Future Reflections Spring 1999, Vol. 18 No. 1


Belonging On Terms of Equality Within the Religious/Spiritual Community

by Lauren L. (Eckery) Merryfield


Reprinted from the News from Blind Nebraskans newsletter, 1996, Issue 4, the newsletter of the NFB of Nebraska.

Editor’s Note: The meeting of the group to which Mrs. Merryfield alludes in the following introduction laid the foundation for a new division in the NFB. In 1997 the group organized into the National Association of the Blind in Communities of Faith.Here is what Lauren Merryfield has to say on this topic: 

Lauren MerryfieldAuthor’s Introduction: This presentation was made at a meeting of Federationists interested in problems and solutions to the full inclusion of blind persons within the religious/spiritual community. This meeting occurred at the NFB annual National Convention in Anaheim, California, on July 1, 1996.

I was a panelist along with the Reverend Robert Parrish, Mike and Barbara Smith, and the Reverend Sam Gleese. I hope their comments will be published also; they were wonderful.

I was asked to speak for five-to-seven minutes. I have so much to say on this subject that my first draft would have taken thirty-six minutes to present. Whittling it down to the “bare bones” was difficult and time-consuming. As I am retyping this for publication, I may very well “put some of the meat back on the bones” as I go along.

It is now November of 1996 as I submit this article for publication. I am remembering how, shortly after the meeting in July, a young woman approached me tentatively, nearly whispering with unnecessary guilt. She knew something was missing in her spiritual search but she could not figure out what it was. When she began to realize she was being treated differently and that this situation was not contributing to her spiritual growth, she felt guilty and was afraid to think about it, let alone talk about it. She harbored a certain fear that maybe some people were right; maybe God did think less of her. She was nearly in tears when she told me that after our meeting, she felt closer to God. She finally felt the support she had been missing.

I do not know the name of this person, but I believe she could have been any of us. Certainly it seemed like a reflection of me.

I believe that working toward equality in family functioning, education, socialization, and employment are paramount in improving the lives of blind persons. However, the most important factor of all is our conscious contact with our Creator. When interference with our spiritual growth seems apparent, it becomes necessary, on the human level, to work toward effecting positive change. Our inclusion is not just a social process or a political stand—our inclusion is part of the process of our spiritual growth—our continued improvement in the practice of the presence of God, or whatever term one chooses to use.

Here are the remarks I made at the 1996 meeting:

Good afternoon! My name is Lauren Eckery. My formal education includes a master’s degree in Social Work, (partially funded by my 1986 NFB scholarship) and several courses through Unity School of Christianity.

I’ll begin by stating that I am concerned about using the term “religious” without the balancing term “spiritual” in the name of this group. Religion often pertains to ritual, dogma, judgmentalism, and other human-made concepts. Spirituality, on the other hand, relates to who we truly are—deep within our souls—practicing the presence of God (or whatever one chooses to call our Creator).

Religion may or may not include spirituality. One may be very spiritual without being particularly religious. Most of us practice some of both in our lives, therefore, I would like to find both terms in our name when we formally organize. This would include more of us and more of the situations which we face.  

The apparent lack of inclusion goes far beyond what any one of us chooses to call our Creator. The problem also pervades the setting, including, but not limited to, the church, mosque, synagogue, spiritually oriented meetings, such as twelve-step programs, and other support systems with which we may affiliate.  

Many blind persons have experienced quite a number of obstacles to full inclusion in their religious/spiritual community. We have had less access to the collection plate; hymnals, textbooks, Sunday bulletins, newsletters, and other printed materials; transportation; social activities; and teaching and leading opportunities. But most of all, we lack being accepted as an equal.

The problem is further intensified by the fact that whenever we relocate to another setting, even in our own hometowns, no matter how far we have progressed, it’s like reinventing the wheel.

Here are some examples of problems that I have personally faced through the years. I am absolutely certain that I am not alone in these experiences, though many of us have felt reluctant to bring these issues out in the open. However, discussing the problems as they are will lead to solutions as we promote our equal inclusion.

Since I was very young, people have told me “ You’ll see someday in Heaven, Honey.” I’m glad I’m not waiting around for that, but living my life right now.

When I’ve offered to help, some people say they don’t need any help, then go across the room and ask a sighted person to help.

