by Harvey Lauer
In the following story Harvey Lauer captures the experience that many blind church members have had and demonstrates the most effective way of educating, reassuring, and witnessing to congregations filled with ordinary people who fear blindness and are uncertain how to behave with blind people. Here is what he has to say:
"We can't ask them to help. What could they do? They are blind!" When we were new members of our congregation, Bethlehem in Broadview, Illinois, that's almost the first remark my wife and I overheard. It didn't surprise me because I had met professors who wouldn't let me take their courses and some who wanted to give me a good grade just because I was blind. By the time we moved to Broadview, I was employed as a rehabilitation teacher and had to deal regularly with stereotyped notions about disability.
My wife, Lueth, had just come from a rural community in which blindness was poorly understood by her family and friends. They meant well but perceived her as dependent, even as an adult. She came to the city with hopes of being accepted as a contributing member of society.
Because of her shyness she reacted by feeling ill at ease and withdrawing. She hoped that we could find a friendlier church, but I saw the problem differently. I knew that only time and acquaintance would reveal whether such remarks were based on clannishness, ignorance, or pity. People were friendly, but that didn't help much. They told her how amazing it was that she read and wrote Braille, something she had learned in school and which she felt should not be considered unusual. As a result, she felt self-conscious and would not read aloud in public.
At church gatherings we both sat a lot and must have appeared rather helpless. People may have wondered how we did our housework. We kept a reasonably good house, but there were two big obstacles to functioning in church.
The first was unfamiliarity with the territory. At home we knew where to find things. At church almost nothing was ever in the same place twice. At home awkward behavior could be laughed off; in public the appearance of awkwardness brings not only needed assistance but sometimes too much help and expressions of pity that are hard to take.
Talk was futile. There were two barriers. It was hard for Lueth to try new things, and some people were reluctant to give her a chance. Some wanted to help but didn't know how to begin.
While she couldn't wait on tables efficiently, she could have helped in the kitchen if she had known where things were kept. She couldn't watch children on the playground, but she could have helped in the nursery if people had believed in her ability. She couldn't make posters, but she had developed the ability to write and dramatize stories. Yet she needed encouragement and acceptance. My own road to acceptance and involvement was just as rocky.
Over the course of several years, and with the help of prayer and good friends, our strategy took shape. We volunteered to organize the coffee hours. Then we "forgot" to find someone to go in early to make coffee and prepare for the activity, so the job fell to us.
We went a half hour early in order to familiarize ourselves with the kitchen and find everything we needed. The members who came later with coffee cakes were surprised to find us there and more surprised to find the place set up for business.
In calling people for the next coffee hour, we found that it's easy to get people to bring things, but harder to find someone who will go early and set everything up. Lueth said, "Why don't we do it again?" So we did it again and many more times after that. Each time different people who were taking their turns would come in and find us working. Good working relationships were formed. Lueth began to help with other activities. People found out what she could do efficiently and gave her those tasks.
The years went by. We had birthday parties for our children and invited members' children. We joined neighborhood Bible study groups, where Lueth gradually gained the confidence to read passages and contribute to the discussion. She volunteered to be a friendly visitor in convalescent homes, where she could talk with people individually, then later read stories to groups, and finally lead a Bible class. Now she is on the evangelism team and an officer on the church council.
I did not learn about the final incident in my story until twenty years after it happened. Some people in town told a group of church members that we should be investigated because we were blind and probably couldn't take proper care of our children.
Nothing was done about the suggestion because the members assured them that blindness was no reason for such a concern. They said that our children were at least as well cared for as theirs. It turned out that ours is not only a friendly church, but an observant and loving one as well.