Blind pastor hopes to inspire others
Saturday, August 2, 2008
By Ali Veneziano Staff Writer
Growing up with a ballfield situated directly behind his home in the center of Rockton, Bob Thomas has always had foul balls flying into his life. When the threat of blindness struck him at age 13, however, he was thrown one of the most life-altering foul balls.
Every seven minutes, someone in America becomes blind or visually impaired, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. Worldwide, 42 million people are blind. Of that 42 million people, approximately 10 million are U.S. citizens.
Almost all blindness in the U.S., though, is the result of common eye diseases, while less than 4 percent is due to injuries. In Mr. Thomas's case, he did not lose his vision to either of these circumstances.
His blindness comes from Von Hippel Lindau disease, a rare hereditary disorder other family members have had, in which there is an abnormal growth of tumors in parts of the body rich in blood supply. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, VHL affects one in 32,000 people worldwide. The size and location of symptoms vary among patients and include headaches, problems with balance and walking, dizziness, weakness of the limbs, vision problems and high blood pressure. If untreated, VHL can result in permanent brain damage and even death.
Describing the action as a slow curtain coming down throughout the day it happened, Mr. Thomas had lost all vision in his right eye at age 16. After this point, his vision would only get worse, leading to complete blindness in both eyes after graduating high school. The disease would go on to create brain and spinal tumors for him by the age of 22.
There was nothing they could do, doctors said. But he said something else to himself: "While the doctors say there's nothing they can do, I know there's definitely something God can do." During the disease's progression, Mr. Thomas said that the only way he got through his frustrations was God's grace and the way He works.
Today, with 20/300 vision at age 23, Mr. Thomas has coped with his disease well, saying, "Everyone and everything will have frustrations, but other things overtake that."
Mr. Thomas was born and raised in Rockton within a great, supportive Christian family with his mother and father, Scheryl and Byron Thomas, two brothers, Steve Mooney and Jason Mooney, and the family dog, Suki, always there for him. Mrs. Thomas said that he and his older brothers were and still are inseparable.
Because Rockton is such a small town where everyone knows each other, Mr. Thomas said that he has had the greatest friends and family and that he has been a part of a loving community. In his free time, Mr. Thomas used to and still likes listening to Christian rock music and enjoying old American muscle cars, especially the Chevy Camaro. He also enjoyed hunting, fishing and playing ball in the ballfield behind the house in which he grew up.
Despite his vision problems, he still managed to have a normal childhood, involving all of the messes adolescent boys get into. In fact, he found thrills and excitement not only by going to events like Creation Festival, a popular Christian music festival held each year in Mount Union, but also by performing daring stunts near the campgrounds like jumping off a 40-foot cliff into the water below. "Bob has a blast in life," said Mrs. Thomas.
For his schooling, he attended DuBois Area School District, graduating in 2003. He planned to enroll at DuBois Business College for accounting, but in September 2003, everything faded to black as his eyesight in his left eye dimmed, leaving him completely blind.
That fall, he traveled to Pittsburgh Vision Services of Bridgeville where he learned how to read Braille, use a cane and live as a visually impaired person. Interestingly enough, Mr. Thomas still couldn't part ways with his hobbies and actually came home during the middle of his program to hunt with his uncle and father. He eventually completed his learning at the vision center in March 2004.
When he returned home, he went to Creation Festival with the youth group from his home church, the DuBois Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene, where he now serves as assistant pastor. There, at age 19, he received his calling from God during an Audio Adrenaline concert. "God called me into a deeper relationship with Himself and helped me understand that He could and would use me for ministry to others," he said.
After this revelation, Mr. Thomas began college that fall online at the Nazarene Bible College, based out of Colorado Springs, Colo. He currently is working toward his Bachelor of Arts in pastoral ministry. Last July, he received his first district minister's license. He is now working toward ordination, or being set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.
Mr. Thomas has conquered feats many blind people have not. According to the AFB, only 45 percent of individuals with severe visual impairment or blindness have a high school diploma, compared to 80 percent among fully sighted individuals. Among high school graduates, those with severe visual impairment or blindness are about as likely to have taken some college courses as those without, but they are less likely to have graduated. Only 46 percent of visually impaired adult Americans are employed. Mr. Thomas has already accomplished a lot. With the goals and determination he has, it's obvious that he will accomplish even more.
Throughout his life, Christianity was always a large part of his family. He became interested in working as an evangelist because he has always loved meeting new people and knowing that he can help make a difference through God. "I love getting up in front of people, speaking and preaching," he said. He also commented that he chose to work for the Church of the Nazarene because he was raised in that church and believes strongly in the doctrine of its people.
With his career as a minister, Mr. Thomas said he hopes "to reach as many people for God as I can and to make the biggest difference in this world for God that I can." The only negative aspect he sees about his work is knowing that there will be people who he can't reach.
Assisting with revival meetings, youth services, pulpit supply, men's breakfasts, evangelist outreach and prayer gatherings, Mr. Thomas' evangelistic work as a minister has had much success. "There's nothing else that I'd rather do," he said.
His love of music has also seeped into his work in ministry. At the end of services, he always tries thinking of a song that will go with his message because he says it brings in a different perspective and sometimes gives illustrations. "Music is something people will relate to," he said.
He was recently asked by the district to go into the Clearfield Church of the Nazarene to minister full time during the month of August. There, he will be leading the morning and evening worship hours at 10:45 a.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. His goal is to build the church up, making contacts and relationships in Clearfield.
For now, Mr. Thomas hopes to stay in the area. His aim is to reach young people because he sees a great need there, from both teens to young adults, to inspire them. Reflecting on his life story, Mr. Thomas said, "I hope I can give hope and inspiration to the people around me."
His ultimate dream is to travel all over the U.S. as an evangelist, reading at different churches and events like Creation Festival, while having fun and showing people through his life that serving God can be fun and that all ministers are not alike.
For the future, he aspires to accomplish many things. "Despite losing sight and having the disease, I feel that anything that comes my way I can defeat," he said.
Mr. Thomas would like to someday have his own family. He said he has never wanted to be rich - just happy and living life, because to him, friends, family and being a Christian are the most important.