Dr Mike Townsend was never limited by his sight loss, and instead lived his life to the full, completely committed to the proclamation of the gospel and the inclusion of disabled people in the body of Christ, says Gordon Temple
Dr Mike Townsend, the serving chair of trustees for two respected Christian organisations, died in hospital in Antigua on 28 November, aged 76. Travelling with his wife Edith, Mike had been on a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ cruise through the Caribbean when he became critically ill.
He will be remembered as a passionate advocate for the full inclusion of disabled people in church, and a hard-working, loving husband whose enthusiasm for life was infectious.
Mike lost his sight completely when he was eight years old and was educated in specialist residential schools. It was in his teens, while at Worcester College, that Mike first encountered Christians among his fellow students. A conversation with one of them on 3 December 1965 led Mike to pray, taking the first step in his lifelong journey as a Christian. Mike’s rock-solid Christian faith became the foundation of his life from that day forward.
Mike shattered most of the expectations for the life of a totally blind person. For him, nothing was ruled out. In partnership with Edith, his equally remarkable wife, he served others, restless to make the world a better place - especially for blind people and people with other disabilities.
Reading Christian resources in braille brought Mike into contact with Torch Trust, a Christian ministry that focuses on the support and encouragement of blind and partially sighted people. Later, while studying at the London School of Economics, he frequently visited Torch’s centre in Sussex. His association with them continued throughout his life, initially as a volunteer, later as its technical director and a trustee and, most recently, as chair.
When Through the Roof formed as a charity to work with disabled people across all disabilities and all denominations, Mike soon became involved, becoming a trustee and then chair of trustees.
He was also a dedicated church leader, serving as a deacon at Fleckney Baptist Church, Leicestershire. Always eager to share the Christian message, he frequently preached there, as well as at other churches, and played a key part in keeping the church running when they were between ministers.
A divine intervention
Mike pretty much always came with a guide dog. Back in 2005, on the morning of the 7/7 London bombings, Mike was on his way to a meeting in the capital. Guide dog Tom refused to follow their familiar path and pulled Mike onto an entirely new route. He heard an explosion but had no idea what had happened. Later, he realised that had they proceeded as normal he would have been near the place where a woman was killed by a bus bomb.
Mike served for many years as a trustee for Guide Dogs and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), both leading UK charities. Bringing a Christian voice to the table, he was influential and widely respected. With his professional background in the world of computing, as well as his lived experience, Mike became an authority on access and assistive technology. He was always available to help people with sight loss cope with the gadgets that have become a boon to them.
Mike’s rock-solid Christian faith became the foundation of his life
Mike sought the full inclusion of disabled people, not through confrontation but by cooperation, seeking mutually supportive interdependency. For him there was no sphere where this was more important than our churches. He would say that if churches remain inaccessible to disabled people they miss out on the God-given gifting that their full inclusion would bring.
Singer-songwriter Marilyn Baker, also blind, recalls: “He was human, humorous and adventurous – a larger than life character who loved bringing people together.” She – and many others – commented on his supportive friendship, “enthusiasm for life and appetite for new things, always having something to contribute.”
Life to the full
On the eve of his Caribbean holiday, Mike and I were at a meeting of Churches for All, the network of Christian organisations sharing a vision for UK churches to be centres of enabling and belonging for disabled people. At his home that evening, alongside the packed suitcases, we chatted over the encouragement drawn from Christians sharing their passion to bring Jesus closer to disabled people, and people with disabilities closer to him.
Mike died doing something he loved: travelling. Much of the travel came in the course of his service with various sight loss and disability organisations and initiatives. Mike kept the score: with his final cruise he had visited 135 countries!
We can celebrate a life lived to the full, one that lived out an unwavering Christian faith in a way that touched and blessed the lives of many others. This simple but profound scripture seems apt: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Please pray for his widow Edith, their daughter Christine and their four young grandchildren.
Premier Christianity magazine is available in audio, braille and large print format for people with sight loss. If you know a blind or partially sighted person who would benefit from this resource, please contact Torch Trust at 01858 438260 or firstname.lastname@example.org