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Imagine Art

Patience, A Fruit of the Spirit by Nancy West (acrylic on canvas) (Imagine Art)

Lifestyle

Art in unexpected places

Music and art programs offer creative outlets to the blind, disabled, and homeless

Austin, Texas, styles itself “the live music capital of the world” and a haven for painters and sculptors as well. So do other aspirational cities that have followed a New Urbanism script: gain an artsy reputation so the talented, young, and beautiful will follow. But what about those left behind yet also made in God’s image, including the blind, the disabled, and the homeless? 

We visited three Austin institutions: The 164-year-old Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), with a capacity of 160 students ages 7 to 19. The 24-year-old Imagine Art ministry for those with physical or mental disabilities. The 30-year-old Art From the Streets project for homeless men and women. We then took a quick look at what’s going on nationwide. 

AT TSBVI, JAZZ PIANO NOTES filled the hall as students with backpacks and water bottles filed in and grabbed seats. The white sticks they carried quickly dispelled any impression of a typical music or art class. One of the youngest students left his cane on the cane rack and used “protective technique”—clasping both hands and holding them out at chest level to serve as tactile sensors—to find his seat. 

Projects on display engaged the senses: A 3D mural uses brown spoons to make up the trunk of a tree, with four yellow spoons—handles snapped off—forming the petals of a flower. Three students held close to their faces the clay mugs they are creating.  

In a music classroom, five students recited without music the first stanza of the classic song “Autumn Leaves.” Teacher Jeremy Coleman then grabbed a classical guitar and played softly to complement the student voices. Their faces showed intense focus, with two students rocking gently back and forth.

Creating sound without sight demands special training. Sighted persons see how musicians hold and finger instruments, but blind students at first need teachers to position them physically and move their fingers the right way. Would-be pianists do best after they have explored the insides of a piano and felt the strings and the hammers. 

But sometimes it’s an advantage to go to school with students who can’t see you. One TSBVI teen, Zaid Garcia, is not only blind but has skin horribly burned after a candle started a fire. Zaid has no nose, eyes, hair, or hands, but as he made his way slowly down the hall, no one recoiled. One student said he’s the most popular student in the school.

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Illustration by MLC

(Illustration by MLC)

Lifestyle

In sickness and in health

Life was going according to plan for Brad and Kris Bemis. Then a dangerous disease turned everything upside down

(Tenth in a series on long marriages.)

Brad and Kris Bemis grew up in Seattle and met during their junior year of high school. In college, they stayed in touch as Brad studied to become a dentist and Kris a dental hygienist. During seven years of dating, they planned out their lives together, and in 1973 they married. Two decades in, things were going more or less according to plan: They had three kids, their own dentistry practice, and a home near their parents. Brad was researching places to visit for their upcoming 25th wedding anniversary. 

In 1994, at their oldest daughter’s high-school graduation party, all their plans fell apart. 

Kris, then 44 years old, felt a strange paralysis grip her body. The next morning, she could not move at all. Over the next six weeks, doctors ran tests and performed a spinal tap. Finally, the diagnosis: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves. Doctors gave Kris eight infusions, replacing her blood with sterilized plasma. Two weeks after the last treatment, the disease returned, this time shutting down everything except her breathing. She dropped to 70 pounds and felt needles of pain. She couldn’t swallow, move, or get out of bed.

Meanwhile, Brad struggled to maintain the dental practice and to care for their 13-year-old twins alone. When Kris came home from the hospital, he helped dress and feed her and took her to the bathroom. He cleaned the house, made the kids’ school lunches, and never missed a day of work. “I was doing my best to hang on day by day,” he said. But he remembers nights when Kris would shake uncontrollably, and all he could do was hold her, caress her, and pray, “God, please don’t take her.” He had no idea whether his wife would improve or even survive.

In early 1995, he lost hope: One evening, Kris wept at the dinner table and told Brad, “You have never loved me the way I needed to be loved, and you never will.” (Kris does not remember this: “A lot of the things I said were not me at all. My brain was very, very garbled.”) Brad broke down and walked outside, despite the rain, to pray: “I told [God], ‘I can’t take this anymore. I can’t do anything more for her. ... This woman is not lovable.’” He felt God replying, Do you think my disciples were lovable? Brad said, “The question pierced my heart and humbled my being to its core. I knew I am to love my wife as Christ loved the Church. I resolved to persevere a day at a time.” 

