Emily Wood grew up in the Northern Rivers of NSW, and she has always been passionate about social justice, mission, and development. She has been exploring what it means to live out her faith in a way that promotes justice. Over the years she has been exploring what it means to work in the international aid sector, leading her to studying a Bachelor of Humanitarian and Development Studies at Western Sydney University. Since moving to Sydney she has been pressing into what it means to be community-minded and be content serving God where she is. She serves and works as the Interim Children’s and Families Ministry Leader at her home church, Hawkesbury Valley Baptist Church.
Jessie: Em, do you just want to start by introducing yourself. Tell us a little about yourself, where you grew up, that kind of thing.
Emily: So I'm Emily Wood. I am currently living in Richmond, Sydney. I am also a student of humanitarian and development studies at Western Sydney University. I'm currently the interim Children's and Family's ministry leader at Hawkesbury Valley Baptist Church. I grew up in Tweed Heads, so that's right up on the border, the border bubble. So I grew up there my whole life and I went to central primary school, then Tweed River high school, and that's a bit about me.
Jessie: Come on, Tweed-Breed represent. All good things come from Tweed, some would say. So tell me a little bit about where you grew up, how big was faith for you in your upbringing?
Emily: Yeah, so faith was a really strong part of my upbringing. I grew up at Tweed Church of Christ and just connected in there heaps. My family are all strong Christians, my parents and my grandparents on both sides as well. So that was something that was really important in our family. So I grew up serving in the church, you know, band and sound and hosting and all the different things, giving everything a bit of a go. Youth group, going to youth group every weekend, leading at youth, and all those sorts of things.
Jessie: And so how big was your parents' faith on you? How big of an impact did that have?
Emily: Oh, I think it had just like anyone, I think when you grow up in church life it really does, it shapes how you view the world and see the world. I was really fortunate because my parents, I'd say they like discipled my sister and I, but it was never an expectation to do it just because they were doing it, especially as we got older. So it was happy to have like open conversations about stuff and it was never something that was negative. It was always, in my experience, quite positive.
Jessie: And so you mentioned youth group growing up. How big was that for you? Did you get to experience putting faith into action in that space?
Emily: Yeah, so youth with like a big part of my high school years. Definitely doing, you know, normal youth group stuff, turning out, playing a few games, hanging out with your mates, having a good feast afterwards, just all that kind of stuff, which always was lots of fun. But I think from when I first started youth, youth group always did 40 Hour Famine. So that was sort of a big part of when I was like, I think I was 11, almost 12, seeing the promotional stuff for the first time. That was one of those real, I guess it's a marker moments of like, oh, that's not right, what can I do about that kind of thing? And that was sort of a big stepping stone into the whole mission world for me. And you know, being 11 or 12, that was the age I wasn't old enough to even do it for the full 40 hours yet. So it was like just 8 hours without eating. So I still went and did it all and we did our sleep overs and stuff. That was always lots of fun.
And then as I sort of went through upper high school as well, I got the opportunity to come down to Sydney for Uprising conferences. So that was the upper high school sort of leadership conference that Churches of Christ ran. I remember being in like year 11 and sitting in the auditorium and one of the girls got up and she was talking about this embody thing. And at that point I had not heard of embody at all. And it was like, oh, that's really cool and talking about Safe Water September and stuff. And then from there just like, I got the opportunity to be a church rep with embody for my church. So the next few years I was able to really facilitate and help organize things for Safe Water September at my church and youth group and stuff, which was really cool and also like I was running 40 Hour Famine stuff at church and youth as well. And even I was doing it at school when I was in year 12, so our school used to do it. And yeah, I'd set up big displays about different things and encourage people to get involved and stuff. So it was really like something I was always passionate about that sort of advocating and being part of being a voice for people, I guess, in developing contexts.
Jessie: Yeah. That's great. So how did that sort of advocation, I mean you talk about 40 Hour Famine and those early opportunities you had and then being exposed to embody and then getting involved. How did those kinds of spaces for advocacy really shape your faith?
