by Mark A. Johnson
Matt lost his eyesight when his meth lab exploded. When he came home from the hospital, he learned to cook meth blind. Eventually, through remedial help and drug rehab, Matt left the drug scene and became a spokesperson in schools to promote an antidrug message.
However, the lure of his addiction was too much and he succumbed again to the pull of drugs. David and Steve, chaplains for Life Tabernacle, met Matt in the Elkhart County jail, befriended him, and led him to Christ. When Matt left his old lifestyle, his wife divorced him, wanting nothing to do with his newfound religion. Matt slept under the dining room table at his dad’s house until a loving Apostolic family from Life Tabernacle opened their home to him.
The first two years were a struggle as Matt sought to know Christ and understand the power of faith and its impact in his life. As he grew stronger, he witnessed to people on the streets and became a volunteer chaplain at the same jail where he found the Lord.
Feeling a call to ministry, he enrolled in Indiana Bible College. It was quite a challenge for both Matt and his college instructors: they had to prepare material for a blind person, and Matt had to get the material in a form he could read. The government helped with computers, scanners, software, and Braille tablets to access material. Still, the task was arduous and took hours of work.
After Matt graduated from IBC he longed to further his education. A government program would help him with college costs, but how could he negotiate graduate school? There was no material, especially for ancient languages, in a Braille-readable format.
Matt chose Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, simply because they accepted him and promised to help him succeed at getting a master’s degree in theology. They also rented him a three-bedroom apartment so he could be directly involved in rearing his three children.
When Paul Keim, professor of Bible and Religion at Goshen (Indiana) College and an instructor of Hebrew and Greek at AMBS, learned he would be teaching Matt to read Koine Greek, the professor asked if he could resign and just be the janitor. He had no idea how to teach a language to a blind person. But Matt was not one to take no for an answer. He began contacting the companies that provided Braille readers and the software creators who convert text into Braille. They instructed him to map out the language so they could convert Greek text to Braille. Matt and his professors and some others went to work and eventually mapped all the characters and punctuation used in Koine Greek and sent it to Duxbury Systems, Inc. Matt told David Holladay, a senior technical staff member, he faced challenges in translating the Hebrew characters. Unbeknownst to Matt, David’s father was Bill Holladay, a well-known biblical scholar who had translated the Hebrew Bible from German to English. David told Bill about Matt’s problem.
With the help of his father, David and his wife, Caryn Navy, also a Duxbury senior technical staff member, created on their own time a new biblical language software profile in Braille that would help Matt and other blind scholars study the ancient languages.
They began building in the Braille software, the critical apparatus that gives scholars information about other manuscripts to find the best reading of a passage. Matt and Loren Johns, professor of New Testament, wrote the code; David and Caryn translated it into the software; and Matt worked through the text and identified needed revisions.
Matt says, “The critical apparatus gave me the opportunity to engage with biblical textual criticism, which has never before been done by a blind person.” Duxberry included it and made it the standard to converting Koine Greek into Braille. Matt then learned to read Koine Greek with his Braille pad and went through several semesters learning Greek. Then he went to the Hebrew professor and asked to learn first-century Hebrew. Discovering it did not exist in Braille, Matt, along with the professor and his helpers, created the mapping for ancient Hebrew and used it as the foundation to create fifteen other Semitic languages in Braille.
Matt donated this work so other blind scholars would have the advantage of reading the biblical text in the original languages. Before, if a student needed an academic book translated into Braille, it might cost $800 for someone to go through it and manually translate the book. With technology and digital books available in Logos, the process can be completed in minutes, and it can be done on a standard laptop and then read with a Braille tablet.
The Pentecostal Publishing House (PPH) has led the way by allowing Matt to translate several of David Bernard’s books into Braille versions. They are available at the same price as a normal book. This is a first for a religious publishing house.
Matt applied for the National Federation for the Blind’s (NFB) Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award, named for a pioneering blind physician, which recognizes “individuals and organizations working in the field of blindness that have demonstrated exemplary leadership and extraordinary accomplishments toward achieving the full integration of the blind into society on a basis of equality.” Matt is also the past president of the NFB’s Michiana chapter.
In his application, Matt named everyone at AMBS and Duxbury who contributed to the work. He also included two other blind participants: Ray McAllister and Sarah Blake LaRose, an adjunct instructor at the School of Theology of Anderson (Indiana) University.
Matt said, “I felt I needed to honor the others’ work; they’re the giants and I’m standing on their shoulders.” He also expressed gratitude to AMBS professors and staff for “not being intimidated” by his needs and for their willingness to invest in learning how to meet them.
Matt, Ray, and Sarah received the 2016 $20,000 first-place award, which was presented July 5, 2016, at the annual NFB convention in Orlando, Florida.
This spring, thanks in part to those who invested in the project, he successfully defended his thesis, which was provisionally titled, “Yeshua Yahwism: The highest Christology in apposition to mono-Yahwism.” Matt graduated with a master’s degree from AMBS in May 2016, and enrolled in Bar-Ilan University just outside Tel Aviv, Israel, to study Hebrew and to understand second Temple perspectives on God, the foundation of New Testament oneness theology. He is seeking a second master’s degree with an eye for a doctorate from Bar-Ilan in the future.
Matt Yeater created something in partnership with others that has forever changed the way blind people access Scripture. You never know how much someone can contribute to society until you believe in and invest in them.
Mark A. Johnson is the senior pastor of Life Tabernacle in Elkhart, Indiana.
This article first appeared in the Pentecostal Herald, May 2017. Published here by permission.