Spreading the word... from Westlea
SWINDON, global conduit for the word of God.
It’s not a description we hear every day, but unlike some of the other things people say about us it’s 100 percent true.
In a room in Westlea, thousands of Bibles in hundreds of languages wait to be sent throughout the world.
They’re arranged in alphabetical order from Arabic to Zimbabwean (Shona, to be precise).
The groaning cabinets contain the Christian holy book in languages from Chinese and Japanese to Armenian and Croatian, from Finnish and Slovenian to Syriac and Hebrew.
There’s the Beibl Cymraeg Newydd for Welsh speakers and the Oluganda Bible for the Ganda people of Uganda; there’s the Swahili Union Bible and the Albanian Bibla; there’s the Nepali Revised Bible, the Lithuanian Biblija and Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, a translation by Jamaican scholars from ancient Greek texts into patois.
“We’ve been in Swindon since 1985,” said Paul Woolley, 36, the society’s executive director of charity.
“Before that we had a warehouse here but the headquarters pre-85 were in London, but as a charity being in a capital city was not the right use of funds.”
The first part of the new building was opened by American evangelist Billy Graham in 1982, and four years later the completed Swindon headquarters were opened by the Queen Mother.
It was a new chapter in a story that began in 1804 when the society was established by a group of Christians including anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce and an energetic Welsh preacher called Thomas Charles.
Among the incidents which inspired them was one involving a 15-year-old Welsh girl called Mary Jones, who was so determined to have a Bible of her own that she trekked 25 miles from the village of Llanfihangel-y-Pennant across the Welsh mountains to Bala, where copies were on sale.
There are now about 100 staff in Swindon, ranging from translators to IT specialists. Many but not all are Christians.
The British society inspired many others across the world. They are independent but their work is co-ordinated by United Bible Societies, which is headquartered in the same Westlea building.
“We believe the Bible is more than a book,” said Paul, who joined the society nearly four years ago after a stint in charge of Theos, a London-based theological think-tank.
“The Bible is still the world’s best-seller. Its impact on the world and culture has been huge, but the bottom line is that we still think it’s more than a book.
“We think it bears witness to another story, which is the story of God and the world, and that through the Bible there’s a way in which we can encounter God and Jesus Christ.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Matthew Van Duyvenbode, 33, the society’s head of campaigns, advocacy and media.
“I think the scriptures offer a vision for how the world can be,” he said.
“Our role is about trying to overcome some of the barriers that people might have to the Bible. It’s about offering it in different ways to people, no strings attached.”
The ways go far beyond printed translations. There are online texts for PC and mobile devices, for example, and Braille Bibles on USB memory sticks both in printed and audio form.
There are guides for journalists, a film competition and an ongoing programme of Biblical profile-raising events.
A recent one saw an actor portraying Christ and re-enacting the feeding of the 5000 by handing out sandwiches on a blustery Brighton Beach.
People with no access to print, computers or electricity can be sent something called a Proclaimer, which is not a bespectacled Scottish singer in a crate but rather a solar-powered device about the size of a transistor radio containing a reading. If it’s a cloudy day they’ll run by clockwork.
“There’s a personal creator behind the Universe,” said Paul, “and in some extraordinary way that person wants us to relate to him.”
The society’s website is www.biblesociety.org.uk.
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