that—can you help? Can she come?” Something like that. So we say, yeah, there’s aid sorting, come on in. And so this girl, who has no community, no way to process what’s going on, has now a community that’s widely open to her. And it’s not the high bar of Sunday morning church. It’s not a Bible study. It’s not even a group with really good coffee and we’re going to chat or whatever. Just come in and everyone knows that this is a life-saving and life-affirming event. And she gets to jump in. And then during the—obviously, you can have conversations, but no one’s like in your business about trying to have an important conversation, because every conversation is important.
DOUG: So that’s kind of the knock on extra providential opportunities that come due to this horrible war. And then, as the aid changes hands throughout the process—because it goes from your hands as you pack it in the crate, to the hands of the people here in Lviv that unpack it and repack it, into the volunteers, some of those nonbelievers, they get it to the final destination. And these people that we don’t know on the end, they’re all able to participate in a demonstration of the gospel, because they’re getting it without being required to do anything. And so it’s been very helpful to create this Crates for Ukraine chain that’s prayerful, intentional, and personal, from pews in the states all the way to hands that are sitting in the darkness in some of these newly liberated cities or displaced communities.
So we go as a family on Friday nights to sort aid, and it’s not even like—for the kids, it’s no question about whether you want to go or not. Everyone knows this is just what you do. That’s a nice thing. But it also shows the bedrock faithfulness of God. When things get rough and the waters get deep, God’s promises are true. He’s faithful and present. They’re His covenant children. He will take care of them. They’re His kids. It’s His work. We just have to curate wisely, these covenant children, into understanding how to live in a fallen world with a living Redeemer.
KELSEY: I’m so thankful. And thinking of these extraordinary times, we led out with an episode for Concurrently that was asking the question of, “How do we engage extraordinary times?” And you’re reaffirming for me that ordinary daily faithfulness is a huge part of how we disciple in extraordinary times, is how we see the faithfulness of God to provide those daily things that we need. Manna. When Elijah was traumatized, what the Lord gave to him was sleep, and woke him to feed him and put him back to sleep again. His faithfulness accounts for our flesh, to the point where that incarnational ministry, where we take care of the things of the flesh, the ordinary daily things—we see that once more epitomized in the good news of Jesus, incarnate in the flesh, to minister to His people, and the amount of daily things that He ministered to so tenderly. Maybe it’s just worth mentioning His example, and how He looked out on the crowds and had compassion for them. He fed them when they were hungry. He obviously engaged even more deeply to the things that they were wounded over in body and in spirit. And so to see the Church and its incarnational ministry, in extraordinary, traumatizing times, and to hear how that shapes the discipleship of your family, of the rest of the church, and that even welcoming this panic-stricken young woman into these ordinary things of ministry, and how that gave her a connection again, anchored her into what our work is, as human beings for one another, and how that’s a reflection of the Lord’s love, as we are hands and feet, and then being connected to the rest of the body by being hands and feet—I’m moved.
I want to ask this question: What has been a joy, or a highlight, in the midst of these the darkest days?
DOUG: For many, it’s being home, continues to be the joy of being home. It’s not a conversation you have with your children normally—I mean, there are families that have a lot of suffering: you’re dealing with medical issues, but I was not prepared to be talking to my daughter and she’s like, “I just know that if I’m bombed and I’m killed, I’m okay. Because nothing can separate me.”
So there’s been a lot of joy in God’s promises. That is a way to kind of work your way through the loss tsunami or whatever. One of my kids said, like, “Why isn’t the world helping?” You know, and it’s a complicated answer. But there’s the feeling of like, it’s just us. Like, you better fight for yourself. No one’s coming to help you, and we’ve got to stick together. But there’s no false hope. You can’t be trite about quoting a verse like this is—God is prepared for us to ask the hardest questions at the worst of times. And He can handle it. And He is faithfully holding us together. We’re hard pressed on every side, right? In Corinthians? But He’s keeping us from being destroyed. You know, like He’s carrying us along. And it’s like, how do we make it from day to day? So there’s joys in there. It’s like this, this kind of low hum joy attached to Him. But everything else is like, I don’t know what’s going to happen. And there’s no promise that we’re going to live tomorrow. There’s no saying to the kids, “this is going to work out short term.” It’s just, how do we carry on with God’s good today? What does He have for us? And how do we be faithful?
