Julie was the first female editor of the New Zealand Baptist and, at the same time, the first lay editor. In the climate of the time, she felt she was doing a manu2019s job in a manu2019s world and felt her credibility and perhaps the credibility of women was on the line.

Julie Willcox was born to parents who shifted several times, but they had by then settled in Whanganui. Her father worked in a business and provided well, while Julieu2019s mother, Rosemary, was an older motheru201444 when her only child was born. With no siblings, Julie often spent much time on her own, unworried on that score as reading was her favourite pastime and writing poems and stories featured high. Words fascinated her, and for hours at a time, she imagined and wrote stories on a portable typewriter. By nine, she was writing stories and poems for the Pixie Pages of the Womanu2019s Weekly. She liked time with cousins but was also introverted enough to be happy with her own company.

The family were loosely Anglicans, she says, and Julie took confirmation at age 15, although she feels now she had not really understood the gospel. Later the same year, she went with her mother to a Wednesday night meeting where the speaker was Brethren evangelist Ces Hilton. The importance of the life and death of Jesus was new, and she claimed the gospel message that night, delighted to find one could have a personal relationship with Jesus. That was August 1963, and it changed her life. Faith became meaningful. She continued Anglican for then, bolstered in faith by becoming friends with a Brethren girl. 

Academic ability showed up, perhaps related to the love of words. Yet, Julie, Dux of Whanganui Girlsu2019 College, embraced no particular goal. She proceeded to Victoria University College in Wellington and rather randomly chose to study English, French and German, along with a year of classical Greek. She attended an Anglican Church in Wellington and joined the Evangelical Union (EU). 

u2018That changed the trajectory of my life,u2019 Julie admits. u2018Russell Belding was the President of the EU, and I admired him from afar.u2019 In a short time, they became friends. They married in Julieu2019s third year of University, in 1968. He was from Levin and four years older, and together, they joined Wellington Central Baptist Church. Julie liked the theology of the church, its reliance on the Bible, and the singing.

Moving to the USA

Julie and Russell each did a further year of study. Russell became a Junior Lecturer at Victoria and then decided to do graduate study, for which he won a Fellowship from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to study Mathematical logic. Accordingly, the two left for the USA in 1970. 

In Indiana, Russell obtained a PhD, and then the couple moved several times over several years for Russell to teach in Wyoming for a year, teach Maths at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and then develop software for Hughes Aircraft, Southern California. It was enough to make them and the two children who were born feel well-settled in the USA. Their son and daughter grew up as Americans.

During this time, after the children were past their earliest years, Julie worked part-time in customer service as a clerk in a hospital emergency department and then full-time in customer service for three years. The young mother still wrote poems for fun, along with the occasional article for a state Baptist newspaper. But life was about to change.

Returning to New Zealand

In 1986, their thoughts turned with some concern to aging parents, and Julie and Russell decided it was time to return to New Zealand. It was a considerable upheaval, especially for their son, 14, and daughter, 11, who were comfortable in USA culture with Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Halloween, etc. Even the parents commented how New Zealanders were so much more modest.

The son recognised promptly after their arrival on the North Shore of Auckland that his American accent made him different. With a conscious effort, he lost it in about three weeks flat. The daughter was more academic and later studied linguistics. Julie accepted part-time work as an Office Secretary for Murrays Bay Baptist for one year. Then, she moved full-time to Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT) as Secretary to the Associate Director in the Directorate suite. An enjoyable perk was a Tour in China in 1989. She says she has enjoyed travel ever since. While working at ATI, Julie found writing, editing and the whole attraction of words and ideas sufficiently on her mind that she took up two further directions. The first was the New Zealand Christian Writersu2019 Guild, and the second was the New Zealand Baptist.

New Zealand Christian Writersu2019 Guild

Within weeks of returning to New Zealand, Julie spotted an advertisement in Challenge Weekly for the New Zealand Christian Writersu2019 Guild, which had started four years previously and was promoting a writersu2019 workshop in Auckland. President Sue Hungerford in Tauranga used to edit a bi-monthly Guild newsletter, producing it on a typewriter. It looked like Julieu2019s thing, so she joined, entered competitions and won some. 

Soon, she was serving on the CWG committee and offering to help Sue Hungerford. Word processors and dial-up modems were painfully slow. Still, Sue and Julie persevered and sent each other data by phone so that, over many voluntary hours, they produced a magazine which became a signal prompt to the development of budding writers. As often happens when coaching others, Julie honed her own skills.

In 1993, the Guild elected Julie as president, a role she fulfilled with energy for the next nine years, including setting up and chairing two writing workshops annually with experienced writers as guest speakersu2014more chances, Julie claims, to pick up writing tips. Two favourites, often heard from presenters, were: u2018You cannot write too simply or too clearly,u2019 and u2018Never use a long word where a shorter one will do.u2019

Julie analysed herself further and realised she preferred editing to writing. While she continued some writing, she focused more on editing.