At that point in their marriage, Kris said, “there wasn’t any communication. We were absolutely in survival mode.” But the disease did not return a third time. As months passed, the symptoms gradually eased. Slowly, the marriage healed too. On New Year’s Eve 1997, they crossed the Canadian border for a concert. “That was the watershed moment of our relationship, getting back to being able to do some fun things together,” Brad said.  

Now the Bemises, both 70, enjoy visiting Cannon Beach and taking their dog for walks on the trails near their home in Woodinville, Wash. Kris volunteers at a pregnancy resource center, and Brad participates in men’s Bible studies at their church. Kris still has lingering effects from the disease—she still has no feeling in the bottoms of her feet, for example—but she and Brad are thankful for their 46 years of marriage together. 

“My wife has recovered and been renewed to her wonderful ‘dynamo’ self,” Brad said. “There are few, if any, things in our culture that bless more people than a Christ-centered marriage.”

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Handout

Zack and Judy Guess (Handout)

Lifestyle

Blessings by the dozen

Zack and Judy Guess raised a large family, but the task came with challenges

(Ninth in a series on long marriages.)

Zack Guess’ mother died when he was 19. His father died five years later. With his parents gone, he developed a close relationship with an older couple at his church and often visited them at their home.

One day, he noticed that the couple’s teenage daughter, Judy, was growing up. Zack fell in love and told her he planned to marry her. Startled, Judy at first avoided him, but over time her heart changed as she observed his passion for the Lord. They married in 1969, when Judy was 17 and Zack was 28. A few years later, Zack became a pastor at Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.

The couple chose to let God decide how many children they would have. God ultimately gave them 12, though one died as a baby. They discovered that raising so many children while working in the ministry was no easy feat.

The family had a two-bedroom house: They put two sets of bunk beds in one room, two sets in the other, and one set on a closed-in front porch. Judy creatively kept everyone organized. Instead of always cleaning up after the kids, she confiscated things the children left on the floor. To get their shoe or pencils back, the child would have to wait until Saturday and do an extra chore. But Judy also made things fun: She had the children draw names to see who would be their “secret pal,” a sibling to secretly serve that week.

With such a big family, finances were often tight. Zack remembered one occasion when the family was squeezing into a station wagon and couldn’t afford a new van. Judy told the children they would eat only cornbread and milk for breakfast and save the money and pray for a new van. The Guesses said God always provided: In this instance, several people donated a used van to them.

Parenting was difficult, especially when the kids misbehaved. Once, two children ate the candy they were supposed to be selling. The kids denied it persistently, but Judy could see chocolate around one child’s mouth. Zack and Judy prayed that the children would choose to confess, and after a few days, they did.

In 1991, the Guesses struggled when their 11th baby died a month after her birth. Zack had recently preached on the resurrection, and Judy remembers her 4-year-old son insisting they buy baby food at the store. She explained that the baby was in heaven and wouldn’t need it, but her son said that when Jesus came back, the baby would be resurrected and need food. Judy bought the baby food. 

The Guesses remember the pressure their baby’s death put on their marriage. “I’d read that when parents go through the death of a child, they are vulnerable to divorce,” said Judy. Instead of pulling away, the couple worked to stay close to each other. 

As the children grew up and started their own families, having so many siblings has provided opportunities for mutual support. Judy said that when their oldest daughter Hannah became pregnant with twins, lost one in utero, and developed a terrible infection, a carload of family members drove 13 hours to Virginia to be with her for the weekend.

There are fun times, too, especially on birthdays and holidays. Thanksgiving traditions for the Guesses include games, singing together, and a family talent show. In 2019 they had 82 people attending, including a few friends. Every other Sunday, Judy has the whole family over for a meal. “We try to keep a lot of togetherness,” she said. 

After 50 years of marriage, Zack is 78 and Judy is 67. Zack still pastors Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church in Memphis after 44 years. One of his sons, Isaac, serves as an associate pastor there. The couple is enjoying their children, most of whom live nearby, and their 35 grandchildren.

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