"We were sitting in a public place with my husband's Arabic teacher in Syria, and I pointed to a statue of a lion and asked him how to pronounce it," said Shepherd, formerly a Southern Baptist worker in the country. "His eyes got huge, and he said, 'Shhhh! We can't say that out loud in public!'"
The Arabic word for lion -- asad -- also is the president's surname, and the Shepherds' teacher didn't want to risk someone overhearing and thinking he was slandering the president's family.
That was years ago.
A lot has since changed, said Shepherd, who in recent days has watched images on television of Syrian protesters rising up in force to demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down. The nation is the current hot spot in the region's outbreak of political turmoil, and more than 300 people have been killed by government forces seeking to crush the opposition, according to news sources.
Tanks are rolling through cities and villages. Some observers have reminisced in the midst of all the violence about the thousands of Syrians killed when Assad's father, President Hafez al-Assad, flattened an entire section of a city to quell opposition forces in 1982.
The elder Assad was the one in power when Shepherd asked about the lion statue.
"As much as my teacher didn't want to be overheard talking about the president back then, I know that the people today had full awareness based on their history of what revolting would entail," she said. "This is a historic moment for Syria in many ways."
Shepherd and other Christian workers in the region pray it will be a spiritually historic moment for the nation as well. She remembers during her time in Syria staying up all night with believers praying that God would do whatever it took to bring salvation to the peoples of Syria.
"It's been a consistent attitude among the body to really cry out to God through prayer that the Gospel would spread and take root there again," Shepherd said.
It's happened before, she said.
She recounted a story of her husband visiting a man who lived along Straight Street where Ananias lived in Acts 9 and how, after a colleague accompanied by her husband shared with the Syrian man, he accepted Christ on the spot.
At first, the young man's family would have nothing to do with the foreigners -- they wouldn't even stay in the house when he would have them over for a meal. But by the time the Shepherds left Syria, they were sitting with the entire family around the table, the mother of the family doting on Shepherd during the meal.
"It was a story of transformation and change, and as we drove through the country and saw villages filled with minarets, we prayed that change would keep going," she said.
The church has met with some persecution in the country, but the Gospel is still advancing, she said. One way this is happening is through a movie made by Syrian actors on the life of Paul, a film even government officials have watched.
An audio project is also underway that will soon provide Scripture for the Syrian people in their dialect, Shepherd said. "The Word is spreading."
She and other Christian workers in the region ask for believers to pray:
-- for the Lord to keep working in Syria and for the door to be open to the Gospel during this time of unrest.
-- for Christians in Syria to be bold in proclaiming Jesus Christ.
-- for a great harvest of souls in Syria.
*Names have been changed. Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer/editor based in Europe. To access Baptist Press' story collection during the Mideast and North Africa's recent months of turmoil -- and new opportunities for the Gospel -- go to www.bpnews.net/BPCollectionNews.asp?ID=180.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net