Heather served for decades as a leader in World Vision International, supporting the protection of children and families in vulnerable situations in several countries around the world, and then as a Country Director in Papua New Guinea.

Heather’s parents, Janet and Angus MacLeod, were the ones who first had their daughter thinking about the world outside New Zealand, and it started young. They had come to NZ from Scotland in 1958 with their two older children and settled in Taupō where Angus was the Baptist minister. While there, Heather was born, and even though born in New Zealand, Heather was aware her parents had come from another place and still thought often about that place beyond NZ shores. She says Janet and Angus taught her early on that God loves everyone and that that we must love our neighbours as ourselves. 

When the family moved to Christchurch for Angus to become minister at Oxford Terrace Baptist, and then become General Secretary of the National Council of Churches for ten years, it worked out that Heather had all her schooling in Christchurch and her nursing training at Christchurch Polytech.

Turning outwards from NZ shores remained integral to Heather, bolstered by further imprints she recognises on her childhood. As a little girl she read a book called Let's Go to India in which were short stories of vulnerable children and their families in India. That reached her childhood thinking. Family friends worked overseas and doing so felt like a normal option. Then there was the plaque on the wall at church about a missionary called Hopestill Pillow (an early NZ Baptist woman missionary to Bengal). Heather loved the name. The pointers accumulated and Heather decided when she was young that she would work overseas, although she did not want to be a traditional missionary who had to raise money from people and churches. With that thought high in her mind, she trained as a nurse and gained initial experience with three years working in NZ. 

Initial Overseas Work

Then Heather jumped in the deep end in 1983 and went to Pakistan to isolated Quetta to work for World Council of Churches. It was tough and she was only 23 but she says she learned a lot. ‘I had stomach bugs galore,’ she exclaims. ‘I had to adjust to a Muslim culture and no matter how much you read about it in advance, living in it as a western woman is hard going. Then I missed home, family and friends immensely. What I went through was like a grief process. I had lost all the familiar things, people and family. In addition, back then we had not even email, leave alone FaceTime or Zoom. Just letters.

‘When you lose something or someone important you may go through stages of grief. You may feel numb, sad, depressed, or angry, or try to bargain with God or with circumstances. I went through a lot of that. It helped that I was part of a team. Older colleagues were kind, and numerous letters from home buoyed me up. One did not. This person wrote, “Remember when you feel far from God, He is still close to you.” “Stuff that,” I thought. “God does not feel close at all.” However, my upbringing told me there is a mystery to God, so I plodded on. 

It was frustrating but worthwhile. For example, I disagreed with a visible policy of the leaders of the hospital. They had a rule that all staff attended chapel for 45 minutes, deserting patients who might need them. I thought that was wrong.’

Pakistan was such a challenging six months for Heather that she questioned the overseas service lifestyle for herself, yet chose jobs for more experience – community health and paediatrics at Princess Mary Hospital (later Starship). She followed that with a trip to UK to meet grandparents and other relatives for the first time.

Not long after, a World Vision NZ leader asked Heather to do an overseas task. Heather said, ‘No.’ She felt no initial attraction to working for a large NGO (non-government organisation) but was persuaded. She was already interested in Child Protection, and this was a task for six months in Romania, focusing on child development and reuniting children with their families. This was in the 1980s when there was a major crisis over children in orphanages in Romania. She prayed, looked into the scene, and felt at peace. She exclaims now, ‘Six months! Thirty-one years later I was still with World Vision!

Heather observes, ‘I believe God gives us choices. We don't know, but whatever we choose, God will be with us. Some options may prove harder, but we can always grow and learn in our faith. For me, in addition to family and friends, there were also people in my New Zealand church, Mt Albert Baptist, who insisted on praying for me while I was overseas, giving me spiritual support in difficult environments. They understood, sent me news, prayed for me. If I returned to New Zealand tired and feeling introverted, they let me lie low. I was also blessed by a senior couple who visited me in nearly every place where I was based.’

A Global View

In the mid 1990s, Heather was again putting things to rights for children. That was in Rwanda where she was, now 33, the Project Manager for Unaccompanied Children. It was challenging, but she found the most demanding tasks could be the most rewarding. In the worst of the Rwandan genocide response there were amazing Rwandans who, surrounded by the worst of atrocities, still cared for others. They gave what seemed humanly impossible responses to the traumatic events. Heather found it profoundly satisfying. It reached her heart until, she exclaims, ‘Protecting and listening to children is such a biblical concept! Yet often Christians don't think about it. It’s too painful, too difficult. But it is totally work that God wants us to do.’

‘I was with one of the staff looking over the mountain valley in Rwanda,’ Heather recalls. ‘We were tracing children who were separated from their families. I commented on how beautiful it was, and the staff member said, “All I can see is places where people were killed, and dead bodies are buried.” This sad woman had lost many of her family to the genocide and yet here she was, totally committed in her work to bring families together. This was her way of living out her faith.’

For Heather, it was natural to then take on the role of Children in Crisis for the Africa Region of World Vision. So many places! Heather lived in several countries and frequently travelled with World Vision programmes. For a period, as World Vision’s Global Child Protection and Children in Crisis Director, she travelled to many countries. Based in USA in late 1990s and early 2000s she prepared policy, raised awareness of abuse, coached national World Vision entities with new understandings such as the recognition that paedophiles target organisations and this could happen among Christians. Every World Vision office needed a policy. It was a matter difficult to discuss and much easier face to face, especially then without more recent options of using Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp! She had the privilege of travelling to over 50 different countries. Training on Child Protection was not just a policy issue, it involved training staff on what to do in a community or in a refugee camp that would protect and support vulnerable children, including their physical, spiritual, and psycho-social wellbeing. 

