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Candidate for ministry shares lessons learned from her guide dogs

Preaching on Disability Inclusion Sunday, Deb Trevino says she is assured God will direct her steps

 by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Debra Trevino, a candidate for ministry, along with Jane Larsen-Wigger and guide dog Suzy after preaching at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville. (Photo by Seth Craigo-Snell)

LOUISVILLE – When Deb Trevino stood in the pulpit at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church last Sunday she wasn’t alone. Her guide dog Suzy was with her — making small sounds before finally settling in with a contented sigh to listen as Trevino spoke on what she has learned about trusting God over the years from her guide dogs.

“Lesson one: God is relational,” Trevino said before describing the detailed and complex matching process that leads to her and a guide dog becoming partners.

Seeing Eye dog trainers do everything possible to ensure they will be a good team. When Trevino gets a new dog, she spends the entire first afternoon with the dog sitting on the floor, speaking soothingly, stroking the dog’s coat, attempting to forge a new relationship and gain trust.

“Each new dog I get is already strongly attached to its trainer and doesn’t understand why I’m keeping her from the one she loves,” Trevino said. “Gradually I replace the trainer in her affection, through care and feeding.”

By week three, Trevino said guide dogs are looking for encouragement, wanting to know how they’re doing after navigating through a busy place like an airport terminal.

“They’re seeking a relationship,” Trevino said. “They want consistency, praise when earned, and correction when necessary. When Suzy wants my attention, she whines, often at a disruptive level.”

Trevino likens this to God seeking our attention, through Scripture, a friend’s kindness, or the splendor of creation — inviting us to respond through prayer and meditation.

The second lesson Trevino learned from her dogs is to balance work with rest. When she grabs the leash, Suzy runs to the door, as if she can’t wait for her harness to be put on, so that she can work and do her job well. But when they are homeward bound, Suzy’s mood changes.

“I know she is thinking about a cold drink of water,” said Trevino, “and the abundant praise she’ll receive as I remove her harness. There’s nothing she loves more after hard walk than to lie on the bed beside me taking most of my fleece blanket.”

Sometimes in those moments, Trevino said she begins thinking about God completing the work of creation and then resting, or Jesus taking time away for rest during his teaching and healing ministry.

“God is relational,” she said in her sermon, “and it is best to balance work with rest.”

The third lesson Trevino learned is that love is a powerful motivation for service. Even though she wonders if her dogs serve her because of conditioned responses learned through training, she chooses to “follow her heart” believing that dogs have the capacity to love.

Two of her “girls” — as she affectionately calls them — demonstrated this. Both died of cancer at 9 years of age, yet both wanted to work in the hours prior their deaths. Experiencing this kind of servant love from her guide dogs caused Trevino to reflect, in her sermon, on the nature of God.

“Contemplating God’s unconditional love lived out in Jesus should bring us to our knees in worship and thanksgiving,” she said. “Its depth and breadth is unfathomable.”

Trevino’s fourth lesson learned: Always follow your guide. Whenever she’s on a new adventure, Trevino uses GPS on her iPhone. With the help of voiceover she’s able to gather information about the number of blocks to walk before turning, which direction to turn, names of the streets and traffic patterns.

As she begins instructing “go forward,” which way to turn, and when to step into the intersection, her guide dog begins making her own decisions, safely leading Trevino around obstacles — like trash cans on the sidewalk.

Suzy also can and must refuse any forward command that might put them in danger, like a car about to turn in front of them, an open manhole or a sidewalk that ends unexpectedly in a work zone.

The spiritual applications in this lesson are clear to Trevino. “When you find obstacles in your path and the way seems unclear,” she said, “take God’s hand and trust that the Holy One will direct your path from this moment on.”

Which is what Trevino is doing. As a graduate of Louisville Seminary (2013), and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she is moving to Newark, Delaware, to continue to pursue her call to ministry, in her home presbytery of New Castle.

Knowing Trevino would be leaving, the Rev. Jane Larsen-Wigger invited her to preach, which just happened to be around Disability Inclusion Sunday (May 28) in the PC(USA).

“It’s been such a gift to have them be a part of our community,” Larsen-Wigger said. “It’s helpful for us as able-bodied seeing people to hear Suzy’s voice, giving us a bigger understanding of the world and God — hopefully stretching and deepening us.”

Trevino was grateful for the opportunity to preach, to be reminded she said, of how “my weakness is used” when “I turn it over to God for the leading.”

“When I started seminary, I didn’t realize I had a voice,” she said. “But my eyes opened quickly — through this process of becoming a candidate for ministry I realize I have a responsibility to speak out for people.

“It’s never OK to mistreat someone, to make someone invisible. I have felt that sometimes; it’s never OK to pretend a person isn’t there.”

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