When I was in primary school in Nigeria, I used to read a bi-monthly magazine for young christians, called “The Torch”. Another was called “Flash” and yet another “Searchlight”. These were produced in braille by the Torch Trust for the Blind, and mostly contained articles which first appeared in other print magazines. But there was always an editorial, usually by someone who called herself Mum Heath.
Much later, I discovered that this lady was called Stella Heath. When I got to England, I even got to meet her. I went with a friend to what was then called Torch House in Hallaton Hall, just outside MarketHarborough. This was in 1993 I think. Her husband Ron was still alive then, and they took some time to talk to me. I was awestruck by their simple faith. They said how they’d pray for something, and someone would just donate it. I don’t mean £100, I mean braille presses, buildings, etc. And for them, it was just natural, just quitely calling on God.
I remember spending a day in the Torch library. I love to read. I found a book which had been out for a while, telling the history of Torch. I believe the first lines were “it all started with …” and the mention of a girl. Can’t remember her name now. Apparently dad Heath was a bank manager and they lived in Sussex, where they ran a home group. There was this girl who had not yet become a Christian, but had started to attend the group. That was when they discovered there was no literature in braille for her.
And that was how Mum Heath and friends began to produce braille material for this girl. When they discovered that the whole house was full of braille, it occurred to them that they needed a bigger place. God provided Hallaton House. When I visited, they’d used up most of the house for braille production, had converted some of the sheds, etc. Even that place couldn’t hold Torch activities. It was really interesting how many people would come in as volunteers, stay in some of the rooms provided, get fed, work all day and return to their homes, feeling most fulfilled. I remember the staff taking me on walks through the village. It was for me a most wonderful time.
The purpose of the visit was to explore setting up a Torch Fellowship group in Morecambe. It happened for a few years, then stopped, but my impression of Mum and Dad Heath lasted. I believe there’s a photo of me reading a book in the old Torch House. Or maybe it’s lost now. When I was in Nigeria, all the blind people knew three British institutions: the Royal National Institute for the Blind, (or as it is now known, the Royal National Institute of Blind People), the National Library for the Blind (now merged with the RNIB), and Torch. It was only when I got to the UK that I found out about such charities as Guide Dogs for the Blind, Action for Blind People, etc. To think that one of those organisations was a specifically Christian charity. When I visited in 1993, they even had a project for transcribing Russian Bibles. They had, )and still have) projects in Malawi, and sent books all over the world. I know that from the letters in the penfriend pages, and from those who had passed their beginners Christian courses.
I write all these because I heard that last week, Mrs Stella Heath went to be with the Lord. By the time I started to visit Torch House again, she was no longer there. And things had changed too. Torch had moved to a purpose built place in the middle of MarketHarborough, all office space. Accommodation was moved somewhere else. The chief executive is now a lovely man called Dr Gordon Temple. It looked and felt more like a modern charity, and to tell the truth, I missed the old one. Indeed, I first visited the new building as a member of a project to present a programme about disability on Premier Christian Radio.
Though it faces the challenges of modern charities, it is still a Christian institution. Every morning at 9, all the staff gather in the chapel for a time of devotion. They sing from hymn books which have been transcribed in Torch House, read from a daily devotional, also produced there and commit the items on the calendar to God. The first time, it felt strange leaving the building for their guesthouse. But it’s run by a lovely couple who have been round the world on mission.
It turns out that Torch is 50 years this year. It’s amazing, it all started with a girl who did not have Christian literature in braille. Thank God for the excellent work that Torch is doing all over the world. And thank God for Stella and Ron Heath, who I still call Mum and Dad Heath, because they responded to a need and filled the life of a 7 year old in far away Nigeria, (who was in a boarding school far from home) with books about Christ. I took the decision to be a Christian much later, but those books certainly helped.