When I desire to contribute something, I’m often reminded of how I am only expected to be a receiver, not a giver. Access to the collection plate or bag has been a consistent problem. It seems rude to me how the thing gets passed in front, above, behind and around me, as if I am not even there. Sometimes I mail my money in so I know the church will get it. I’d like some of my church members to visit our Friday session at this convention of the National Federation of the Blind and see how well we collect funds for our organization when we “pass the buckets” to some 3,000 blind people!

I’ve been admonished that as long as I am physically blind, I am unhealed—if I prayed more, tried harder, I could see. I believe blindness is a different way to be; not a sick, sinful, or incomplete way to be.

I’ve also been told that blindness symbolizes difficulty with perception of any kind. Logical conclusion: all blind people have perception difficulties in general. But this is simply not true.

I’ve been advised that my blindness means  that I am not created in the image and likeness of God. But who else’s image would it be, if we believe in one Creator? This image is big enough, broad enough, and diversified enough to include us. God does not make mistakes, and blind people are not mistakes.

Certainly, when a situation or condition can be improved, God’s creativity and healing power are wonderful! However, when some people do not “get over” situations or conditions, this is not proof of failure, on their part or God’s. We are all well and whole in spirit.

Sometimes I encounter overprotective and controlling behavior. Some people have difficulty separating a kind deed from the need to control. These days, this behavior is often called co-dependency. Since blind people are presumed to be dependent, co-dependent folks tend to flock to us and sometimes they get a big surprise!

On getting into a car, for instance, I’ll hear: “Watch your head,” or (inside the building) “Let me put you over here.” Excuse me, but I have managed my head for many years. Furthermore, I am not a bag of potatoes. I am a person with a heart, mind, body, and soul!

On the other hand, some people are so afraid of offending me, or they cannot imagine what to talk about with a blind person, that they avoid me. These people never get close enough to find out much of anything about blind persons or me in general.

My daughter and I do not have family in the city in which we live. We have sought “family” in several churches, as I have seen sighted people do, only to find “Sunday friends.” When I resist unnecessary help, some people have the “well see if I help you again” attitude. When we have needed the kinds of help which any family might need, I am often asked: “Where are your parents?” or “Don’t they have an agency to help you people?” These reactions are disheartening and unnecessary.  

When I do behave intelligently or skillfully, I am often seen as having “special gifts” which make me extraordinarily spiritual—not a fact, not true! On the other hand, I’ve been seen as trying to outshine other people to make them feel inferior—also untrue! I’m just using alternative techniques that anyone could use if they had good blindness training.

Now, concerning spiritual education, this is what happened to me. I intended to receive training to become a Licensed Spiritual Counselor several years ago, but encountered many snags.

My then home church was reluctant to fund me. Though my former minister and I both wrote very intelligent, convincing letters to the school, I was told I could not attend classes unless I had a companion or a dog (I prefer to use a cane). This was not acceptable since the underlying assumption was that I needed a constant caretaker. The school’s attorneys saw me as a liability—not a fact, not true! They finally agreed to make an exception for me, but would not provide educational materials in an accessible format for me. This was unacceptable since I desired a solution that would give me an equal chance to participate and succeed.

This matter was finally put on hold since my main responsibility right now is to be employed so that I can support my now fifteen-year-old daughter, Lynden, whom some of you have read about in NFB publications. I am currently a reservationist with Westin Hotels and Resorts.

It sometimes seems that we are seldom given the opportunity to have equal input around our inclusion. Sometimes well intended people assume that they know more than we do about our own capabilities or needs. Often, we are not assertive enough to insist on equal treatment since we’ve been conditioned for so many years to stay in our ascribed role of helplessness.

But I believe there are loving, caring, cooperative, willing, open-minded people out there who will work with us, and have worked with us, for full inclusion. I’ve known some of them.

As the characters in the movie, “Angels in the Outfield” say: “It can happen!” Most of us know that, with God, all things are possible.

I may never become a salaried Social Worker, Spiritual Counselor, or ordained Minister, but there are all kinds of ways for me—for us—to do our work. The Government will not legislate it and others cannot do it for us; this is our work to do. I am here today to help us belong on terms of equality within the religious/spiritual community. Thank you.