The Man Behind the Mask

By Dietrich Gruen

We all wear masks from time to time—not just indoors when we cannot socially distance. Meet Arthur Lightbody, recently retired from Wycliffe and JAARS. He has often worn a mask, as it were, to take on the persona of a Bible translator, like John Wycliffe or William Tyndale. Other times on stage he has personified presidents, like Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln. With so many guises, we wanted to know the real man—behind the mask. Arthur is quite the character—and role-playing has become his gig in retirement.

Arthur as John Wycliffe, the man who translated the Bible into English

His storied Wycliffe Bible Translators career may be unveiled in three overlapping parts: language surveyor and Bible translator in the Philippines (1972–85), personnel administration for Wycliffe USA in California (1986–94 and 2014–17), and public relations when Wycliffe USA seconded him to JAARS in both full-time and part-time roles (1995–2014).

So, starring in three title roles, here’s … Arthur!

Arthur doing language survey among the Sagunto Manobo

Language assignments. During a Filipino language survey, Arthur confirmed the need for a translation for the Sagunto Manobo language group. When they received a New Testament translation, they embraced it wholeheartedly. “Nothing matches the time I overheard a neighbor read newly translated Genesis portions to her non-literate aunt [in their own language]. This was the first time the elderly lady had ever heard God’s Word!” After he was married, Arthur and Kathleen went on to work with the Sangil people and, with Filipino co-translators, they provided the Sangil people copies of Genesis and Matthew in their language. The team also produced reading materials and folktales to teach reading and instill pride in the Sangil’s language and culture.

Personnel administration. A medical condition caused Arthur to redirect his life to a different role in the mission of Bible translation. He could have quit the mission and stayed home. Instead, he spent the next three decades as an administrator, removed from the hinterlands and closer to a hospital, just in case he had another medical episode. Once back at Wycliffe headquarters, then located in Huntington Beach, California, Arthur guided Wycliffe members through transitions. One such couple with low-support issues might have quit, never to return to a translation assignment, had it not been for Arthur. “You were the reason we stayed in Wycliffe,” they told him.

Public Relations. Thanks to Arthur’s way with words, millions now know how God’s Word goes forth in local languages. His stories about JAARS circulated in major newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio. His radio program at JAARS, Speeding the Word, played weekly on many stations telling stories of Bible translation.  Speeding the Word is still broadcast as a one-minute podcast on radio and in your favorite podcast app

In 2003, Arthur coordinated “Wings to the World”, a JAARS presentation as part of the 100th anniversary of piloted, powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. At this centennial event, JAARS highlighted aviation’s role in the Great Commission. He also led the Gullah New Testament event in 2005 and smaller recruiting events like JAARS Day and Missions at the Airport.

The celebration of the Gulla New Testament

Gullah New Testament: Gullah is an English Creole language spoken by descendants of slaves who reside in the Sea Islands of Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida. Though Bible translators have traversed the globe in their evangelizing work, no one had yet produced a local translation for the 250,000 Americans who speak Gullah. Wycliffe and JAARS brought 3,000 people together in 2005 to celebrate the first Gullah New Testament in the language’s 300-year history. For a Gullah speaker, the familiar first line of Psalm 23 now reads: “De Lawd me shephud. A hab ebryting wa A need.”

Rev. Erwin Greene, a Sea Island translator, shares his joy: “When we were young it was drilled into us that if we expected to get ahead, we must get rid of the Gullah. But if you take away the language of a society, you destroy the individual. This translation should bring new respect to the language.”

Arthur Lightbody, the man behind the mask

On break now from JAARS and Wycliffe service, Arthur’s joy in bringing various biblical and historical characters to life still shines through whatever mask or role he takes on.

If you wish to impact the lives of people like the Gullah who are experiencing God’s transforming Word, click here.