FOREST HILLS — At the front of the sanctuary, Marion Gwizdala gripped his guitar, a 1990 Martin with the wood worn down where his pick passes the strings.
"Is everybody ready?"
He started to sing.
The folks up front watched him play with precision. They saw his smile. But he could not see theirs.
He is blind.
When he lost his vision years ago, he learned that being blind meant being treated differently. He is on a mission to change that.
"I can remember, say, when I was 15 years old, playing football outside," said Gwizdala, 54, who lives in Palm River in eastern Hillsborough, plays music professionally and works as music director at New Life Unity Church on Florida Avenue in Forest Hills. "I used to be able to catch a football when it was dusk, or sometimes even dark."
That was before a doctor diagnosed him, at 17, with a progressive, degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which runs in his family.
He prepared himself to be blind the only way he knew how: He hoped he could be extraordinary.
"I had an uncle blind from the same condition," he said. "My family used words like amazing (to describe his life). And you know, he was doing ordinary things."
His uncle trimmed trees, worked in the yard and owned a business. Gwizdala had been taught that for someone without sight, all of that was surprising.
But when Gwizdala's condition progressed, he realized the reason his uncle's ordinary life seemed extraordinary: No one expected a lot out of a blind person.
That isn't fair, he said. A blind person has the same rights and responsibilities as a person who has sight. There are organizations that help blind people adapt to life without sight.
Making sure the world knows that is part of his mission, and his experiences as a blind person enforce his belief in the importance of spreading that message.
A potential employer once hesitated to hire him, unsure Gwizdala could get to work because he doesn't drive. A cabdriver in Ybor City refused to transport him because he had a guide dog, and a police officer made him get out of the cab. At dinner, a server at a restaurant once asked his daughter what her father would like to drink. She was 5.
"I had a physician ask me once who bathes me," Gwizdala said. "I mean, I have a master's degree and he's asking me if I'm capable of taking a bath."
The lack of vision is not the problem for blind people, he said. It's the way blind people are treated.
Gwizdala's wife, Merry Schoch, agrees.
"Even many of the professionals that work with the blind have low expectations for us, and (say) mediocrity is the best a blind person can expect," said Schoch, 49, who met Gwizdala in 2000 and married him in 2008.
She lost her vision because of complications caused by Marfan syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder.
"Marion and I do all we can to communicate to other blind people that it is not blindness that limits them," she said.
She and Gwizdala also try, she said, to communicate that to society.
"All too often, people close their eyes, try to do something and fail at it miserably and say that's what it's like to be blind," Gwizdala said. "It isn't."
Dr. Joanne Wilson, a friend of Gwizdala's who is executive director of affiliate action for the National Federation of the Blind, said his efforts can help change that attitude.
"Marion is one of thousands who try to raise the expectation levels of what blind people can do," Wilson said. "We're changing what it means to be blind."
Gwizdala, who is president of the National Federation of the Blind's special interest group for guide dog users, met teachers and lawyers and athletes when he first connected with the organization. They were successful adults who wouldn't let their lack of sight limit them, he said.
Neither would Gwizdala.
He has been on stage since childhood, when — as the only third-grader willing to walk around in his underwear — he played the emperor in the Emperor's New Clothes. He learned to play guitar before he became blind. Last month, he released his second independent album, a collection of songs of a genre called posi music.
Posi music, or positive music, is music with positive themes. It's one way Gwizdala expresses his message of equality.
"One of my favorite adages (is) whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right," he said.
He hopes his message is clear, to people with or without sight: It's all right to think you can.
"The community should expect that from us," he said. "And we should expect it of ourselves."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or [email protected]