Future Reflections                                                                                               Winter 2001

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If I Have Seen Further: The Blind Serving Communion?

by James H. Omvig

Reprinted from the January 1996, issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly magazine of the National Federation of the Blind.

James Omvig
James Omvig

Editor’s Note: Can blind children grow up to be fully participating members of  society? Are blind people capable of doing the ordinary community services that we take for granted? Can a blind person serve as a leader in a Scout troop? Chair the PTA Book-Fair? Bake cookies for the high school Honor Society fund-raiser? Volunteer as a judge in the high school debate tournament? Serve on the kitchen clean-up crew at the church’s annual pancake supper? Will others give them a chance to serve, or will they be relegated to the sidelines – always spectators, never “doers”? Jim Omvig, a long time leader in the NFB, faced this question a few years ago in his church. I think you will find his story edifying and instructional:

“My goodness, things are so bad over there at the church now, that they even have the blind serving communion!” So said an elderly, homebound member to one of her close friends and confidants on a particular Monday morning.

The church in question was the one I attended for several years in Baltimore, Maryland. The poor blind man who had supposedly been so abused by this congregation was me. Here is how it all happened.

At the time of this incident I had been blind for many years and had been an active member of this church for a short time. Years earlier, I had had the great good fortune of encountering the National Federation of the Blind, and I had experienced enormously valuable training and insight. I had been taught (and had come emotionally to believe) that as a blind person I was simply a normal human being who happened to be blind and that the opportunities for me to work and participate fully in the world were limitless. I had also learned that erroneous attitudes about blindness rather than the physical condition of being blind are the most persistent problems with which each blind person must deal on a daily basis. Finally, I had come to understand fully that as a successful blind person I had an obligation to do what I could to help change those existing, negative public attitudes.

I was living to the hilt what I had been taught by the Federation. I had become an attorney and was the Director of a major program of the Social Security Administration at its Baltimore headquarters. Additionally, I was married to a wonderful wife, had a fine young son, served as Vice President of my Lions Club, was an active member of my church’s governing board, and was also active in the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. My life was in every way normal, if busy.

A few weeks before the communion incident occurred, I had been asked by the minister (we’ll call him Bob) if I would be willing to have my name placed in nomination to become one of the deacons of the church. I agreed and, as church elections generally go, I was elected without a hitch. It had not occurred to me that one of the duties of a deacon (at least, at this church) is to serve communion at the Sunday service.

Some time after the election we had a day of planning and training. Early on, the minister Bob came to my sighted wife (not to me) and said, “I’m making out the communion-serving schedule of deacons for the year. Jim won’t want to serve communion, will he?”

My wife Sharon is also well-grounded in proper attitudes about blindness and in the knowledge that we have a lot of work to do to make things better. She knew as well as I that Bob’s real question was, “Since Jim is blind, he wouldn’t be able to serve communion, would he?”

Even so, she just smiled and said, “I think you had better ask Jim about that.” Then she came to me in another meeting and told me about Bob’s question.

What was I to do? Or, more accurately, what were we to do, since my wife is as concerned as I that we seize every possible opportunity to provide positive educational experiences about blindness?

One thing was clear: It would not be helpful or even desirable for either of us to become upset or angry. Far from useful, such a reaction would have served only to teach the minister (and anyone else who happened to learn of it) that the blind are not only helpless and incompetent but also rude and ill‑tempered on top of it.

Frankly, I had not given a thought to the fact that deacons serve communion or the way in which I as a blind person might accomplish the task. I determined then and there, though, that it would be important for me to do it and that I would find a way! The National Federation of the Blind had taught me that. I decided to do it both because it was my duty as an elected deacon and because this would be a marvelous opportunity through quiet example for me to teach hundreds of people at a single stroke about blindness.

We decided that I would just wait until Bob came to speak with me. But, of course, he did not come. Some time in the early afternoon Bob went to Sharon again and said, “Jim won’t want to serve communion, will he?”

Again she said, “You need to talk to Jim about that.” And again she told me, and I waited a little longer.

Finally, toward the end of the day, Bob came to Sharon yet a third time. This time he sounded a little impatient. He said, “You know, I have to finish this communion schedule today. Jim won’t want to be on it, will he?”

This time Sharon said, “Come along, Bob; let’s go find Jim; and you can ask him. I can’t speak for him.”

When they found me, Bob asked if I would be willing to serve, and I casually said, “Of course I will.”

He sounded more than a little concerned and, with some awkwardness, he finally got around to asking, “But how will you do it?” At this church the deacons who are serving gather at the back of the sanctuary and then walk two‑by‑two up to the front of the church and up the steps to the altar. They take the trays from the minister or elders and then go back down and serve the individual members of the congregation row by row. When all have been served, the deacons return to the altar to leave the trays and then walk again in pairs back to their seats.

I told him that I had not yet had the opportunity to think about it but that there was a way. And there was, and I did!

On the first day I served, the church was a‑buzz. Later Bob said to me with real warmth and an obvious feeling of pride, “You were more of an inspiration here today than I was. I actually saw people with tears in their eyes.”

So it was that by Monday the story had spread throughout the congregation, even to the shut‑ins. It is true that the activity seemed noteworthy in the beginning – even remarkable to some. But the end of the story was the most gratifying for Sharon and me. For in a very short time whatever I did (whether it was serving communion, serving as head of the finance committee, or serving as a trustee) was accepted as the ordinary and unremarkable activity of a church leader. My blindness simply was no longer an issue.

As I look back now, I’m glad that the question of serving communion came up. Bob learned from it, the members of the congregation learned from it, and my wife and I learned, too. We came to have an even deeper understanding of the normality of the blind and the ease with which real education about blindness can be presented by each of us to the sighted public.

I don’t know whether it is remarkable, or even unusual, for a blind person to serve communion or to take an active position of lay leadership in a church. Perhaps it is, but I think not. As I relate this story, though, two or three points which I do know for a certainty come to mind.

First, I know that it was important for me in this instance to be firm and confident and to do my share. If I had simply decided that serving communion was not possible or was too difficult or was just too much trouble, I would have contributed to the erroneous attitudes about blind people which have kept us down and out through the years and which I and others are working to change.

Second, I know that when we as blind people encounter those who have an attitude such as that displayed by Bob, we can’t afford the luxury of going off half‑cocked or losing our cool. Nor do we have any business trying to fix blame or to become bitter. What we need is compassion and understanding. It is noteworthy, I think, that through the years Bob has become one of my best friends and a true believer in the cause of the blind.

Finally, I know that the work and education which I had the opportunity to provide at my church were not mine alone. If serving communion really was my taking a step beyond what other blind people had done before me, then it was still made possible by those who had come before me in the organized blind movement. They had had the wisdom to join together for concerted action, and they had formulated constructive ideas. They had developed a positive philosophy about blindness, and they had then shared their ideas and philosophy and dreams with me and thousands like me.

I believe that Sir Isaac Newton best captured the essence of this concept when he said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants!”

As a blind person, whether it is working and supporting my family, serving as an officer in a Lions Club, or serving communion at my church, I have truly stood upon the shoulders of giants. And if I have seen further, it is because of them – the founders and early leaders and members of the National Federation of the Blind.

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