Barbara Reynolds: Dialogue with an Adventist Education Program Officer at UNICEF

When she was 6, Barbara’s father died, leaving her mother with six children and one on the way. But Mrs. Reynolds was a mother with strong faith and firm commitment. She and her husband were school teachers, and she knew that she had to live and give the very best for her children. Six years later, something dramatic entered the Reynolds’ home: the Adventist faith that challenged the family to greater heights, not only in spiritual life but also in intellectual pursuits. The teaching commitment of the parents stuck to the children, and all seven Reynolds children turned out to be educators.

But for Barbara the route to education was somewhat accidental. All through high school, she dreamed of becoming an urban planner, but when she was baptized toward the end of high school, she realized that the Adventist college in her native Guyana did not offer any such course. The only option she had was to go for education—a decision that she does not regret. Armed with a Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and a doctor of education degree (Columbia University) in international educational development, Dr. Reynolds is aptly qualified for her world responsibilities in her present office as deputy representative of field operations for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Lagos, Nigeria. Before she joined UNICEF 12 years ago, she had spent most of her professional life in education as a high school teacher in Grenada and Guyana. Her UNICEF responsibilities have taken her to several countries, including Liberia, Zambia, Angola, and China.

As a committed Seventh-day Adventist, she brings to bear upon her professional responsibilities the great qualities her faith has instilled in her: respect for the dignity of human personhood, love of people as a principle of life, and a particular commitment to the welfare of children. “The best sermon is the sermon lived,” Dr. Reynolds says. “In my work, I hope that I am able to share an understanding of what being a Christian means in practical terms.”

Tell us about yourself, Dr. Reynolds.

Well, I’ve been an Adventist for 24 years and I’m committed to the challenges and rewards of being an Adventist. I work as an Education Program Officer with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. I help governments and civil societies in the countries where UNICEF works. I help plan, develop, monitor, and evaluate education programs.

That sounds like a very big responsibility. Does it weigh heavy at times?

It does. I remember when I was in Angola in 1991, I was sitting in my office one day after a meeting with the Minister of Education, and it dawned on me that here I was, a relatively young person, helping to shape policies and programs that would affect children for the next five years—and it was very sobering.

Please share with us something about your background, your original plans and ideals.

I’m from Guyana, a small country in South America, with less than a million people. I grew up as a child of two teachers—I think that’s the most important thing that has shaped my life. All of us children have become teachers or have taught at some time in our lives. My father died when I was 6, and his death certainly changed our lives. It meant that my mother had to assume all responsibility for our family.

We were Anglican when my Dad died, but my Mom became Adventist about six years later. Eventually the four youngest children, including myself, became Adventists. My mother saw in Adventism something with concrete practical applications of what she knew theoretically. Adventism brings religion into your everyday life. It’s not a weekly liturgy that you participate in. It expects you to change the way you live and how you relate to people. That’s what was meaningful for my Mom, and that’s what she passed on to us.

Growing up in that environment, were you thinking about how things would go, or were you just happy and carefree?

Very happy and carefree! I was the last of the four sisters to become Adventist. I was the holdout! I actually became an Adventist in my penultimate year at high school. It was a decision that took many years. For me, Adventism spelled restrictions, because that was what was presented to me. You couldn’t do certain things. Negatives. It took a while for me to make the decision, and when I made that decision, it was a very rational resolution. I thought about it, and weighed the pros and the cons. I understood the commitment I was making.

So how did you come to the United Nations, to UNICEF, and why would you want to be there as an Adventist?

Let’s go back a bit. In high school I took economics, history, and geography. My dream was to become an urban planner. But no Adventist college offered that program. And because I wanted to study at an Adventist college, I took education—the only program available for me. I taught for three years in Grenada, I taught at home, and then I came to the U.S. to do my Master’s. I finished in 1989, and was going to New York to look for a teaching job, but my sister said to me “Why don’t you go to UNICEF”? And if you know West Indian culture, when your older sister tells you to do something, you do it!

I applied to UNICEF in September and began working the next month, and have been with them ever since apart from time off to do my doctorate. I am very much committed to the work of the UNICEF—protecting children’s rights and future.

As Adventists, of all people, we should be emphasizing the importance of children and the privilege of working for them.