Emily: Yeah, I think in terms of my faith, it really like broadened my faith, I think to an extent, because we talk about, you know, God is love and Jesus is love. So then it's sort of that love in action kind of thing. And for me, it always comes back to Micah 6:8, “live justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” So that sort of like, I guess, one of my anchor verses where that's what it's about for me. So yeah, I find there's a lot of freedom in faith to be about that and be about justice and mercy and loving people. And it's sort of the reason I'm doing what I'm doing and why I am where I am as well. And while I don't think I really truly understand it and understand what it means to be righteously angry, but just that image of Jesus turning the tables at the temple because the people had made his father's house a den of thieves. That's one of those things that was always a really cool motivator that it's good to be about justice because Jesus was about justice as well and loving people and giving and serving.
Jessie: So for you putting your faith into action sounds really pivotal. I was just wondering, when did mission for you get modeled? Like, was it modeled from your church context or modeled from your home, how was mission model to you?
Emily: Yeah, I think mission was just like always a part of my family. My grandma was a missionary for quite a number of years in Nepal and India as well. So I always sort of grew up with that being part of, it was never, it was never something that was like, oh, that's something new that I've never heard of before. It was just always part of it and part of family as well. My mum was a chaplain for 12 years at a local primary school, a state primary school. So that as well was a big player of just going, you know, loving people and getting opportunities to share the Gospel in different programs and stuff that I was a part of through that as well. And just, it was never something that was different. It was just always part of it. And we always had like World Vision sponsor kids and things like that too. So, it was never something that I ever thought of as being something that I had to learn. It was just always there. It's always been part of life for me, I think. No matter where I am, it's always like, where can I serve or what am I serving into? And like, what's my mission field in this season or whatever that may be.
Jessie: Yeah. That's so great. And it's really encouraging to hear how much your grandma's faith has come down through to your mum and then now to you and just the legacy of the mission life. I just wondering you talk about youth group and you talk about the different spaces you got to engage. I was wondering what other spaces you've been able to express your faith? What's that look like for you?
Emily: It's been interesting cause I think, you know, growing up in high school and going to a public high school, which was like, great, I'm glad I had that experience. I found as I was figuring it out, it was sort of different opportunities at times to, I guess, invite friends to youth sometimes. Or like we just, I don't know, conversations had just come up in the playground because there was a few of us in our group that went to church and stuff. So just getting alongside people and just doing life with people is really where I see lots of value in terms of expressing my faith and sharing my faith as well. So even now when I'm at uni, it's not like, I don't shy away from the fact that, this is who I am and this is part of who I am and it's part of my DNA.
So yeah, being open and just having conversations with people and stuff. And also I've been given the opportunity over the last sort of eight, nine months now to be the interim ministry leader for kids and families at my church as well, which in this season is sort of where God's placed me, which is something I never thought I would have even done. But in that place, that in the season is my mission field. So the families that I connect with, the kids and all that, whether it's like Sunday services back in the day, or playgroup midweek, just sitting and chatting with parents and hanging out with the kids and doing different things. That's how I am in this season expressing that faith, I think.
Jessie: Super encouraging. And what have you learnt about yourself?
Emily: In that process? I think in that space of like being in ministry I knew there was going to be challenges, but I think it feels, it's getting that ministry/life balance right, I think. It's challenging because it's something that I love, and I love the kids and I love the people, but it's finding the balance between that and also going it's okay to like, not be ministry leader all the time. And sort of being able to, I guess, turn off from that when I'm not in that space and just being really clear with my boundaries with myself, even. And also just having that responsibility as well is something that I'm sort of still grappling with I think, even because part of me goes, you know, I'm like 21, 22 and it's like, how am I this person at this point in time? I'm like, what, like that blows my mind sometimes like to have that and the fact that I've got the trust in the people there as well, to have that responsibility as well, it's empowering and very freeing, but also I know there's a lot of gravity around that too. And there's lots of, it's important to sort of understand that.
Jessie: It's great to hear how you've been championed and empowered by so many people from your experiences back in Tweed on the way through to where you are now in Sydney. Who are the people in your life that have supported you in your missional journey and what has it meant for you to have others get around you and encourage you in this space?
