Woodland Hills Pastor Spent 13 Years Abroad In Ministry
One expects certain things from a man of God– a kindly face, an unswerving moral compass, a dedication to serving his fellow man.
Ken Izzard, pastor of Woodland Hills Baptist Church, is a man of God. One who spent over 12 years in the mission fields of West Africa and the Ukraine, along with his equally dedicated wife and their two daughters.
In their scrupulously clean house out in the county with Petey, a mostly blind and long-haired dachshund on his knee, Ken tells me how he and Shelly made the choice to become missionaries. At the time, Ken had been the pastor at a small church in Louisiana for four years.
“I’d wanted to enter the mission field,” Ken says. “Shelly was more hesitant, and as this had to be a family decision– our decision– I let the Lord take it over.”
A year after Ken had first broached the subject, Shelly returned to the idea. They contacted the International Mission Board, and one year later they were headed to – Virginia.
Becoming a mission worker seems to be akin to joining the army. One does not merely pack a Bible and head off into the wild pagan yonder; instead, the Izzards spent two months in Virginia for orientation training and then a full 11 months in Tours, France to learn French, the official and legal language of Togo, the West African country where their mission lay.
Thirteen months after leaving Louisiana and with their seventeen-month-old daughter, the Izzards arrived in Africa. As Togo was embroiled in civil war, they flew into the neighboring country of Benin and lived in a village before moving to Togo’s city of Lomé after the unrest had died down.
Ken began planning churches and training personnel. “The people were wonderful, and so very receptive,” he says. It helped that Ken had taken the time to learn the local languages of Ewe and Ouachi, five-note tonal languages that were what Ken calls the “heart language” of the people, where as French had been instituted by the oppressors.
The Izzards spent nearly seven years in Togo, and their second daughter was born there, in a hospital that Ken describes as “what you’d find in 1920s rural America.” To put it mildly, life was different in West Africa.
“At one point,” Ken tells me, “we realized that we had a family or two watching and waiting for us to put our trash out.” He shakes his head. “They were eating it. It made us very conscious of what we threw away, and how we threw it away; we were careful to never put household poisons in the same trash bag with anything edible.”
As well as the difference in poverty, Ken found a very different cultural and societal outlook. “They regard time completely different,” he tells me. “Worship at church did not begin at 10 am; it began when everyone got there, and it ended when we had accomplished what we had gotten together for.”
He laughs. “’I took my watch off after I realized I was spending half of my time furious with the people God had called me to help.”
After six years and many adventures, the Izzards elected to look for a new mission. Ken had reached a point in his work where “the people working for me could do my job better than I could” because of cultural reasons; also, the local ministries had begun to depend too heavily on him to make decisions about church planning.
The family of four did not consider coming home. “As career missionaries,” Ken says, “we felt that the mission the Lord had for us was with another people group. We wanted another place in Africa. We knew the language, we respected the people,” Ken tells me. “But nothing fit, and eventually I just turned to Shelly and asked, ‘where in the world does God want us to go?’”
They flew out of Lomé in January, on a day where it was 115 degrees. After two days of traveling, they landed in the capital city of the Ukraine, Kiev, where it was thirty degrees below zero.
“The Ukraine was challenging in a very different way,” Ken says. “We were hard-hit by culture-shock in a way we didn’t expect.”
The Izzards spent ten months studying Ukrainian full-time. The Ukraine has had a difficult past; any elderly man in a remote village would have pledged loyalty to no fewer than six different empires. The last occupiers had been the Soviet Union, who had suppressed religion and mandated Russian as the official language.
“People spoke Ukrainian in the home,” Ken says. “And when it became legal, it flowed back into the country. If we’d learned Russian, like other missionaries did, we would have had a much harder time.”
As it was, the unfamiliar alphabet, cold weather, and absence of a Christian tradition was enough to contend with. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Ukraine, children were graded on atheism.
“If you weren’t enough of an atheist,” Ken says, “you didn’t pass in school.” The only religious tradition was Russian Orthodoxy, a religion that Ken says, “in practice, it has nothing to do with Christ. There are life-long members of the church who couldn’t tell you who Jesus was.”
Despite the challenges, the Izzards settled into living in the Western Ukraine for six and a half years. But after Ken had some health problems from his bouts of malaria, the Izzards returned to America for good.
The Izzards have followed God to a country I didn’t know existed in West Africa and then to a struggling Ukraine. After thirteen years of serving God as missionaries, they have been called to a state-side ministry– right here in Yalobusha County.