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Including the blind in worship

 

A blind couple opens a pastor’s eyes

By Randall Otto | Presbyterians Today

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

Debra and David Trevino have shown the congregation at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newark, Delaware, that those with disabilities can be an integral part of the family of faith. Courtesy of Carol and Gene Stilz

Christians often sing “Amazing Grace” without understanding what it is like to actually be blind — either legally blind with diminished vision or completely blind. More importantly, what is it like for those who are blind when they come into a church? How are they treated? How are they incorporated into the worship service?

While serving at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newark, Delaware, I got to know David and Debra Trevino. They were each born three months prematurely, weighing approximately 1.5 pounds, and were put into incubators — the lights of which burned their optic nerves. Both attended residential schools for the blind, spending more time with fellow pupils than with their own families.

The isolation, Debra Trevino says, continued into adulthood, with many people not knowing how to interact with the blind.

“We just want to fit in, be accepted and be a part of society,” she said.

David has begun his own production company, selling music with catchy jingles he composes, plays and records, and Debra serves as a guest pastor in New Castle Presbytery as she waits for a church call. But finding their place in society has been a challenge. In fact, many times, they wondered about God’s care and provision.

Debra admits she had periods of deep estrangement from God. She was angry with God, which led to bad decisions and bad marriages. During one of those estrangements from God, she attended a Bible study at a nondenominational church. She remembers people at the church talking about her to her sighted husband as if she were not standing right there. Her husband would appropriately tell those people that she could answer for herself. Her seeing-eye dog, one of five she’s had in her 60-plus years, also helped her connect with others who might have been hesitant to approach her. After all, everyone loves to pet those highly trained companions. 

Sensing she was feeling frustrated doing medical transcription at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, a pastor friend urged her to attend Bible college, which she did. Eventually, Debra felt the call to ministry and returned to her home state of Kentucky to attend Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Ironically, in the first class, one on inclusivity, she felt marginalized by materials that she couldn’t read and by visual exercises that excluded her. She repeatedly told the professor and the class how she felt, but to no avail. When the class paired up to sing to one another, “I need you, you need me, we need each other to survive,” Debra found herself standing alone and fled the class in tears of frustration.

Until then, she had always responded to being excluded with a feeble, “It’s OK.” Another seminarian in the class, however, met Debra crying in the hall and affirmed what she had always felt deep in heart — it wasn’t OK to be excluded or overlooked.

“It’s not that the blind are marginalized,” Debra said. “We’re not even in the margins yet.”

Welcoming the blind

Many churches have a sign out front that says, “Everyone welcome,” but the reality is that many who are different from the congregation are not welcomed, simply because kindhearted people don’t know what to say or do.

When I first picked up the Trevinos to worship with the folks at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, what I noticed right away was David’s endearing humor and Debra’s serenity. Both put me at ease immediately. David came down their apartment steps to the car carefully and confidently, with his white cane in one hand and his trumpet in the other, since he always joins in the church’s praise band. Debra was effortlessly guided by her black Lab, Suzy. When I left them in front of the church, they made their own way to the door and the sanctuary. They managed well. But it got me thinking: If a blind person were to come to your church, how would they be welcomed?

Certainly, an usher would offer to help a blind person, or any visitor, find a seat. But beyond seating, let the blind person know that they can call the church office in advance and ask that a bulletin be emailed in Microsoft Word format so a computer can read it to them. Yes, read it to them. There are many technologies available that allow printed materials to be scanned into computer software that will then “read” to the blind.

“Now is the best time to be blind,” David said, revealing his ability to joke even when faced with challenges.

Given this technology, fewer blind people today learn Braille, opting instead for audio books, the Trevinos said. They both have Braille note-taking devices that can also verbalize their notes — on sermons, for instance.

The sacrament of Communion can also pose challenges. Participating in the sacrament can be demeaning for the blind, particularly if the sacrament is done by intinction.

“I once had someone serving the elements dip the bread in the chalice and actually pop it into my mouth,” Debra said. “I have also had someone dip the bread and hand me the dripping morsel, leaving me to try and avoid getting grape juice on my clothes.” 

All of this could have been avoided if those in the church had asked Debra and her husband how they could assist in the couple’s taking Communion and then followed the couple’s lead.

A growing phenomenon

Vision impairment and age-related eye diseases could double due to aging in the next three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The epidemic of diabetes and other chronic diseases will further contribute to increasing vision loss. So how will the church respond to this? How will congregations prepare? The Trevinos have shown me that it is primarily a matter of caring — asking what someone with a disability might need and including that person, not assuming that someone’s special needs automatically exclude them from an activity.

The Trevinos have also shown me that though they are blind, they see some things more clearly than those who have sight. Let us embrace those with disabilities, asking not only what they would have us do for them, but what they can do for others. As we do, we may find that our own blindness to their challenges may be healed and we may see more fully to experience and share God’s amazing grace.

Randall Otto was interim pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newark, Delaware, from August 2016 to August 2018. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and does online teaching for several colleges in religion, philosophy and other humanities. 


Including the blind

Debra Trevino offers these suggestions to help congregations include those who are blind:

  • Ask the blind what they want you to do for them.
  • Give them opportunities to be with others: go for a walk, go shopping, attend Bible study or a church dinner, etc.
  • Offer rides. While the blind can take mass transportation, a ride is always welcomed, providing fellowship time.
  • Assist in paying for costly technology that allows printed materials to be “read” to the blind.

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