Blind seminary student overcomes limitations
NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- The very thought of door-to-door evangelism can stir fear in the hearts of even the most committed believers, including seminary students -- fear of what to say, fear of rejection and fear of the unknown.
Add something like physical blindness to the mix and the task can become even more daunting. That was the situation facing Andy West -- blind from birth -- when he enrolled in the personal evangelism practicum course required for every student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
West, a master of arts in worship ministries student, was not excited about the class. He was anxious and, perhaps, a bit skeptical that this type of evangelism would be effective, particularly because door-to-door witnessing was not his preferred method of sharing.
"I generally do evangelism relationally, for obvious reasons," West said. "Walking up to somebody and just talking to them is really intimidating when you can't see what is going on. I was extremely nervous."
West was struggling to find a group of students that he could join with, so he asked if he could join with a group of professors. For many years, Preston Nix, professor of evangelism and evangelistic preaching, and Blake Newsom, assistant professor of expository preaching, along with several students, have gone out in the community to share their faith on Thursday afternoons. Nix agreed to team up with West.
"I realized right away that this was going to be a challenge ... getting in and out of cars, the sidewalks, the streets, the holes and the elevated houses," Nix said.
But the two quickly discovered a way to navigate the broken sidewalks and stairs in the neighborhood along Paris Avenue, just a few miles from campus.
"I put my hand on his shoulder and we just started walking," West said. "I used my cane as well."
When they arrived in the neighborhood the first time, Nix and West slowly made their way from door to door. Nix alerted West as they approached cracks and holes in the sidewalks and helped him up each step. They knocked on several doors and didn't find anyone home. After a while they were able to strike up a conversation with a man sitting on his porch. Before long, the man prayed to receive Christ.
Nix said West was astonished that in just a few short minutes, they had led a stranger to the Lord.
West's confidence began to grow. He started sharing his faith on his own when he was out in the city with his family. West recalled two occasions when someone offered to help him and his family. In turn, West shared the Gospel.
One of the funniest things that happened during the 10-week personal evangelism experience, West said, was the time he helped Nix find the way to Children's Hospital.
That day, instead of going out in the community, Nix planned to go talk with a 16-year-old boy at the hospital. Nix asked West to join him.
Nix had printed directions, but the two men wound up lost. After a while West offered to help. West punched the address into his iPhone and helped Nix navigate turn-by-turn to the hospital.
"We got there and sat down and talked with the guy and he gave his life to Christ," West said.
The challenges of seminary
West grew up in the small town of Pitkin, La. He accepted the call to preach during his senior year at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.
A history major in college, West wanted to attend a prestigious graduate school to seek a master's degree and a doctorate so he could teach history at a college. As he prayed about the decision, West sensed God's call to become a pastor. The call to ministry confused West, but he surrendered to God. West and his wife Joanna moved to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus in 2013 to train for pastoral ministry. The Wests have two daughters.
The evangelism practicum course is hardly the first challenge West has faced since moving to NOBTS. Seminary courses often require a great deal of reading and that is a difficult task for a blind student. West relies heavily on both electronic and audio books.
Much of his work is accomplished using equipment that includes built-in accessibility features for blind users. West said his iPhone and Mac computer have been great help with his studies.
West has also discovered a free resource called Optasia Ministry. The organization offers blind users a CD filled with blind-accessible documents including more than 20 Bible translations, commentaries (modern and classic), foreign language materials, and multiple versions of the Hebrew Old Testament text.
"The challenge is that half of the publishers of Christian books don't put their books on an e-book format of any kind," West said.
Braille books are rarely available or are too costly for a seminary student. West said a Braille version of the Bible costs around $600 and, with nearly 20-volumes, can fill up a small bookshelf.
West often finds that a required textbook or supplemental resource is not available in a format he can use. When that happens, West asks classmates to meet with him to read the text aloud or for the students to make audio recordings that West can listen to on his computer.
"That's the struggle," West said. "You hate to ask people to take their time and read slower than they normally would. But they all seem to like doing it."
Two of the men who have read for West have also become some of his best friends at seminary, he said.
A willingness to go
The experience that West had in personal evangelism practicum changed his life. Though he had many excuses not to go out, God still rewarded his willingness. And eventually, West's hesitance and skepticism melted away, and he began to look forward to those afternoons.
West said he believes the fact that he was blind yet still willing to go out and witness was as big of a testimony to the people as his words. And people responded.
"For whatever reason, God used what we did and how we did it," West said.
Nix, an experienced evangelist, was amazed by the response. During the first four weeks the group went out, at least one person came to Christ each week.
"It has never happened like that before ... four in a row," Nix said.
"I think God honored Andy's obedience," he said. "I think God was using [Andy's blindness] to soften hearts to hear the Gospel and soften hearts toward his Savior."
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).