The Blind Are Leading the Blind

by Roland Lovstad

2007 Feb Blind page

Rev. David Andrus

“I train and equip so that others may do ministry, using Eph. 4:12-13,” says Andrus, who has been blind since age 11. “That really resonates with blind people because they often are told, Well, you just sit there and we will take care of you.’ That’s really the last thing most of them want; they want to be involved, but they don’t know how.”

Growing steadily since the first was opened in Pittsburgh in 1999, the outreach centers play a key role in the mission. An ambitious plan is to grow to 60 outreach centers during 2007. Most, Andrus says, are based in LCMS congregations.

“Outreach centers break isolation,” Andrus says. “They create connectness where there was separateness or separation. This gives purpose and meaning in place of despair and discouragement.”

As a connecting point, the centers usually begin with a monthly meal, then staff will identify personal needs like a need to learn Braille or use a speech computer. Then blind people are nurtured, strengthened, given God’s Word.

“We find that when person who is blind interacts at an outreach center in a Bible study, he or she is more willing to come to church because they want more,” he continues. “They realize that’s the place where God’s Word and sacraments are. But it’s a long road for many to get to that point.”

There are 12 million blind and visually impaired children and adults in the United States. About 1 percent are under age 18; 33 percent are between ages 18 and 45; 16 percent between 45 and 65; and half over age 65. About 70 percent are unemployed, 60 percent are single and 82 percent do not read Braille, according to Lutheran Blind Mission.

Andrus says 95 percent are unchurched.

Blindness most frequently strikes adults. When they lose their sight, they lose their jobs. Families often have difficulty coping, so a blind person often becomes isolated. (Between 60 and 70 percent live alone.) They lose a sense of purpose, meaning and value.

“Almost every blind person has heard, Well, if you only had enough faith, God would heal you.’ It’s devastating,” Andrus says. “We are dealing with people who are by- and-large angry with God and isolated. We are dealing with people with no Christian background, so it’s some rudimentary teaching. Some are very active Christians, but for most it’s helping them understand there is a caring God whose name is Jesus.”

As people become connected with each other and with the Word they look for additional resources. That’s where the Library for the Blind comes in.

The library has more than 4,000 Braille, large-type, and audiocassette books; it loans the materials free through the mail. Each month, volunteers distribute 2,000 Braille magazines, 6,500 large-type publications and 1,200 audiocassettes. A dozen Christian magazines, such as The Lutheran Witness, are available in Braille, large print and on audiocassette.

In addition, Lutheran Blind Mission is producing the new LCMS hymnal, Lutheran Service Book (LSB), in large type and Braille.  The large type version will be seven volumes and costs $40 to cover printing costs. A Braille version will be free.

For those who want additional theological training, the two-year program of the Christian Blind Institute offers nine courses, ranging from Bible history to a theology of blindness to electives in leadership skills. Instruction is sent in Braille, large type or on audiocassette. Lasting 12 to 14 weeks, the courses include weekly assignments.

“We have about 80 people enrolled,” Andrus says. “Almost all want to be used by the Lord and are looking for this training so they can be better equipped. Most of the directors and centers have somebody who has gone through the Institute. We see this as a great potential for new centers.” “We could not do this if not for the volunteers,” Andrus says. Lutheran Blind Mission has 1,000 volunteers at the outreach centers and at about 40 work centers around the country. Aside from five paid staff at offices in St. Louis, volunteers print, assemble and ship magazines, and record audiocassettes.

Robert Langrehr and Rodney Brinkman are among those volunteers. In New Minden, Ill., they make the Braille plates for 12 different magazines. Receiving the copy on computer file (also produced by a volunteer), they feed the disks into a machine that stamps the Braille impressions on a master plate to print the publications.

Langrehr, a member of Trinity, Nashville, Ill., was trained last year to operate the machine. “In one night we make from 100 to 150 plates, depending on the magazines,” he explains. “There are 12 different magazines, some quarterly, some monthly. The plates are sent to 12 different churches where they are printed, assembled and distributed.”

Last November, for example, he and Brinkman made 326 plates over two nights for Portals of Prayer and the first volume of the new Lutheran Service Book.

Langrehr was asked by his pastor to take on the project.  “This was an opportunity,” said Langrehr. “It was a great thing for Rodney and me to do together. I love to work with my hands and help people.”

Brinkman, who has been blind since birth, was in Langrehr’s Sunday school class about 20 years ago. He lives in Centralia, Ill., but goes to New Minden to make the plates. He operates the machine and proofreads the finished plates.