Emily: Yeah, I've got. Yeah, I think obviously firstly my parents and my family, because it's never been like, you know, even picking uni degrees or subjects at school, it was never about… while academics was important and definitely valued and encouraged to do well academically, there was never an expectation to be a lawyer, be a doctor, be like whatever. There was never that kind of thing. I had the freedom to be able to pick things that interested me and that was really good. And then I think, I guess later as well, it was just I guess different youth leaders and ministry leaders, like youth pastors and stuff that were just like, I see something in you that goes, you get excited about this stuff and there's like this fire and passion in you that makes you, clearly that's where your heart is as well. So that was always really inspiring. Maybe not inspiring, but encouraging to have those things acknowledged.
And I guess as well as I moved down to Sydney, even people through embody and Global Mission Partners that I've sort of connected with over the time as well, they've been champions as well of giving me opportunities to do internships or be representatives for embody at different events or things like that, which I would never have imagined doing. It was just really awesome. And then other people just through other organizations that I've been connected with as well just saying, come and hang out and let's talk about staff, or come and meet meet these people, these are people that you should be connected with. And things like that. And even people in church, and people in leadership at church as well, who are just, even as I'm finishing my degree saying that's important as well. And while you're in ministry, like that's a big priority too. So encouraging that in that space too, and going, you know, you're doing ministry, but this is also important. We want you where God's called you to be.
Jessie: Yeah, that's great. Yeah. Love that. So you've now moved to Sydney and you're about to finish your degree. You talk about the calling of God; what called you to study development? Like what was it within you that made you want to do development?
Emily: I think there was always this thing in me that went… I remember, I don't know. It must've been like maybe five or year six and went to like the first thing, I was going to a young leaders’ conference. Like one of those Halogen Young Leaders Conferences in Brisbane, you catch the bus up to Brisbane and see these things. And there were these guys there from World Vision, and they had their stand and these young people on the stage sharing stories about the partners and stuff and people they supported and how the support was being used and different things like that. So that kind of thing. And I saw that and I was like, that's the thing I want to do. That's what I want to be a part of, but didn't really know like what that was, that was just sort of that spark kind of thing.
And then, you know, as I went through school and stuff, it was always a heart for people at the center of it. And you know, in Year 10 you're picking your subjects for Year 11 or 12 and you're getting that, “this is going to determine the course of your life if you don't pick the right subjects, like don't even bother,” kind of thing. And it's just, you kind of get that vibe and you're like, I've got to pick the right things otherwise it's not going to end well, what am I going to be? What is the meaning of life when you're in Year 10, which is great. I remember at the time there was a missionary couple who were in Nepal for in the nineties and the wife had written some books about their experience and my grandma knew them. So throughout that time, we’d sort of given grandma the books as they came out for different things. And from that I was like, oh, they are physiotherapists, therefore I want to be a physiotherapist because that's something practical that will be able to help. Because at that point, that was sort of my frame of reference for like the development sector and kind of knowing there were these NGOs and stuff. But not really knowing what that meant. So, you know, in Year 10 I picked advanced maths, biology, society and culture, PE, music, and English, advanced English. And look by the end of Year 12, I had dropped maths altogether. And just not that I was bad at it, but it just wasn't where my passions was, and like, that's a really weird eclectic group of subjects that you go, they don't really go together.
But then as I was at school, I applied for early entry for social science and got in and started uni on the gold coast, doing social science. And at the time, when I looked back at that, I was like, oh, this makes sense. All those subjects go together and they're all very like humanities-based; to an extent they are all sort of about people in the world. I was like, oh, I didn't realize that at the time. But that's what that was, which sort of set me up for, you know, moving to social science. And then as I sort of started, it wasn't really quite the right thing that I was after. Like, it wasn't really specific enough to that sort of development sector kind of thing. And then, so within about three weeks of starting my degree, I'd been doing some research and found the humanitarian and development studies at Western Sydney and was like, oh, that's the thing. That's the one.
And I mean as well, part of the drawcard was the international placement that you do in your third year, which looks a bit different now because of COVID, but still getting to work with partners, international partners to do different work. So then I applied and I got in and I moved down at the start of 2018 to start my degree. And yeah, that was sort of how I ended up where I am doing what I'm doing.
Jessie: So what have you learned so far in your studies and what's really shaped you as you move into development more?
