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Community Development

Engaging New Perspectives

A Christian pastor from India attended a faith and environment event that Matt Wisbey helped organize. The pastor said he came because he had personal interest in the topic, though he didn’t see its relevance to his job. But by the end of the event, he had changed his mind.

“‘I now see how engaging with the environment is so critical to a Christian faith, and I’m going to go back and include things in my preaching,’” Matt remembered the pastor saying. He added, “That change of mindset is fantastic.”

That event in Indonesia brought many organizations together. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians discussed what their different faiths said about the environment, how those faiths influenced the way people engaged with the environment and how those influences might affect literacy, linguistic and translation work.

During the event, Matt and his team also built in field visits to local organizations already engaging with the environment. The participants visited a bird sanctuary that supported indigenous birds and an organization that helped communities clean up and recycle trash.

As the Language Education and Development (LEAD) Asia-Pacific Associate Director for Resourcing and Communications, Matt coordinates a team that is responsible for planning the curriculum for the LEAD Community of Practice (CoP) events held each year. They may be online calls or three-day, in-person events with interactive activities.

“I find that really stimulating,” he said and suggested looking at LEAD Impact’s website to see past events his team has coordinated.

“There’s nothing I love more than thinking, ‘These are the learning outcomes we want, these are the areas of growth that people want to grow in. How can we help design a learning event that meets this?’ It is exciting to see how participants’ perspectives on some things do change, both during and following events.”

His own perspective on cross-cultural work has changed throughout his life.

Matt always had an interest in traveling. He grew up in a Christian family and remembered as a child hearing people share at church about their service overseas.

“I’m not sure if I actually pictured myself doing that,” he admitted, but he knew he wanted to see different parts of the world. “I suppose I most likely thought of it in a business context.”

When he was four years old, his dad had the opportunity to take a short-term job swap, and the family moved from England to Tennessee for 18 months. Matt developed an east Tennessee accent, but, he noted, he’s lost that by now. One thing he didn’t lose, however, was the experience of developing relationships and connections cross-culturally. The experience of living overseas and then maintaining relationships with friends in the U.S. continued to work on him.

After studying law as an undergraduate in the U.K., he worked at the university for several years as part of research projects on data protection and medical research and on family dynamics and food. Then Matt met his wife Liz, who he noted already had many friends working overseas with different mission agencies.

“That impacted some of our thinking about what we might want to do with our lives,” Matt said. “As we were fairly young and both had an interest in working cross-culturally and overseas, it seemed like a natural step for us as we started our life together.”

He remembered one of their first conversations with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Liz had been working in a school, but Matt had a degree in law. And while he had been working in education through the university, it wasn’t easy to see how it could link to Wycliffe’s core areas of work. Matt wondered if he was the right person for the work.

However, he knew education and access to learning opportunities were crucial for justice issues. And, he added, “We were keen to find an opportunity where we could both work together, leveraging our very different skills and personalities.”

Deciding to serve together in literacy and education, Matt and his wife moved to Tanzania where teams of expats and Tanzanians worked together.

Later, when they returned to live in the U.K., Matt continued his studies by completing a master’s in literacy program development.

Dr. Catherine Young, one of his tutors in the program, saw Matt’s heart for justice. She knew he had an interest in advocacy with governments and partner agencies. She suggested he join the LEAD Asia-Pacific team, both because of the work involved and because of the team’s values and ethos.

He became convinced law and justice had a place on the team.

“Thinking about how influence happens and how decisions are made and how arguments are built and how evidence needs to be gained,” he said, “has certainly fed into me understanding more about the complexity involved in working with the minority communities as part of the Bible translation movement.”

Engaging People

Besides his role as the LEAD Asia-Pacific Associate Director of Resourcing and Communications, Matt also teaches through one of SIL International’s MA training programs.

He made it clear that the two roles feed into one another. As he interacts with people in the Asia and Pacific through his LEAD role, he hears their stories and challenges. He can then bring those examples into the training he provides, both to people heading overseas for the first time and to those returning for further training.

“It’s great to be able to bring those examples but also to make sure our training is relevant for the context that students are actually going to work in,” he said.

One of Matt’s main focuses with the LEAD Asia-Pacific team is to help coordinate the LEAD Community of Practice—the environment event mentioned before was one—where different organizations and teams across Asia and the Pacific come together to share their learning experiences, challenges and solutions.

“Working with minority communities, often teams can feel quite isolated because they’re engaged with maybe a small group or they’re geographically distant from colleagues,” Matt explained. Bringing teams together so they can share their successes and problems is not just about imparting knowledge or skills.

“It’s actually relational,” Matt said. “They feel supported. They have links with others who are in a similar situation. They can share their successes and their frustrations.”

When formal event sessions are finished for the evening, Matt loves nothing more than seeing two or three different teams sitting down together, having a conversation and building relationships. Rather than recreating the wheel, people hear about others’ challenges and what they wish they had done.

Though Matt has not yet lived in Asia, many of the principles of education stay the same, and his experience in Africa has helped provide him with helpful cross-cultural knowledge.

“It’s definitely made me more sensitive to the fact that there’s so much I don’t know,” he said. “There’s also so much that I think I know and understand, but really I only understand it from one cultural or personal perspective.” He hopes he’s slower to judge and quicker to look for different perspectives on an issue. He wants to be open to not being right.

“I think I’ve also learnt to talk less and listen more.”

He knows he’s privileged to have lived and worked overseas.

“That gives me a perspective on the world that most others around me don’t have, but also a perspective on God and what it means to have faith and to be followers of Christ. I have a responsibility to use those gifts well.”

That desire to embrace diversity and different perspectives is reflected in LEAD Asia-Pacific’s view of its work, which refuses to dichotomize the world or make a distinction between the sacred and the secular.

“God is the God of everything and cares about everything and cares about everyone, so we should be looking to engage however we can, wherever we can and with whoever we can.” He added he’s cautious about using the terms “mission” or “development,” two terms that can have unhelpful connotations or be misused to mask unhealthy power dynamics.

Instead, Matt centers his work around relationships.

“We’re driven by a view of poverty and development as being primarily relational,” he explained. Poverty comes in many forms, and a breakdown of relationship with God, with ourselves, with others or with the environment can throw justice out of balance. Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers is a great place to start learning about the subject, Matt said.

He feels a responsibility to share what he’s learned, yet he also desires to be realistic in his expectations of others who haven’t had his experiences. But what really drives Matt is the knowledge that he’s using his skills and experience to build God’s kingdom wherever God calls him.