I was surprised to hear about the death of Roger Leonhardt. I wrote a blog about him on May 22, 2015 on the celebration of his 50th anniversary in the ministry. The problem is that there is so much that needs to be said and so much history that we pass by and leave unremembered. That is an historical shame and a loss of institutional memory that is kind of shocking. Roger was a Lutheran Pastor of 12 North Dakota and Western Minnesota preaching stations serving deaf congregations, and was Chaplain at the North Dakota School for the Deaf (NDSD) for the next 17 years. During this time Roger became the first, and at the time, the only certified interpreter for the deaf in the state of North Dakota. This is a mission and mercy blog about our life of mercy together in North Dakota and Minnesota North Districts of the LCMS, and so…………..
So there were twelve preaching stations in North Dakota and Western Minnesota, and it would be interesting to know where they were and why they ceased to exist. Roger traveled in a big motor home and made the circuit, if my memory serves, once a month. I know that one of the preaching stations was Immanuel in Grand Forks but I know of no others. Being the first interpreter in the State of North Dakota is a big deal. Our Districts commitments to work among the handicapped and the deaf is something of which we should be humbly proud.
Roger had that Eastern Rhode Island and New York brogue that was fun to listen too. He sent time in Winnipeg Manitoba as well. He had that 60’s hair style that I have tried to emulate over the years and it is getting harder. I had intermittent contact with Rev. Leonhardt over the years but I had a memorable conversation with him that was eye opening and theologically challenging as well. We were discussing handicaps and handicapping conditions and especially looking in terms of the epiphany message of Jesus in His hometown.. He was reading from the scroll of Isaiah –
Isaiah 61:1 -The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release from darkness to the prisoners.
This was followed up by Jesus response to the question of John the Baptist in prison as to whether they should be looking for someone else and Jesus tells the disciples to tell John –
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.
In the course of our conversation Roger explained that deafness is not seen as a handicap but as a culture. There are disagreements among deaf people as to devices that can lead to hearing which for some deaf folks would be a loss of identity. There are arguments among the deaf as to whether or not it is appropriate to try and be a lip reader rather than learning sign language. There is in this community a huge backlash against the idea of a ‘cure” for deafness, in fact it has been called an attempted genocide. Most deaf people do not think of themselves as handicapped but as a separate culture. Deaf people should not be thought of as disabled but as members of a minority cultural group. Roger described all this to me in fascinating terms and of course images came into my brain of the Biblical calls to those who have ears to “hear”, and Luther’s remarks that all of us a part from the Holy Spirit literally cannot hear the Gospel.. There is a theological paper there that would have, I believe, some real interesting political commentary as well. In our world today all kinds of things that were once considered truncating a human life and in need of a “cure” are now considered a part of what people are and therefore a separate culture.
Roger was a committed and caring witness to that culture and a fascinating individual. His wife Sonja was a wonderful help meet and you can read about his family at https://www.grandforksherald.com/obituaries/4554043-rev-roger-j-leonhardt
Information on the funeral is there as well. We are losing these distinctive ministry types at an alarming rate and it behooves us I believe to get some historical perspective and journaling and archiving of what they did and when and where. They were called to specific needs and those needs for whatever reason either disappeared or were met with some other kind service but what and why?
In the meantime and good and faithful servant is gone. We rejoice in his service and mourn his passing and revel in the victory won for him by Christ whose spirit opened his ears to hear Jesus and learn of his mercy and give him life everlasting.