Exactly. Between what UNICEF does and what the Adventist Church does in education and health, there is much in common. UNICEF concentrates on education, and we have a wonderful education message of the head, the heart, and the hand. UNICEF has an “education for all” objective that focuses on ensuring that every child has a good quality education. UNICEF does a lot of work in health—immunization, maternal health, infant care—and we Adventist have a fabulous health message, too. UNICEF is very much involved in water and sanitation, and we are also through our Adventist relief work. Then over the past 10 years, we have the challenge of HIV/ AIDS to face.

We as Adventists should be taking a leading role in this, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, we should. It’s a question of education. It’s a question of lifestyle. It’s a question of health and nutrition. But the bottom line is that it’s a question of life and death. That’s our message.

We have a moral imperative as well, which comes in—

Yes, there’s a moral imperative. When I was in Zambia in 1995, I found in the church people affected by HIV/ AIDS. When we look for answers in the church we have to find something that’s very concrete—spiritual but also practical. What is our response to our brothers and sisters who are dying, and/or burying parents and children? We have to reflect on this, and go back to first principles. What is there in the Good Book that will help us understand this phenomenon—the spiritual aspect, the moral aspect, and the practical aspect? We need to get this message out.

In all these things we’ve been talking about, including AIDS, there’s a spiritual message. Do you have opportunity in your work to make a spiritual impact on those around you?

Yes, but not in the traditional Adventist way. At the UN we have a code of conduct that we as UN employees are not there to preach. You are in a multicultural society, and you respect other cultures and religions. In the same way I want others to accept that on Friday afternoon I want a cut-off point, then I have to respect others’ practices.

But back to opportunities to witness. The best sermon is a sermon lived. This is not a cliché, but a call to reality. How we live our lives is important. If you’re accurate at work, dependable, accountable for the things you have been asked to do, that’s as much a sermon as anything else. For me, part of my witness is just that.

On an average day at work, my religion hardly enters the conscious psyche. In fact, working as I do for the UNICEF, mandated to promote and protect the rights and well-being of all children, I want to be religion-blind. The world is filled with so many human-made barriers—race, gender, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, culture, education level—that are obvious, and we should not add another—religion.

But we all wear our religion—or lack thereof—on our sleeves. It’s what defines who we are, what we think and feel, how we react in times of pain and pleasure, crisis and conflict. It defines what we read and write, what we eat and drink, what we wear and how we walk. And so it is, even in this non-religious, apolitical organization, religion matters. It’s what drives—albeit unseen and unstated—the discussions, disagreements, negotiations, and compromises at the heart of the work I do every day.

And they ask questions about what you do?

Yes, and that gives you the opportunity to say what you believe. My former secretary in Angola just called me and asked me to come to her wedding. She was not an Adventist when I was there; she became one after I left. When I was in Angola I invited her to church. She worked very closely with me. As a secretary she knew me better than anyone else knew me, so I feel there was some passing on of the message to her. That’s the kind of witness, with answering the questions about what you do and why. You also have the opportunity to be social—to go out and not to have a beer! And that you don’t like swearing. And that you don’t dance! And that you’re willing to accept them. I hope that something that I’ve done stays with them and that through the association they understand what being a Christian means in practical terms.

What would you say to a young Adventist who says, “I’m thinking about joining some international agency like UNICEF or another UN organization”?

I would encourage them to look for openings and apply! These international agencies offer opportunities to do good work for a good cause. No one is going to prevent you from living your beliefs. You do have an opportunity to make a difference: to the people for whom you work and your co-workers, and that’s a witness. You also have other benefits—you have the opportunity to go to places you would not otherwise go, to meet people from other cultures. Human beings are the same everywhere: We think the same way, we enjoy the same things, we laugh about the same things, we cry about the same things. We relate to each other in very similar ways. That’s a very important lesson to learn. There’s a lot of variety. When we say that God loves everyone, and He made all of us, it brings home to you so much better that in all our variety what a wonderful world God created. When you have to accept you are just a tiny part of this phenomenon of human beings, it’s a humbling experience. You appreciate so much more the way you’ve been blessed.

As you know, I lived in China with its 1.2 billion people. That puts into perspective the fact that God loves each of us and even the hairs on our head are numbered, and that when you pray, God is looking out for you as well as for them.

Interview by Jonathan Gallagher. Jonathan Gallagher (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews, Scotland) serves as associate director of the department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is also the United Nations Liaison Director for the General Conference. His e-mail: