Lutheran pastor keeps close watch on troubled Ukraine
JANESVILLE—John Shep had every reason to pay attention when anti-government protestors took to the streets in Kiev last year.
He has aunts and cousins in western Ukraine. He has lived in the country and served as bishop of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. He also has traveled to Ukraine many times.
The pastor who preaches occasionally at Janesville's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church watched the demonstrations live online.
He believed the tens of thousands marching in the capital of Ukraine were fighting for the soul of their country.
Shep will preside at Good Shepherd's worship service Sunday. Afterward, he will share insights about Ukraine and its future in a public talk.
A resident of Stoughton, Shep was born in a German refugee camp after World War II. The Germans took his parents in 1942 from what is now western Ukraine to work in a slave labor camp in southern Germany.
After the war, Shep's parents did not return home because their village and surrounding territory were given to the Soviet Union.
“They refused to go back,” Shep explained. “It would have been exchanging one dictator for another. We spent five years in a refugee camp.”
In 1950, the family got the green light to come to the United States and eventually lived in Chicago. Shep was 3.
“As children, we were taught to love Ukraine,” he said. “We were taught to know her history and her language. Ukraine was very important to us.”
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Shep called Ukraine the largest unknown nation in the world.
“Most Americans would say it is part of Russia,” he said. “Ukraine has struggled to be independent for 300 years.”
More than 45 million people live in the country that stretches between the eastern edges of the European Union to the western borderlands of Russia.
Shep's first trip to Ukraine as an adult came in 1976, while it was under Soviet rule.
“That's when my heart really went out to Ukraine,” he said. “I realized what the Soviet system was all about. The absolute poverty of the country amazed me.”
From 1978 to 1988, Shep broadcast a radio ministry to Ukraine while he was a pastor in Chicago. In the early 1990s, he moved to the country and organized the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. He also flew in a Russian plane, loaded with 70 tons of humanitarian supplies, from Milwaukee to Kiev.
“It was a remarkable turn of events,” Shep said. “The plane had been built to carry ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). Then it was used for peace.”
All these years later, Shep wants people to know that the fighting in eastern Ukraine is not a civil war but rather “an invasion in a 21st century kind of way.”
“(Vladimir) Putin has never accepted the idea of an independent Ukraine,” Shep said. “He is trying to bring Ukraine into a neo-Soviet fold.”
Shep believes Ukraine may face a humanitarian crisis in the future with more than 40,000 refugees already in central and western Ukraine.
“They may need outside help,” he said. “The most vulnerable will be the orphans and the elderly.”
Shep believes he is fortunate to be a first-generation immigrant in the United States.
“When I went to kindergarten, I was shocked to learn the whole world did not speak Ukrainian,” he said. “In the years since, I have had the opportunity to love two countries dearly.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.