Heather’s next international responsibility was to base herself in Singapore and facilitate the World Vision team’s response to children and their families affected by the tsunami on 26 December, 2004. Her experience placed her well for a deployment to Geneva to co-lead a Global Rapid Response team to both prepare for large-scale emergencies like the Haiti earthquakes and conflicts in Africa and Middle East as well as respond to them.  

‘We sent teams to start programmes for displaced persons and refugees,’ she explains. ‘In my job, I led the technical support specialists. We taught disaster preparedness, explored how sectors could cooperate more effectively, e.g. health with sanitation, shelter and food, to advantage children and families in all their needs. Throughout her career she loved facilitating training. When people had those ‘aha’ moments while she coached, it gave lots of joy and satisfaction. Now these people would understand their role in protecting and caring for children. In some cases, they had not thought about it before, and now they became passionate about bringing change. Later in her career she was asked to lead a team for World Vision to look at the changes needed to respond effectively in urban disasters and conflict settings. 

For Heather it was and still is important to make friends with a wide range of people and organisations – people with different faith journeys as well as those who do not hold faith to be important in their lives. Heather often found there were assumptions made by organisations about other organisations and people. For her, it is so important that people recognise the value of development work by Christian groups and have Christians see the heart of compassion and commitment of many secular workers. In professional terms she is considered a good networker. 

As a Woman Leader

Heather found it often an advantage being a woman. She thinks this is because she came across as less threatening to men, not pushing to dominate. They at times listened better because she was not a threat, coming from outside their usual cultural systems. 

Yet still, the hardest thing about all Heather’s work was being a woman in leadership, she says. In many of the places she worked, it was a new idea for many to see a woman leading. She often met cultural barriers, starting with staff. Heather learned not to mimic men’s leadership ways but lead in her own style. That was hard for some conservative men under her who believed women should be subservient. She made a point of being as authentic as she could and of affirming the people she was talking to. Sometimes though, there were tough conversations, trying to tell the truth with love. World Vision encourages that—not avoiding tough conversations. 

‘Some colleagues would say I should forgive staff who break the rules and in some serious situations not let them lose their job when they failed to follow policies that were made to manage risks to the people we serve, staff and organisation. However, it is important that leaders are seen to not favour some people over others and be consistent in how we respond. We create the policies and procedures with local staff and with the context in mind, we orient people to the policies and listen, follow the agreed processes and we hold people accountable. We are called as Christians to do what is right, and so this is one example of doing what is right. It is never easy, but it gives a message that says we care about our community and our staff.’  

It was sometimes dangerous work too. Heather is quick to note that, as in New Zealand, road accidents are the biggest risk to people working in developing countries. However, she did face young boys with guns at roadblocks in Sierra Leone, drunk soldiers, bomb threats, and ill-mannered angry young men in other settings. However, there were extra layers. She was the team leader, responsible for the lives of her team, with a duty of care for them, while at the same time, responding to the needs of the most vulnerable. 

Heather and colleagues regularly attended training in how to assess both natural and human-made risks. Sometimes their whole work was to assess and mitigate risk. They accepted risks, but their goal was to manage them well. The training was vital. Along with security training, they learned the interlinked ways to stay well emotionally and spiritually along with physically. 

Heather liked to walk with friends, talking about work and faith, laugh, take breaks away, eat well (including some comfort foods), join friends, and of course connect with family, pray, and meditate. Heather says she has done 10,000 steps in a hotel room but does not recommend that for regular use! She will sometimes, in a tight place, recall a song from her youth reminding her that this season too shall pass. She felt a quiet confidence that God is was with her and colleagues. It might be winter, but spring is on the way, and it will soon be summer again.

‘Micah 6:8 has been a theme for my life,’ Heather observes. ‘Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. I’ve seen humans doing horrible things to each other, but you also see the best in people. People who go way beyond duty, doing the right thing even when no one is watching.’ 

The Papua New Guinea Assignment

Heather’s last role was perhaps her hardest as a woman leader. She was ready to focus on one country in depth and knew she enjoyed leading a team and managing a country programme, but Papua New Guinea was known for violence and complexity. It is also, for Heather, an incredibly beautiful country with many wonderful friendly people. She expected challenge and certainly met it as World Vision Country Director 2016 to 2023. She felt huge responsibility to make a difference. Covid did not help, and the Anti-vax phalanx was large, so in the middle of the debates and restrictions, Heather tried to convince her own staff.

In speaking, she avoided extremes. ‘Yes, women can be good leaders but we’re not saying men are bad leaders...’ She endeavoured to empower both women and men to do a better job in the middle of the dynamics of splintered groups that noted also whether people were from islands, mountains, coast, or any other background.

Family and community violence are a serious problem in Papua New Guinea and especially puzzling when Papua New Guinea wants to be known as a Christian country. Heather, bemused, asked, ‘How could people of faith be violent towards one another and blind to the needs of others, even their partners/wives?’ Violence against women was widespread. Alcohol affected decisions. It was easy to judge but a cultural acceptance for violence was present, so she saw it was important to address the issues while also judging her own blind spots, which was not easy.

Communication was a challenge as Heather was caught where mobile and Internet connections were poor and communities were disconnected by mountains and ocean. Everything took time. As a female World Vision leader, Heather made sure she encouraged other women in their leadership and kept praying that her being there as a leader would show local women what was possible. 

Photo: Heather MacLeod sits with DOTSY, the mascot who promotes “Daily Observed Treatment” for people with Tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea.

Returning to New Zealand

Heather has returned to New Zealand and is taking a break, settling in Christchurch, and waiting to see what she feels ready for next. Opportunities may appear. That is Heather. Her mind open to work, even now.

Photos: Supplied by Heather MacLeod 

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