Emily: I think the biggest thing that I have learned and am learning, while specific to what I'm studying but not maybe coursework, is that there's a place for everything in the sector. So I think we can be really good at casting stones and saying that's not being done right. That's not being done right. But accepting that everyone, there's a place for everything, I think, within reason, within this sector and what happens. And if people aren't against it, they're sort of with us, if that makes sense. So that's like some scripture in Mark… here it is. So it's Mark chapter 9 verses 38 and it says, “’Teacher,’ said John, we saw someone driving out demons in your name. And we told him to stop because he was not one of us.’ ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, but whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name, because you belong to the Messiah, will certainly not lose their reward.’”
So like, I think there's a lot of tension in the sector about wanting to do it right. And different people sit in different pockets of the sector and there's a value in what everyone does. And everyone brings something unique to that place as well. And it's really important that, you know, if people aren't against us, they're for us and we should be working together in unity to bring change, regardless of faith experience. We should be rallying together and bring people under our wings, for those of us who are a bit further along the journey, to teach other people who are beginning to having people who are ahead of us, who've been doing it a bit more, to then be able to do the journey together because everyone… no one person has the answer. Not everyone has the answer. No one has the answer to solve the world's problems, except Jesus and he's not back yet. So yeah, we've got to work together to make that work and function. So I think that's really important.
Jessie: You've learned a lot of theory along the way, and there's obviously been some practice in that space. What does it look like for you to actually engage in mission on the ground? We'll start with overseas and how have you seen development take place over there as well?
Emily: Yeah, I personally haven't had a whole lot of experience internationally yet. I did do a short-term mission trip to East Timor last year, which was enlightening. And just, there was lots that I am still unpacking from that even 18 months later. But that was a very standard sort of mission trip experience. So we went and we built a fence alongside some Timorese guys who were working on the site as well for a medical center that is eventually going to be built. So while we finished the fence and the fence was amazing, for me the most impactful part of that trip wasn't going to the job site and building the fence but the opportunity I got to sit in the home with the missionaries that were over there and just to sit and have conversations with them because for me, while the doing and the practical, there's a place for that, and that's important. For me, the most poignant part was just sitting and hearing the stories and just seeing the way the missionaries we were sort of staying with were conducting themselves and how they were living. As someone who doesn't necessarily want to work potentially in the field, but seeing that humility and the love and the kindness and just the God in them was so, so powerful to really just say what it means to be a missionary on God's work in the field. So that was really really powerful to be able to sit and just talk, because they don't always invite teams and people to sit in their homes with them because that's their space. And to get that opportunity was really special. And I think sometimes we can miss those sort of small opportunities to really like build relationship and that's some of the most powerful stuff in that space.
In terms of other things I've been a part of, I did a little bit of work with Global Mission Partners last year and working with some of their partners in Zimbabwe and developing some different things for them around some gender audit stuff. So that was really interesting to sort of do some cross-cultural work in that context as well. A lot of the stuff that I've done though has probably been not necessarily working on international development projects, but more about the advocacy kind of side of things in terms of things like 40 Hour Famine and then Safe Water September and doing some more, I guess, presentational things. Well, that's not even a word. Presenting things here, getting people involved with different projects that are happening in that way. So that for me is one of the things that's really important. It's sort of acknowledging that people are in different parts of the journey and may have never heard about this stuff before. And it might be something that sparks something in them that they go, oh, I want to hear more, I want to know more. Because that's how I sort of started. And then from there you kind of go on this journey of learning what that means. And maybe it's something that becomes part of the career you develop, or maybe it's just looking at going, how do I live in a way that might be a little bit more sustainable in terms of, you know, what I'm buying. Just being more conscious in sort of ethical ways of living or different things like that. Because I think everyone has a role to play, but it might not be going to the mission field and sharing the Gospel with people in different parts of the world. And I think that's okay, and it's important to acknowledge we all don't need to do that because we're all part of the body and every part of the body is important and has a different role to play in different things.