New Zealand Baptist

A search of New Zealand Baptist files of the late 1980s and early 1990s reveals several articles by Julie. She was coming to terms with the scene on returning to New Zealandu2014news articles, a thinkpiece on differences between Baptists in the USA and New Zealand, three or four people stories, letters to the editor on topics like censorship, Baptist distinctives, and rights of lay people to be heard [1].  

Someone noticed her. In the early 1990s, the New Zealand Baptist was moving to a digital layout and a refresh. Wayne McKenzie asked Julie to apply to be the next editor. She was surprised. She had seen the advertised editor position but counted herself out as a woman lacking theological training or even leadership background. Now encouraged, she tentatively offered her CV and was surprised to find herself appointed late in 1992 to start in 1993. 

Becoming an editor was a whole new game, and Julie thrived on it, conscious that she was the first woman editor and layperson holding the New Zealand Baptist position. 

Paid for the part-time position, she felt responsible for ensuring it was relevant and interesting across the denomination, including news, human-interest stories, and some apologetics. She liked apologetics and cheerfully set herself to do Careyu2019s Bachelor of Theology, attempting to prove herself. She needed to seek articles, sift through those that were offered (of which there was no shortage), and decide where each should be placed. She chased up people and reminded others to send good enough photos, e.g. not from the back of a full church. u2018You learn the hard way,u2019 she comments. I assumed people would send a bright photo. However, not all are gifted in writing or photography. I did make a few silk purses out of sowsu2019 ears.u2019

Tensions and timeframes constrained Julie at times. u2018It was a pressure to crank out an editorial every month,u2019 she recalls. u2018I believed that if I produced a dud, I would not hear the end of it. At times, I drove myself by fear of failure. If I held that position, I wanted to hold my head high and be recognised as someone credible. That pushed me to do the job well. I hope the editorials showed increasing maturity. There were no role models of women in that kind of position, especially not Baptist. Sometimes, I felt I bumbled through. The saying seemed to hold good that I had to do twice as well as a man to be thought half as good. The task was still largely seen as a manu2019s job in a manu2019s world. It was also a lonely role, though that didnu2019t worry me as Iu2019d always been a u2018loner,u2019 Julie explains. 

For some women, marrying and having children has felt like a narrowing of horizons, but for Julie, it had been enlarging because of following Russellu2019s career, moving to and living in the USA. She became a broader person because of her marriage, travel, and living in a different culture. She had returned to New Zealand influenced by the USA theology and then changed her mind on a few matters after she had been in New Zealand for a while. She did not see herself as a leader but felt leadership was thrust upon her in some areas. 

There were a few perks too. I got to all Baptist Assemblies with fees and fares paid. I attended Baptist World Alliance meetings. I especially remember writing up a visit to Chile. I was delighted with Durban, charmed with Vancouver and Prince Edward Island, and attentive on visiting Bangkok, Dresden, and the Netherlands. I was involved in womenu2019s committees, too, and for one season, was President of the Baptist Womenu2019s Union of the South West Pacific. What a privilege to visit so many places. I could not have written the script if I tried.

When Julieu2019s contract as Baptist editor ended in 2001, she had completed nine years, and the experience led to other opportunities.

DayStar

Returned India missionary Dr Bruce Nichols had strategised that New Zealand needed a new trans-denominational evangelical monthly newspaper and chose Julie as founding editor when she finished editing The Baptist. Bruce fundraised, and Julie worked nearly full-time from home as well as trips to teach Christian writing to new writers in Asia. 

u2018It did not make me rich, but I enjoyed it,u2019 Julie summarises now, and continues, u2018DayStar never was on a sound financial footing and lasted only 8 or 9 years until we sold to an Australian. But it had spawned one initiative that lasted longer, DayStar books, and more editing.u2019 Julie worked with George Bryant of Tauranga, and the book publishing continued until reaching that marker of 50 books. It closed at the end of March 2023, when Julie and George both retired. 

Australasian Religious Press Association

For Julie, there have been other irons in the fire, including the Australasian Religious Press Association, a network of Christian publications. She ran the Auckland branch, the largest in the collective, with a monthly lunchtime meeting and speaker. Again, people voted her on to an executive position and made her vice president. In 2012, ARPA presented Julie with a Life Membership and the Gutenberg Award for her services to journalism. 

Russell and Julie lived in Mairangi Bay, North Shore, for 37 years. They recently moved to a nearby retirement village, happy their children and five grandchildren live in Auckland. Now 75, Julie says she is still a u2018wordieu2019. From her home, she teaches English Conversation online and loves conversing with English learners worldwide. 

Life may be a bit slower these days, but that goes with a heart of gratitude to God. To her own surprise, Julie was a trailblazer and leader in print material and intercommunication among Baptists in New Zealand and a big encourager of writers in non-denominational settings.


[1] A few of these may be found in NZ Baptist issues commencing from 1987, and especially February 1991, December 1992.

Resource: Personal interview 8 November, 2023

Photo: Provided

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