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Seeing Eye dog plays huge role in pastor’s ministry

 


Seeing Eye dog plays huge role in pastor’s ministry

July 8, 2004

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

United Methodist News Service

ROLLING FORK, Miss.—Three-year-old Mary Ruth Pridmore walks into the kitchen, yawning and stretching, early on a summer Sunday morning. She gets a kiss from Mom, Dad and “big brother” Gene.

Her parents, Lisa and Eric, are both United Methodist pastors of a three-point charge in rural Mississippi. Gene is a beautiful, curly-haired, 9-year-old golden retriever.

This Sunday, like every other Sunday, everybody will be going to at least two churches. Lisa describes Sunday mornings as a “three-ring circus.” But it doesn’t take Gene much effort to get ready. Whenever Mary Ruth starts looking for help with her shoes, he knows it is time to fetch his harness. As Eric’s Seeing Eye dog for the last seven years, he has a big role to play and he loves his job.

Sometimes it drives Lisa and Eric a “little bit batty” when people assume their lives must be so hard because of Eric’s disability. “People sometimes see Eric as this heroic but pitiful character and me as some sort of superwoman. This is what we do,” says Lisa. “We are a family. In a lot of ways we are just a couple of 30-somethings with a child and a dog.”

Eric was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was a teenager. It is a degenerative eye disease that will eventually leave him completely blind. For now he has lost all vision in one eye and can only see a few degrees with the other.

He points out that 75 percent of blind people who are of working age are not employed. “So it is amazing that I am here. But I can tie my shoes and do all of sorts of things that don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

He also knows that not just anyone would marry a disabled person. But he says of Lisa, “She’s not a saint. Neither one of us are.”

When it comes to Gene, however, both Lisa and Eric feel comfortable calling him a saint.

“The feelings are deep,” Eric explains. “He is a savior in a sense. He is a gift from God and in so many respects he saved me emotionally and helped me deal with my own disability.”

Gene’s ministry

Gene is a big part of both Lisa and Eric’s ministry as well. Walk into a room with a gentle, 75-pound golden retriever and people’s eyes light up. “It is a real ice-breaker,” Lisa says.

“He helps me do my work,” Eric says. “People love to see Gene at the hospital. In his own way, he is very much in ministry. He is a dog, but he is a creature of God and he gives my ministry a whole different dimension.”

Gene’s ministry was honored recently at the 2004 Mississippi Annual Conference session. When Bishop Kenneth L. Carder ordained Eric on June 3, he also commissioned Gene.

Carder placed a specially made stole around Gene’s neck and praying for him said, “be a faithful servant to your master as he serves The Master. Go now as a commissioned servant in Christ’s Holy Church.” Gene got a standing ovation from conference attendees.

Gene was pretty much undaunted by the ceremony but Eric was overwhelmed by the response. “I am not normally what you would call an affectionate person. I don’t know what possessed me but I leaned over and kissed Gene on the nose,” he recalls. “It certainly meant a great deal to me. It made me feel included. It made me feel like I am ordained not in spite of who I am, but because of all I am, dog and all.”

The early years

Eric says one of the biggest mistakes he and his parents made was letting him get a driver’s license and a car at age 16. “The first day I took it to school I ran into the back of somebody. Six months later, I hit the back of a lady on the highway,” Eric says. Those experiences left him feeling defeated.

High school was “hell,” especially since he was trying to pass as a sighted person. “Invariably I would run into somebody or drop something and not be able to find it,” he recalls.

But in his United Methodist youth group he was accepted as just another guy. “My church youth group literally and spiritually saved me. I didn’t go to school with any of those kids. It was a small group, eight or 10 kids. The church as a whole just saved my life.”

He had his first preaching experience at a Youth Sunday when he was 15. From then on, he felt called into ministry.

Lisa also felt called into ministry because of her involvement with a youth group first in Albuquerque, N.M., and later when her family moved during her senior year to Auburn, Ala.

Eric and Lisa met and married while they were attending United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. It was during Eric’s graduate studies at United Methodist-related Drew University, The Theological School, that he became convinced he needed more help.

“The campus was just a maze of sidewalks,” he explains. He started using a cane but in the winter he couldn’t tell the difference between the asphalt and frozen ground.

The Seeing Eye

The Seeing Eye, where Gene was bred and trained to be a guide dog, was close by in Morristown, N.J.

Eric really wasn’t sure about getting a guide dog. He and Lisa were living in a tiny graduate apartment at the time and he remembers telling her “the dog” could just sleep on an old blanket in the corner of the room.

But he joined the month-long residential training program. “After the first week at the Seeing Eye they took us to a pet store and I bought a dog bed, dog toys,” he says. “Lisa came to visit and I was like ‘Lisa who?’ Gene and I were tight.”

For her part, Lisa was amazed at the transformation in Eric. “I was floored when Eric came back from Seeing Eye. Eric looked handicapped when he used a cane — it was his body language. With Gene he didn’t look handicapped anymore.”

Gene’s presence was also a big change for Lisa because Eric didn’t need her as much anymore. “From the start, Gene made it plain he thinks of me as a fellow pup,” she says. While Gene has never chewed anything that belonged to Eric, she has lost a few shoes and gloves.

The dog is such a big part of their lives; he was in the room with Eric and Lisa when Mary Ruth was born. In 2002, they almost lost Gene to cancer. He had malignant tumors in three of his legs and underwent surgery at the veterinary oncology department at Auburn University.

But Gene regained his strength and for now is not letting anyone else take his place as Eric’s eyes.

“I don’t think of him as a dog, he is so smart,” Eric says. “He is like a child, I love him. I don’t know what I will do if something happens to Gene.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

·(615) 742-5479·Nashville, Tenn.· E-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.



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