THE LOVING CONGREGATION

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.