Commentary: Putting the Camera Away
Rebekah Anderson and her brother Brendan
On a Thursday afternoon near the close of September, I walked into the atrium of the Hartford/Windsor Airport Marriott Hotel and looked around with my reporter/photographer’s eye. Widening the Welcome Conference-goers milled about, greeting one another and getting started with learning each other’s names. I glanced at a flyer on the registration desk, which told me that the second legally blind person to be ordained in the United Church of Christ would be preaching in the area on Sunday. And suddenly I knew.
These were my people.
I had come to cover Widening the Welcome 2015: Inclusion for All, the annual gathering of the UCC Disabilities Ministries and the UCC Mental Health Network. Running the weekend before the start of October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it was the first time the event had been held in my home state, and I confess to some regional pride on learning that it had attained a new record for attendance.
As a conference communicator, I cover plenty of events — Annual Meetings, workshop days, protest marches, and other gatherings — and I confess that they tend to blur somewhat. They become obligations on my calendar, challenges to meet that wait for the day to really cross my brain (other than preparing the necessary tools: cameras, tripods, notebooks, pens, batteries, and so on). I don’t tend to think much in advance about how they connect to my own life and experience. So this came as something of a surprise.
You see, disability has had a profound impact on the life of my family.
In 1996, the daughter of two young clergy in the Connecticut Conference was diagnosed with a cancer of the eye called retinoblastoma. Treatment saved her life, but the disease and side effects left Rebekah Anderson legally blind.
Rebekah Anderson is my daughter.
Today she is a tall and talented twenty-year-old attending Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. She has ambitions of becoming a writer, and has demonstrated both the talent and the skill for it. She writes essays, fiction, poetry, and songs. She reads Braille and sings in the church choir when she’s home. I still don’t quite understand how she learns the music faster than I do.
And then there was Carl.
Carl comes from Boulder, Colorado, and he likes it when someone holds his hand. He likes to stand or sit close, and lay his head on your shoulder. With someone’s hand in his, he likes to draw the arm across his body, and hold it like a child.
Carl found me in the front row as I waited for worship to begin, and seized my hand immediately. Some who knew him told me that if I asked for it back, he’d be glad to give it, and sure enough, when I needed it for the camera, I had it. We became close companions for those three days, so close that people I met assumed we’d known each other for years, and even that we were a couple. But no. I’d just met Carl on Thursday.
Carl Lewis and the Rev. Alan Johnson
Photos by Eric Anderson
Carl has a diagnosis, of course, but that’s not important. Physical contact with a human being: now that’s important. It was important to Carl. After I’d taken the photos I needed, and could sit quietly with him listening to the speakers, I realized how important it was to me, too. As a single man whose children have grown and are mostly gone, I don’t get to hold hands with someone very often. He gave me as solid a comfort, I think, as I could ever give him.
I got to look around at the world again with eyes awakened by Carl and by Rebekah. Disability is real; physical and mental conditions have real negative impact on people’s lives. Carl’s condition makes it difficult for him to tell others what he wants and needs. Rebekah’s makes it more likely that she’ll walk into an obstacle.
So many of the stresses they experience, however, are social constructs, not realities of creation. As my daughter chose her college, one of the things she noted was how many streets she’d have to cross on the campus. Street crossings presume sight, but they don’t have to. Years ago I first encountered audible crossing signals in Watertown, Massachusetts, the home of the Perkins School for the Blind. Today I hear them in other communities — but not all.
Carl is a member of the First Congregational Church UCC in Boulder, where many of that community treasure him. But in introducing him, the Rev. Alan Johnson, chair of the UCC Mental Health Network and also a member of that congregation, shared that some had left the church because of Carl. Not many — but too many.
We’ve ordered the world for those who can walk, and see, and hear. We’ve ordered it for those whose minds are not distracted by anxiety or hallucination, and for those who can fully express themselves verbally. We didn’t have to do it this way, and when we did, we made it harder for others.
So there came the moment when the Core Groups would meet, and I had a choice to make. As a reporter/photographer, I could move from room to room, snapping photos of the participants, accumulating the images for the slide show I’d later create.
Or, I could put the camera away and become a participant. I could share my story with my people, and listen to their stories as one of their people. I could renew my commitment to justice for Rebekah and for Carl. I could find support for their quest, and my quest.
So I put my camera away.
The Rev. Eric S. Anderson is Associate Conference Minister for Proclamation, Identity, and Communication for the Connecticut Conference UCC.
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