Hoping to find a new job this year, Brinkman has worked in a factory, for the state of Illinois and for a collection agency. He volunteers, “so that the blind can read the word of God and come to God and have the peace and understanding that I do. It’s just working for God and that’s good enough for me.”

Ministry with blind people has been part of the Missouri Synod since the 1920s when the first offerings were magazines and devotionals. A part of the synodical structure, most recently the Board for Mission Services, the services were provided by district and national offices. Lutheran Blind Mission Society was begun in 1994 to encourage, train, and support blind people as they share Jesus.

In 2003 Lutheran Blind Mission became an independent ministry, but continues to serve as the mission arm to blind and visually impaired people. Its work is supported entirely by contributions.

“We provide materials and leadership,” says Andrus. “As they’re encouraged, nurtured, strengthened, given God’s Word, the blind people want more.  After the seed’s been planted, we water and nurture. Who can a blind person turn to?”

Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Perryville, Mo.

God Takes Leaders Out of Their Comfort Zone
Doris (“Dorie”) Mates, who is blind, lives in Sand Lake, Mich. She read about the outreach centers and called Lutheran Blind Ministry to learn if there was one in her area. There were none in the Grand Rapids area, so the ministry asked if she wanted to start one.

She hesitated, then agreed.

“It took more work than I was ready for. I don’t consider myself a leader, but God’s working on that,” she comments. “He took me out of my comfort zone and He reminded me of the Great Commission. I wanted to reach blind people with the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the same saving grace that I was given.”

Open since September 2005, the Kent County Lutheran Outreach Center for the Blind meets at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids. On the last Saturday of the month it offers a free meal to anyone in the blind community. (Dorie prepared the turkey and trimmings for a meal last November.) The meal is followed with a Bible study, singing, prayer and, occasionally, a program.

The group is small, typically attended by five people.

“We hope to grow and get volunteers and be part of the congregation,” she says. Their plans include a guide dog users group and a drop-in center with Braille and audio materials. They also want to acquire a Braille embosser to help congregations prepare church bulletins.

She admits she wasn’t prepared to assume leadership, adding “All God asks is my availability and He will use that. I can only grow in Him as I make myself available.”

She is grateful for her husband, Bob, who has a longer history with Lutheran Blind Ministry. In fact, he played a major role in starting the outreach centers. He and Rev. David Andrus, director of the Lutheran Blind Mission Society, worked together to plan the first center at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh in 1999. Since then, he helps train leaders for the new centers.

Bob trained Dorie in June 2005. In the ensuing year, his wife became ill and died. “Dorie was just so supporting and so loving,” he commented. “One thing led to another and we were married last September. I moved to the Grand Rapids area.”

Bob thought about a center in 1990 when he attended training to get his third guide dog. His class included traditional Christians, a Jehovah’s Witness, a confirmed atheist and a worshiper of Greek gods. “It made me think that the blind community across this country is a huge harvest field a harvest field for the Lord, but also a harvest field for Satan,” he says.

He envisioned a reading room where the blind could come and read the Bible or Christian magazines and someone could answer their questions. In 1998, With Rev. Douglas Spittel, the pastor at First Trinity where Bob was a member, they contacted Rev. David Andrus, director of Lutheran Blind Ministry. Andrus, coincidentally, was looking for ways to reach out to the blind.

After meeting and planning, the Pittsburgh group held its first meal in March 1999, hosting 10 people. Participation now includes 15 to 20 people.

“Sometimes God lets things happen quickly and sometimes He lets things happen slowly so that you don’t get puffed up,” Bob observes. “Your biggest handicap and my biggest handicap is the same one. And that is that we are sinners. Much worse than being physically blind is being spiritually blind. So that’s the light we bring.”

Andrus, he adds, has given him opportunity to travel over the country to help open other blind centers. “One place we want to reach without much success is New York City. We could open five or six centers. We have churches that are interested. Just pray that the Lord will send us some blind folks.”

— R.C.L.

You can Serve
The larger a congregation, the more isolated a blind person feels, according to Rev. David Andrus, director of Lutheran Blind Mission. That’s because more is based on sighted cues whether printed bulletins or liturgy projected on a screen, or even seating in pews where there is less interaction.  Blind people view their world by touch and sound, he reminds.

“This is something we’ve just begun to understand, and congregations are working with us to understand how they can be involved.”

For more information contact Lutheran Blind Mission at (888) 215-2455 or www.blindmission.org

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