KELSEY: So what a great refreshment that you’re bringing, as you talk about living in the face, really, in that rub of the not yet. You guys are feeling that tension of “Heaven’s not yet” like in the most extreme way that one could ever experience or think of, imagine.
I think I also want to bring it back to that practical, you know, how can we people here in the States continue to respond to the ongoing needs of the church in Ukraine? For like the average family in the States, how can we respond faithfully? And tell us a little bit about how that even might have traction with Crates for Ukraine that you’ve mentioned.
DOUG: God has us all wherever we are. He wants you there. And the reason I say that is, there’s no apology for being where you are. God has you where you are. So be where you are. So what does He want? God is good. And He has good works for us. He has our good intended. We can lean into it and trust in it. Trust it, as we do not know what we’re doing as parents and we don’t know what’s going to happen.
And it seems like there’s so many different things that are coming at us night and day that—I’m reminded of Gladys Aylward. She’s the missionary to China. It’s “All-word” or “Ale-word,” my mom and I disagree on that, but it’s been so long that we can’t remember which one we started with. So I don’t if it’s All-ward or Ale-ward, but mom’s right and I’m wrong and we disagree. But they wrote about a bunch of hagiographies about her, which made her sound like she was floating. And she came back and wrote an autobiography with the help of somebody, it’s called—A Small Woman. There we go. A Small Woman. And she goes through, because she’s in the midst of war, and she has to get these orphan kids over the mountain, and it—I think it breaks her in many ways for the rest of her life. But God is faithful. And she has a horrible attitude. Sometimes she’s completely impatient. I absolutely love her. Her and Balaam’s donkey are my go-tos, you know, for encouragement. I think those kinds of stories of people that are honest about like, “I don’t want to do it, I don’t understand it, these people irritate me, and you’ve called me to do it.” And it’s not turned all the way up to Jonah. But it’s getting there. And it’s—that’s what God wants from us as He sanctifies us, because He’s taken away our sin. He’s given us His righteousness. And now we can live freely in that new identity, under His authority, and move forward, whether it’s daunting or not, and on the landscape of the United States. So by—that was my way of encouragement to the parents there, you know, God’s doing moving work in your lives as well. And it might not look that way. But God’s at work.
So the other thing, with respect to how the North American church can respond—we’re praying for you just as much as you’re praying for us, by the way, for different reasons—the Crates for Ukraine, at cratesforukraine.com. What it is is, it’s the Ukrainian church making a request. So we’re passing along the request from the Ukrainian church that says, “Look, in North America, you can buy the stuff in bulk, you can buy it cheaper. And if you want to help, you don’t have to give cash. Just pack it together.” So you can use it any way you want. We had youth groups doing it, we have a battle of boys versus girls, who can shop best or whatever. You have churches using this in more of a humanitarian issue, not just, “Hey, the church needs to do this.” So it’s really pliable locally, but meaningful internationally. How it works is you go and you register. And there’s three types of lists. You decide which crate you want to give, you buy those items. There’s a video that shows you how to pack them. And then you take them to a local delivery point. And we get them all the way to Lviv, and then the church members here and the community members, who maybe will be church members later, pack those things up. And we get them all the way to the front lines. We cover the cost of that from other people who’ve donated, and you can see the destination of the aid on a distribution map. So everyone that works with us has to have an official volunteer seal, so we’re—it’s transparent, it’s low to the ground, but it truly is from your hands to them.
Now the one of the questions that’s been asked is, why don’t you just buy the stuff and do it like, why involve people? Like, it’s just such an—why not just have it where people go on and just ship stuff to you or something? Well, as churches are coming together about it, or even contemplating and they don’t do it, they’re at least praying about, what is God, in His world mission, requiring of us today? It may not be doing something this way with Ukraine, but it definitely is doing something in His name for people that are not you, either across the street or across the world. And so that’s why we’ve done it this way. It’s our third iteration. We’re starting one now in Italy, and right before Thanksgiving, we’re trying to get it in as soon as possible. We were hoping in the summer, with some big high level NATO meetings, that things outside of our control, there would be pressures that would end this war sooner. We got signals that this will go on now. And so because of that, we have to make this aid. So this is not a political campaign, there’s not a—it’s just helping Christians in Ukraine. And they disseminate this aid in the name of Jesus, in the way contextually they think is most appropriate, to point to the one Redeemer. So cratesforukraine.com. You just go on, register, it’s two people in the United States that are running this with me.
