A blind couple opens a pastor’s eyes
January 31, 2019
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
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.
When Debra attended a Bible study at a nondenominational church, people at the church would talk about her to her sighted husband as if she were not standing there. Her husband would appropriately tell them that she could answer for herself.
Sensing she was feeling frustrated doing medical transcription at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, a pastor friend urged Debra to attend Bible college, which she did. Eventually, she 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.”
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.
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 vision loss. So how will churches respond? 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 walk, go shopping, attend Bible study or a church dinner, for instance.
- 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.
Randall Otto, College Humanities Instructor and Former Interim Pastor, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Newark, Delaware
Today’s Focus: Including the Blind in Worship
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious and merciful God, we frequently forget the power of your presence. We tend to believe we are on our own. We define “normal” by our own biases and perceptions. Help us to recognize the narrowness of our thinking. Open our minds and hearts to see your presence in everyone, that we might provide welcome and room for growth to all. Amen.