Jessie: I love hearing about your experiences in East Timor and particularly just you connecting with the various men and women just in their homes and just the relationship you've built. Sometimes we often don't value enough, just the insights we can glean and just the posture of a person and how they carry themselves in their context. So thanks so much for sharing that. When you talked about advocacy, I was just wondering just for our listeners, why do you think it's important? In particular that young people actually are advocates for mission, for the least of these? What does it do in their youth groups or their schools?
Emily: Yeah, well, I think it's so much of the time feels like the way mission is presented, especially at church and stuff, it's sort of, you see the videos of the people who are overseas doing the work, and it's sort of like, how do I get involved and what can I do? Because obviously like you're 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, whatever, you can't really go and do that. And that's okay. So I think it's important that we use the platform that we have to be able to share and help people, just the people that even in your world, that help people in your world see things maybe a little bit differently. So it might be just about having a conversation with your mate at school about, you know, oh, I'm doing this like 40 Hour Famine thing, or I'm doing this Safe Water September thing. And this is what it's about: there are people who live in Zimbabwe who don't have access to clean water. And it's like, what? Because it's so far removed from our complete experience. And just to acknowledge that and to be able to then go from there, spark interest. We're the next generation, and we need to be working in community and togetherness to create sustainability and bring, I guess, bring hope, bring love, bring joy to the world, I guess. And that might be just in our own context, in our own world, wherever you are right now. So it's sort of like, what's your mission field right now. It may be, you may be on about the whole big international thing, but you may not be too. And that's cool too. Like yeah, bringing the hope to people around us. While I might be on about, you know, sustainability or adequate WaSH standards for different parts of the world and I may not be necessarily sharing the Gospel in that space, my heart behind it is, you know, if I do this without love, then what's the point of it? Without God, what's the point? Like it's good, but that's my heart. And to be able to get alongside people and journey with your friends or your neighbors or people at church about that stuff is really important.
Jessie: Totally agree. And I must really say I've been encouraged by seeing your journey from afar and up close and how you've been able to really champion people and encourage them to engage in their faith and be an ambassador for their faith. So it's been cool to see the fruit of your passion and your heart as an advocate for Jesus and actually following him into mission and advocating for the least of these. So stoked. I just want to take us back; you sort of briefly touched on it when we were talking about your trip to Timor and you said since you've been back for about a year and a half, you've been wrestling with some things and some questions. I was wondering if you could just unpack a little bit of that wrestling and what you've learned and maybe even some of the not so good stuff that you saw or exposed to in that space.
Emily: Yeah. One of the things I think when we were first driving from the airport to where we were staying, which is about 30 minutes out of Dili, which is the capital, to the village of Hara. We're driving past in the bus and the cars and stuff and seeing the poverty and seeing people living in like very basic structures on the sides of the road and all that stuff. And I think one of the things I thought potentially when I was going over, was that I would see that and would have like a bleeding heart response, going, oh, that's horrible. That's terrible. How can I fix that? So that real humanitarian heart cause, you know as a kid and young person seeing the 40 Hour Famine videos and stuff, kind of elicits that response, which is what they're meant to do.
But you know, as I got a bit older, that stuff didn't really elicit that response anymore because I think there was a level of intellectual understanding there as well, that at this point I can't do anything about that. So when I went to Timor, I sort of thought, oh, I'm going to have that response. And it's going to be great. It's going to like fire me back up. But when I was there doing it, I was just sort of like, wow. And it wasn't a lack of compassion, but it was not an immediate response of, oh, I've got to fix that. So that was something that really challenged me as I was there and when I got home going, why did I maybe think that was going to be my response? And then secondly, why wasn't that my response?
So I think the way I saw that come out of it… coming into a short term mission trip, first short term mission trip a year and a half into a bachelor of humanitarian and development studies, which is sort of all about, you know, international development, sustainability, humanitarian responses and things like that. I think by that point, my humanitarian heart while still there, was sort of balanced out by the humanitarian head, which went, you know, you're here now, but you're only here for two weeks. There's nothing in that space that in that space of time you can really do to change that. And then going, that's actually not a terrible response because in two weeks I can't change the world and I can't change this. And it's like, I don't know language, I don't know culture, like all those sorts of things that are so valuable to when you're getting alongside people and doing stuff with people, regardless of your culture or the context, and good community development practice isn't there. And you can't develop that in two weeks. So that was something that sort of confronted me a little bit, but in saying that, in hindsight that was a good thing. And I'm glad that was my response as well. And that I didn't, that I've obviously grown enough in what I've learned to be able to take that as something positive while challenging at the time.
