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Wee wordless books churned out

Volunteers at a Seminole church have made about 2.5-million of the books, mostly for children, from U.S. inner cities to war-ravaged Africa.

By MAUREEN BYRNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


SEMINOLE -- The tiny books with colored pages are spread across the table. One by one, the 1- by 11/2-inch books are stuffed inside small tracts that explain God's plan of salvation.

The books are then bundled in stacks of 10 and put in boxes for mailing. Some may end up only a few miles from Starkey Road Baptist Church in Seminole, where members, mostly retirees, gather every Tuesday morning to volunteer for the Wordless Book Ministry. Others are shipped to churches across the country, and many are mailed to missionaries who take them to 86 foreign countries.

Because the miniature books have no printed words, evangelists use the five colors to bring people to Christ: gold for heaven, black for sin, red for Jesus' dying for mankind's sins, white for acceptance of Jesus and green for growth in faith.

"It's non-denominational," said Bob Shouse, a Clearwater resident and director of the Wordless Book Ministry. "It just points out that Christ died for your sins."

The books are for all ages, but most are given to children. Some live in the inner cities of America, others in war-ravaged areas in Africa.

The tract, which is printed in 10 languages, including four African languages, tells the story of what Christians believe is the answer to eternal salvation: the death and resurrection of Christ.

For those who cannot read, the colored pages take the place of words.

"You hand them this little book that they can keep and take home with them," Shouse said. "If they understand it, it's a life-changing decision."

It is impossible to tell how many lives have been changed by these wordless books. But Shouse does know exactly how many books have been made since the ministry began eight years ago. As of Tuesday, the count was 2,482,952.

"We try to be disciples of the Lord and do what we can to spread the gospel," said Russel Sands of Clearwater, a 69-year-old retired purchasing agent who has been volunteering for the ministry for six years.

Wordless books have been a tool for evangelism since the mid 1800s, when British theologian Charles Spurgeon learned about the idea from an elderly pastor. The concept soon spread to America, and in the 1920s Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international organization that spreads the gospel to youngsters in 145 countries, began using wordless books.

Jim Hiatt, 80, used them when he worked as a missionary for Child Evangelism Fellowship in the 1960s. Back then, the books were large and used only as a tool for teaching the gospel. It wasn't until the early 1990s that Hiatt, now retired, came up with the idea of making individual wordless books that could be slipped into a tract and given to people for keeps.

"I saw a great need for supplying missionaries with a tool that they could afford," Hiatt said.

With the blessing of Starkey Road Baptist Church, the Palm Harbor resident recruited a dozen volunteers in the summer of 1992 and started the ministry. They produced 2,830 wordless books in the first six months.

It was time-consuming. Paper was cut by a manual paper cutter and glued together by hand. Yet the count was 16,730 by the end of the following year. By 1997, the ministry had shipped 816,309 books across the country.

Glueing blocks eventually replaced hands, and the production process really sped up in 1998 with the purchase of an electric paper shearer. Last week's count was 14,020 wordless books. During busier times, weekly production can reach 30,000, Shouse said. The bulk of the work is done from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays, but some of the volunteers glue and stuff at home.

"Our church is very ministry-minded, and that has certainly helped," said Hiatt, who last year stepped down as director of the ministry.

Though he no longer runs the operation, Hiatt frequently travels from his home in Palm Harbor to volunteer. "It's absolutely amazing what has transpired, and it is very gratifying," he said. "(God) is the one who blessed this. I take no credit. I'm just thankful for the opportunity."

So is volunteer Beverly Burgess. But does the 71-year-old retired nurse ever get tired of stuffing the wee books inside the tracts?

"No way!" she said Tuesday. "We're all seniors. We look forward to Tuesdays."

For many of the volunteers, the weekly three-hour outing is a chance to talk about the weather and grandkids. The average number of volunteers during the summer is 45. The figure jumps to 70 in the winter.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Burgess joined about 40 other volunteers. About 20 of them sat around four tables stuffing books into tracts. At another station, nine men separated the glued blocks of construction paper. Nearby, three women bundled the finished products into sets of 10. Two other women sat at a table correlating paper.

G.M. Vest, 73, of Seminole operated the electric paper cutter in a small storage room. "This is the highlight of our week, right here," said the retired plumber and pipe fitter as he handed cut stacks of paper to his wife, Carol.

"We know that these books are going to be in the hands of people who need to know the Lord as their savior," Mrs. Vest, 70, said.

The ministry had planned to take a break during July, but orders kept coming in, Shouse said. One order from a missionary in Montgomery, Ala., calls for 350,000 books. So operations continued.

The ministry, which is advertised through word of mouth, is funded from the church's missionary fund and donations from customers. Though there is no charge for the wordless books, the ministry does ask for donations to help pay for supplies including paper, padding glue, rubber bands, printed tracts and postage. It costs 5 cents to make and mail one book, said Shouse's wife, Delores, who volunteers as bookkeeper for the ministry.

"We use them a lot," said Cindy Trotter, director of the South Pinellas chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship, which orders 5,000 to 7,000 tracts a year.

Trotter said employees of the group pass the tracts out at county fairs and give them to youngsters enrolled in the fellowship's neighborhood Bible school ministry.

"The wordless book is one of our biggest tools for our ministry," she said.

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