What happens if your laptop is stolen, or a member of your team is kidnapped? What happens if there are riots where you live, or conflict breaks out? And after an emergency evacuation, how do you know when it is safe to return?
These are essential questions for many people serving with Wycliffe around the world today. And security personnel play vital roles in keeping people safe while they serve God.
Paul Murrell is a linguistics consultant. His work can have a big impact – how easily people can learn to read, how easy it is to understand a Bible translation, and how accurate that translation is.
But because of a shortage of security personnel, people like Paul often have to spend time filling crucial security posts. He tells us about this part of his work.
Tell us about your security role
As the chair of our crisis management team, I keep an eye on all security issues relating to the Central African Republic (CAR) which could have an impact on our colleagues and their visitors.
Whenever there is a crisis I help our director resolve it, with the assistance of our crisis team.
We have plans for everything from riots and looting to kidnap and civil war
A lot of what I do is about assessing and mitigating risk, so we have detailed plans for everything from riots and looting to kidnap and civil war.
I would say that 90% of what I do is about reducing the risks people face and trying to be ready to respond well if intervention is needed. I have particularly enjoyed leading some crisis training with our team in the past.
What kinds of crisis do you help with?
The kinds of crisis depend on context. In CAR most of them revolve around the threat of rebel activity, looting and, in the last couple of years, dealing with the Covid pandemic.
We organised an evacuation out of the capital on Christmas Day
In 2012 we organised an evacuation out of the capital on Christmas Day as rebels moved towards the capital, Bangui. In 2015 we organised another evacuation when Bangui was overtaken by armed mobs roaming the streets with guns and machetes, particularly targeting NGOs and expats.
Following these evacuations we had many discussions about the conditions needed before it would be safe to return and where it would be safe to live. Some of the questions were very complex: when is it safe for a family with children to return to a city with a history of riots and violence?
As part of this planning process I inspected accommodation to give advice on ‘hardening the target’. This included strengthening walls, adding razor wire and making sure that emergency communications via satphone were available at all times.
How does it interact with your other role as a linguistics consultant?
Most of the time my crisis role requires a few minutes looking at the news each day, trawling Twitter for any breaking news and making sure that all staff or visitors to CAR have the security information they need. It’s just part of what I do every day. But in a crisis it can take over all other work. I have to be available all the time because you never know when a crisis might happen!
It can be a major distraction from other work
I’ve had to hold meetings to discuss whether evacuation is necessary on Boxing Day or have discussions with our team director about emergency flights while out walking the dog! I once had to interrupt a linguistics workshop to write a kidnap policy because of a new threat in Bangui. Most of the time it’s just another role I have, but it can be a major distraction from other work too.
Why are these roles important?
Crisis management allows our team to continue working in a situation that some people might consider too dangerous. We can honestly say that we have plans for most situations which threaten people’s wellbeing and we are aware of the risks they face.
It’s all about keeping people safe so they can serve God
Being prepared means that we can take measures to reduce the risks as much as possible while being ready to respond in appropriate ways when a crisis occurs. Without crisis management I would be concerned that people might end up in or return to an unsafe situation without a good awareness of the risks to their physical and mental health. It’s all about keeping people safe and well so they can serve God in the roles he’s called them to.
What kind of person would be good at a security role?
It’s important to be able to keep calm in a crisis. This is something I have had to learn by going through three evacuations myself and many more crises where I’ve been helping others. It won’t help if the crisis chair is panicking and doesn’t know what to do!
Having good documentation and established procedures makes this much easier. Pulling out my pack of procedures and contingency plans helps me calm down when a report of gunfire in town comes in.
It’s also important to be a team-player. I lead the crisis team, but I always have five or so other team members who give input on every serious situation. I aim to lead discussions in a way which allows everyone to have a voice.
I am supported by the crisis specialist for francophone Africa who is available at all times for advice, input and an evaluation of our situation. Sometimes it is very helpful to be able to talk to him to get a bigger perspective.
Sometimes you need to be willing to be very unpopular and stand up for a principle you believe to be important. I’ve learned this the hard way, by making mistakes and getting it wrong. I also see the value of being organised and paying attention to detail; both are things I think I could do better!
Could you serve in a security role?
If you have the skills and experience to serve in a security role, we’d love to hear from you.
We’re particularly interested in applications from people with a background in security – perhaps you have experience from another NGO, the armed forces or the police. Or perhaps you could use your experiences of going through situations of crisis to serve others.
Not only will you enable your colleagues to focus on the things they do best but, as Paul says, you will also be helping to keep people safe and well so they can serve God in the roles he’s called them to, so that more people can know Jesus through the Bible.