CENTRAL ASIA (BP) -- The first time Doug Page* set foot in the remote Central Asian town where he was sent to serve Christ, a single question echoed through his mind: "How on earth am I going to explain this to my wife?"
The Southern Baptist doctor scanned the dozens of small, sand-colored dwellings that littered the surrounding hills. And very soon, Page and his wife would be living in one of the homes made of mud.
"I remember getting off the little plane on a little dirt airstrip and being met by some locals in a pickup truck and driven up a hill," Page says. "No paved roads, just one hole in the ground after another ... weaving our way around donkeys and goats and sheep ... and thinking, 'Wow, this is a pretty rough place.'
"I felt I could probably survive here, maybe live in a sleeping bag in a hole somewhere," he adds with a laugh. "But I wanted her to be comfortable and happy and be able to minister and live."
"Her" is the love of his life, Alice*, his wife of nearly 30 years. They started dating during his freshman year in college, and though Alice swore she'd never marry a doctor or a preacher, she found herself with both.
Page was glad he'd come alone for this first introduction to the couple's new home; he would use the scouting trip to prepare Alice for the primitive conditions they'd have to endure. It was a far cry from the simple but comfortable lifestyle they enjoyed back home in Mississippi. But despite his initial shock, Page says there was a "certain wildness" about this part of Central Asia that drew him in.
The town lies in a shallow valley locked deep within the country's rugged interior. The lone highway connecting it to the outside world is plagued by bandits during warmer months and cut off by heavy snowfall that chokes mountain passes in winter. Charter flights are the only secure means of reaching the area. From the air, the town is a pallid oasis, a speck of life surrounded by desolate, sun-kissed mountains.
Most of the few thousand residents here survive as farmers or shepherds, but years of drought and conflict have withered harvests, dwindled herds and decimated livelihoods. More than a third of the town's children are malnourished; life expectancy is less than 50 years. Adult literacy is under 20 percent.
Electricity a bit 'overrated'
Like most of their neighbors, the Pages live in a simple, mud house, which they have outfitted with a Western toilet, shower and kitchen sink. These "luxuries" aren't available during the region's glacial winters, however, since nighttime temperatures dip below -20 F and threaten to burst pipes. Electricity is spotty, available for only a few hours each night.
Staying warm is especially difficult. Kerosene heaters provide a little respite from the cold, but some nights are so bitter that sheets of ice form on the walls inside the Page's home. "I put toothpaste and shampoo bottles in our bathroom and they just turned to ice.... I didn't know toothpaste could freeze," Page laughs.
The couple have learned to stockpile food, fuel and firewood; they also must constantly sweep snow from the mud roof to avoid leaks or collapse. Even driving is a chore. Besides the challenge of navigating icy roads, the SUV's brakes freeze; a blowtorch is used to thaw them each morning.
The learning curve was steep for the Pages, who have spent most of their lives in the southern United States weathering heat waves instead of blizzards. Survival techniques came by watching their neighbors. Alice learned to dry apples and tomatoes on the roof in the sun and preserve onions and potatoes by burying them in the yard. Doug stored up barrels of kerosene and salted slabs of beef.
Trial and error also was a good tutor. During the Pages' first winter in town, their new cast-iron water heater burst because it hadn't been fully drained.
"That first winter was pretty harsh," Page says. The couple's supervisor gave them the option to spend winter in the nation's capital, complete with full-time heat, running water and electricity. But the Pages turned the offer down because they knew winter was when the hospital would need Doug most.
Despite difficult circumstances, the Pages have maintained a positive attitude. "I think electricity is a little bit overrated," Doug says with a grin. But the cold weather and poor infrastructure are only half the challenge. Security is always on his mind.
Sunlight glints off coils of silver razor wire snaking its way around the mud walls of the Pages' home. The protective barrier is a constant reminder of the risks Doug and Alice face simply by being here -- to say nothing of sharing the Gospel. Deportation, prison, kidnapping and murder are very real threats for Christian workers in Central Asia, even more so for the nationals with whom they partner.
Bars cover the Pages' windows and a guard stands watch at their home 24/7. Doug's frisky, blue-eyed mutt, Cleo, adds another layer of protection, though the dog's playful nature means there's a chance she might just as well lick intruders as bite them.
Trips to nearby villages outside the relative safety of the town are dangerous. But Page often puts himself in harm's way if a patient needs his help. Security was so tight during one out-of-town visit that Page was given an armed escort so he could safely use the bathroom.
"When we drive around we pass people with AK-47s.... You'll hear something explode once in a while," he says. " we're not paranoid. My wife and I don't sit around worrying about things that can happen."
Page recalls waking one evening to the sound of bomb blasts rattling his bedroom window. "We just said a little prayer together and went back to sleep."
It's not foolishness or arrogance, he says. Just a genuine trust in God's calling on their lives and the understanding that obedience to the Great Commission doesn't come with any guarantee of personal safety -- or without sacrifice and pain.
Compelled by love
Page admits there are moments when he questions what he's doing, whether he's actually making a difference among so much suffering. But it is during those periods of doubt that Page's calling keeps him on the field, a calling 30 years in the making.
"I had a very strong sense as a teenager that God really wanted me to do something special. And it was very important to me to find out what that was," Page says. "I can remember being awake at night as a teenager, just praying and asking God to please show me what He wanted me to do with my life."
The son of a Southern Baptist pastor, Page remembers that Sunday morning at church in Texas when he finally discovered what God's plan was. As his mother played piano during the invitation, Page walked the aisle and announced his decision to serve the Lord overseas as a doctor. He would be Jesus' heart, hands and voice to a people who didn't know Him, sharing love as Christ did -- preaching and healing.
Page turned down an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and enrolled in a pre-med program at a nearby university. What he didn't yet understand was that God's timing would keep him stateside for the next 30 years -- teaching, maturing and preparing him for ministry -- before finally sending him overseas in 2003, at age 47, first to East Asia and then Central Asia.
But Page's commitment to follow Christ goes beyond simple obedience. It's about a sense of urgency -- and love.
"We honestly feel that we are not sacrificing much, that God has given us so much that we're thankful for. And that we're obligated, compelled because of our love for Him," Page says.
"There are people here who are dying every day and lost for eternity. ... And I don't want to miss an opportunity that God puts before me to share with somebody. I pray that I'll be bold to do that."
*Names changed. Don Graham is a senior writer with the International Mission Board. Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the Gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo.
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