Profile & Reflections of Terry Christensen, of Yardley Friends Meeting
In early 1994, most people who knew Terry Christensen, knew him as Captain Terry. He was a professional mariner based in Astoria, Oregon. Today, after losing his sight as the result of a degenerative optic nerve disorder, Terry serves Yardley Friends as clerk of meeting. His spirited tenacity and determination to pursue his passion as a teacher and his profound faith in the power of spirit to cope with adversity is an inspiration to everyone he meets.
As the Master of the training vessel Forerunner, of the Clatsop Community College Marine Science Department, Terry instructed young men and women in marine safety, radar observation and other deck officer licensing subjects beginning in 1992. His work at Clatsop, which in addition to teaching included curricula and policy development, led to his being offered tenure in the middle of his second year.
In the fall of 1994, Terry was diagnosed with Lieber’s optic neuropathy. By December of that year, his impairment made it impossible to pass the merchant marine deck officer’s physical examination. The loss of his vision and the consequent loss of his maritime teaching position precipitated a change in career and a move across the country where he eventually found Quakerism.
Terry and his wife Betsy Cadwallader started attending Yardley Friends Meeting in 2007, the meeting Betsy grew up in. Terry describes his spiritual journey as one which started in his youth with trying to reconcile the images of a loving God with an angry one. This left him profoundly agnostic. Until, that is, he found himself in storm waters in the Bering Sea. He started praying and soon sensed guidance. On more than one occasion, he felt himself directed out of dangerous situations by a deeper, more knowing self, a voice within, which was concerned with his personal welfare.
At Yardley Friends, Terry feels at home. The loving community of Friends and family has made his relocating from the northwest so much easier. He has been strongly supported and encouraged to take a more responsible role in meeting. He has found that his disability has played a role in his support of the meeting and in his spiritual journey. For example, Terry has helped the meeting to make the transition to electronic media and digital communication, technologies which he first embraced as adaptive devices to cope with the obstacles of his visual impairment.
In the past few years, Terry has published articles on traveling abroad with his guide dog. He gives talks to the First Day school at meeting and to students at George School on his experiences. His talks to students are mostly about realizing that what we see – our perceptions and apperceptions – are often more determined by our brains than our actual sight. Terry tells a story of walking a college campus when he first became impaired and being convinced that he was “seeing” where he was only to be told by a friend that he was somewhere else. His field of vision was blocked by a truck. But that didn’t convince his mind that he wasn’t where he thought he was.
By presenting optical illusions and other perceptual enigmas, Terry challenges young people to look at what they are seeing more mindfully. He draws the parallel that for Friends, seeing that of God in others requires us to look more carefully, to know ourselves, to seek a deeper understanding. This is a lesson which Terry learned on his journey and which he shares with others. Having outcome goals and process goals are both important aspects of coping with disability and with life, Terry asserts.
For Terry, how we see things and how we act can be of great service to others. Turning within, we can find the inner resources to cope with impairment. When we engage in a loving way with the world we can find others who are willing to join us in our struggle. Savoring the journey, celebrating successes and being part of a supportive community are necessary ingredients if one is to be led and lead on issues of disability and impairment. For Terry, the ultimate outcome of his journey is helping others to realize this truth.