DOUG: And there’s an aid team here. So it’s not flashy. I’m not going shoot Instagram videos, you know, of me dancing or otherwise. Like, it’s just—get it out, the message from the church, let the North American church respond. And so far, in the first and second iteration, we have 2,666 crates, something like that. 62 tons of aid has come in to the tune of around $3 million. And none of that aid affects the fund that we’ve raised for the Ukrainian crisis fund. That’s all in addition. And our goal is to use the crisis fund to not only help the church now, but help in the ongoing way down the road. So if you prayerfully consider it, if you pass that’s fine, or pass it on, highlight it, amplify it wherever you can. It is a great way for you with your kids, or gather with the church—talk about conversations. People have said there’s a very sober moment with your kids as you pack tourniquets, chest seals, and vitamins—like, you can work the vitamins, but there are conversations that can take place about God’s people all over, and fallen humanity that propagates evil, and God who has resolved that problem, around these Crates for Ukraine, so that we can help them pray for us.
Every crate that goes out has a verse from Isaiah on it, and it has our church website. We have publishing, so all our Ukrainian language, which has now gone through the roof, obviously, all those books and resources are available to people. And so we put that on there as well. We had—I was at church one day, a friend of mine, I don’t know, probably 15 years here, he’s like, “Hey, this guy, we got aid to his friend.” So it’s all a network. It’s just all networks of volunteers and people who know people, right? The guy comes back and he came to church. He wants to talk. So he comes up. He said, “I wanted to thank you, whoever you are, the church,” and he knew it came from the church. “I wanted to come back because I was shot,” and he shows his arm was all shot up. “I used the tourniquet and it saved my life. And now I’m healed.” Okay, so this is the other [thing]—“I’m healed, and I want to go back. Is there more aid I can take with me?” It’s this kind of—we have an opportunity to demonstrate the very character of God, who’s giving when you don’t deserve it, obviously far and above and beyond what you can ask or imagine. And we can connect it to people and to places in churches with resources. And we have these orders going out. We don’t know who they are, but people ordering from the website, Sproul and Smallman and Tim Keller stuff, that we’re sending to the frontlines. We don’t know who these people are. So we’re hoping that gospel communities, when the war ends, we can follow this up. But the Lord knows what He’s doing. We have an opportunity now through this Crates, because of the church and the churches connected, to just run physical things in the name of Jesus, trusting that God knows what He’s doing. He will reach His people. He will not lose one of them.
KELSEY: You’re offering that cup of cold water, that bread to the beggar, and it is opening up opportunities. Just so phenomenal to listen to this story of yours today. And just thank you. And I wonder if you would be willing to close us today with a benediction. You have probably many of those promises very close to mind that you’re dwelling in right now. So share something that is meaningful to you on your heart right now.
DOUG: What we notice is in times of difficulty, sorrow, loss—I mean the whole thing, I mean groaning, like when you don’t even know what to say, you groan. The Psalms are there. I want to just read Psalm 13 a bit and then I’ll end with some Romans, if you don’t mind.
So this was very helpful. I don’t know how many times we broke out Psalm 13. Just, wherever I’ve been, you, everyone, just—you’re crying or you’re quiet. This is Psalm 13.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
And in Romans: Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities or powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
KELSEY: His presence is with us. He has given works to us that He has designed from way before we ever were a glint in our parents’ eyes. They are works for our hands. And He—parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens—He equips us for that work with His presence.
What does discipleship look like in the highest challenge? We’re talking to church planter Doug Shepherd about his family’s experience in wartime Ukraine.
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See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.
Listen to our previous discussion of Ukraine in “Discipling through Wars and Rumors of War (with Vicki Drake).”
Watch Timothy Snyder’s Yale lecture series, “The Making of Modern Ukraine.” (Note: This is a YouTube link. The Concurrently team does not have control over other videos YouTube may suggest).
Learn more about Crates for Ukraine at cratesforukraine.com.
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