Braille Monitor December 1986
by Dale James
Times Religion Editor
The following article appeared in the September 27, 1986, Huntsville (Alabama) Times. As Monitor readers know, Reverend Frank Lee was elected to membership on the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind at the convention last summer in Kansas City.
When the congregation of Lakeside United Methodist Church learned their new pastor was blind, they were understandably concerned.
Would he be able to minister to their needs effectively? Were they getting short-changed?
"At the time we knew he was coming, back in June, the church was apprehensive," recalled Hayward Handy, director of communications at Lakeside. 'There were mixed reactions to the news that he was blind. We were unfamiliar and unacquainted with this situation."
That was before they actually met the Rev. Frank Lee. For Lee, however, having to prove himself is nothing new.
Methodist ministers serve under the appointive system and are reassigned to a new church every three years on average. Each new assignment has meant that Lee must overcome the same misconceptions about his abilities that other blind people often face.
"I pastored my first church in Lafayette (Ala.) in 1972," said Lee, a large man with a gentle laugh. "When I first came into this (North Alabama) conference, nobody knew me. They thought they were being cheated. They were asking the question, 'What in the world are we going to do with this poor blind man?'
"But after six years I proved I could do the job and they stopped asking. They had more doubts than I did. "From there I moved up the road about 25 miles to Roanoke. By then, they already knew a little about me."
The congregation at Lakeside no longer questions Lee's ability to minister either.
"We haven't done anything special to accommodate Pastor Lee," Handy said. "He oriented himself to the building very quickly. He can go anywhere and do anything you'd expect a sighted person to do.
"If you didn't know, you wouldn't know."
Lee concedes that being blind presents a number of obstacles for a pastor, but none that can't be overcome. "Driving is a problem," he said. "I have to depend on my wife or some other member of the congregation to drive me to the hospital or wherever. But once I get there, the actual ministering is no problem.
"A lot of times I might need to know the facial expression of a person I 'm talking to. But if I can get them to say something, their voice usually gives away their facial expression.
"Reading, naturally, is another problem. That sometimes causes a problem in getting information in a timely manner." Reading the Bible, though, is no problem.
"We've got Braille Bibles in just about every translation now," he said. "If it's not in Braille, I can get it on tapes."
One of Lee's most uncanny talents, as far as his sighted congregation is concerned, is his ability to recognize members--and there are 255 of them--by just the sound of their voices.
"I work at that because the people I work with like for me to recognize their voices, and I like to be able to do that," explained Lee, a graduate of the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. "Some of them get upset when I can't, but I try hard."
Trying hard seems to come natural to Lee. This year the National Federation of the 31ind chose Lee as one of the 24 outstanding blind students in the nation and presented him with a $2,000 merit scholarship for his doctoral studies at Gammon Theological Seminary.
The NFB is the nation's oldest and largest consumer group of blind people.
Lee also uses a standard typewriter with skill and accuracy ("I do better on the manual typewriters than I do on the electrics"), is proficient in the use of a Braille writing machine, and plays piano and organ.
"A lot of people have got the wrong idea about blind people," he said. "The biggest problem about being blind is often other people's attitudes."
Those attitudes range from ignorance to outright hostility.
"I think it's up to the blind person to put forth a decent disposition," Lee said. "But you have to remember that not all sighted people are easygoing either.
"I try to be true to the profession of the ministry. I try to be as cordial and reassuring as I can be. I can do this not in spite of my blindness, but because of my blindness."