And then I guess another thing that I've been wrestling with and I don't have an answer for—I don't know if I'll ever have the answer for it—is in that space we talk about short-term mission trips, but a lot of the time what we do is sort of development practical things which, do not get me wrong is super valuable and that is really important because we can help support people by helping them with practical things. And that's part of why I'm doing humanitarian development studies. But my thing is, they're calling these things mission trips but what's the missional aspect to it? And is it even appropriate to be sharing the Gospel in that space too? With all those same things, you know, understanding culture and not having the experience and all those things. So that's something I'm still wrestling with in terms of how does faith and development harmoniously co-exist? So how do they come together in a way that brings glory to God, but still loves people in a way that is appropriate and not pushy or not what we think and not creating dependency, but like authentic love and support, I guess. So I don't have an answer for that, and I don't know where that is, and I think that's different for everyone. I think that's something else I'm learning, is everyone sits somewhere different on that spectrum as well in terms of what they value. And that's not a bad thing either because we need people who love sharing the Gospel, and we need people who are practical and thinking about the logistics and all that kind of stuff too. So where do people sit together in that place and how do we work together to bring hope and to bring love and to bring justice as well?
Jessie: Thanks for inviting us into some of those wrestles. And I think it's super important that you are holding those things in tension and that you are a learner and you're coming from a posture of actually wanting to continue to challenge some of the ideas you might have thought or believed, and then just hold things in tension. So just really encouraged by that personally, and I'm sure for our listeners it’s just a good challenge and a wrestle that some of us might even had the privilege of going on just yet. And as we finish up, I was just wondering, is there any sort of last words or thoughts you'd love to just leave our listeners with? I guess one of the questions I had is, you know, if there's a younger person out there listening in, they're interested in possibly a career in aid and development, or they're sort of asking some questions around advocacy, sort of what tips as you look back, you might want to give them?
Emily: Don't undervalue the place where you are right now and what you can learn from that. So don't undervalue where you're placed in your church, where you're placed in your school, all those things, because while you may have this aspirational goal, which is not a bad thing, to work internationally, you learn so much through doing things in your own context. So don't hold the international so tightly and so high that you miss what you can be doing right now and where you are. Because I think we do that sometimes, and I have been guilty of that as well. So yeah, see where you are right now and serve into that place, because especially now, you know, COVID times, there's no way we can do mission trips, we can't do that kind of stuff. And find organizations and read up, and have conversations with people who are also inspired by mission and development, and just have conversations because that's where you'll learn. And you kind of figure out if this is really what you want to be doing, or if you want to be doing something else. And yeah, don't undervalue the power of conversation with people who are doing it and have been doing it. I guess, always being willing as well, to reevaluate and be reflective of your heart behind things as well. And that's for anything you're doing really, that's just good life advice, I reckon. Just when you're doing things, think about the heart behind what you're doing and why you're doing it. And is it for something that has Kingdom value or is it not? What's got Kingdom value, and are you living your life in a way that has Kingdom value? And being willing to learn in that space as well, I think it's really important too.
Jessie: Thanks so much. I love how God's brought you into a place in a context that you wouldn't have expected serving in kids and family ministry and just how he's continuing to grow and shape you. And yes, unreal advice. And I'm looking forward to more people reaching out and connecting with you and seeing the impact you can have on the next generation as they start to ask some of these questions that you've been asking. So if these guys wanted to follow you and connect with you more, how do they go about doing that?
Emily: Instagram's probably the best place. So hit me up on Instagram. So yeah, I'm on Instagram @mle_wood, I think you can probably find me potentially.
Jessie: Well thanks so much for joining us today. I really like just connecting with you and chatting. Looking forward to seeing all that God continues to open up for you in the future.
Find out more about Hawkesbury Valley Baptist Church at http://www.hvbc.org.au/
This interview is a transcript of an episode of Mission Unplugged. You can listen to the interview on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcription by MissTranscript.