During the Middle Ages, deaf people were barred from attending church due to the widespread belief that the souls of the deaf could not find salvation, since deaf people were unable to “hear the Word of God.” Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Yet in 2010, Christian Deaf Ministries estimated that only 1 percent of adult deaf Americans attended church in any denomination.
This is due to several factors. The first is that 95 percent of deaf children are born into hearing families, but only 10 percent of their parents learn enough American Sign Language to have a conversation about complex religious concepts with their deaf children. And while many deaf children attend church regularly with their hearing families, deaf children find themselves equally isolated at church, since most churches do not have sufficient involvement of ASL interpreters in their congregations to facilitate a fundamental understanding of their faith to the deaf children in attendance.
What’s more, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that employment settings, government offices, public meetings, public accommodations (such as movie theaters and conventions) and community events be accessible to all individuals with disabilities, although religious organizations are exempt from the ADA. As a result, the deaf often decide as children that church is something hearing people do, because there is nothing substantial they can understand from attending church services.
This is extremely unfortunate. The American Psychological Association has published research indicating that spiritual beliefs lead to enjoying a longer, healthier life. For example, research found that religious people live longer, are less prone to depression, are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, and even go to the dentist more often to maintain their oral health. One study found that people who attend religious services once a week or more live on average seven years longer; and that adaptive spiritual practices can be a foil to anxiety and depression. With so much at stake, we (members of both deaf and hearing churches) must find ways to encourage more deaf people to attend church and become involved in religious fellowship.
Unfortunately, hearing churches often do not understand the deaf. Most deaf people communicate through ASL, but contrary to popular belief, ASL is not based on written or spoken English. It is a visually perceived language based on a naturally evolved system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the body, along with non-manual markers such as facial expressions, head movements, shoulder raises, other movements of the body and morphemes. While reading a script of the sermon would technically provide access to the sermon, for optimal comprehension, the deaf prefer ASL (visual communication) over written forms of communication.
Though some churches do offer skilled ASL interpreters, their service to the church rarely extends beyond interpreting the weekly church service, limiting deaf access to outside religious study and participation in the church’s community life (i.e., Bible study, retreats and other religious programs and gatherings and volunteer opportunities such as visiting the sick).
Moreover, very few churches offer the deaf a real spiritual connection — that is, a deaf ministry. The importance of having deaf clergymen to minister to the deaf cannot be overstated. To illustrate this point, in reference to the Rev. Christopher Klusman, who was ordained in 2011 as one of only 10 profoundly deaf priests in America, a deaf parishioner was quoted as saying after seeing one of Father Klusman’s services, “It’s so important to have a priest who understands our language, our culture. I feel like I’ve learned more about my faith from him than I have my whole life.”
Of course, absent a deaf ministry, there are still numerous ways to reach out to the deaf community and encourage participation and improve deaf access to churches. For example, religious workshops specifically designed for the deaf are a fantastic way to introduce members of the deaf community to religion in a meaningful way.
Additionally, videos made by Deaf Video Communications, a Christian ministry to the deaf, are extremely effective in teaching the deaf religious concepts. For example, DVC produces “Dr. Wonder’s Workshop,” the first Christian television series for children made in ASL. It first aired in the fall of 2008 on seven Christian networks. Each episode teaches a Christian theme reinforced by skits, songs, animations and interviews, all conducted in ASL by deaf actors. Voices and music are added in English and captions in English and Spanish so that hearing family members can follow along.
Here are a few things hearing churches can try to increase deaf attendance:
• Encourage members of the clergy to learn ASL.
• Provide opportunities for the deaf to worship and learn in an atmosphere in which ASL is the primary language.
• Advance the awareness and respect for deaf culture and people.
• Provide leadership opportunities for the deaf to participate and or lead in the areas of pastoral care, worship and education.
• Work to increase awareness among all ministers in pastoral care such as chaplains, hospice workers, parish and hospital staff, and funeral directors about the needs of people who are deaf.
• Provide the deaf access to retreats and spiritual enrichment sessions facilitated by ASL.
• Educate deaf people about the services and opportunities they offer.
• Work together for stewardship to raise money for deaf ministries, while recognizing the broader definition of stewardship, such as volunteer service of time.
Here are some things deaf ministries can try to increase participation in their churches:
• Each member of the church should make a concerted effort to mentor a fellow deaf person on spiritual matters and encourage their participation in church programs.
• Demonstrate a strong spiritual capacity — lead by example!
• Become a vital part of the church by reaching out to both the deaf and hearing communities.
• Recognize the gifts you have and acknowledge the gifts you see in others.
• Engage in a multitude of opportunities to continually learn about the church, the Scriptures and social justice, and volunteer your time to improve the plight of others.
• Donate or raise money to sustain the ministry at the level you are able to. The amount is not what is important, it is your willingness to give that is important. Even a small amount can make a big difference.
• Invite hearing people who have an interest in ASL to attend church programs. Not only could this increase your church’s membership but will build a stronger bond between the hearing and deaf communities.
My grandfather (who is hearing) and I attend the Deaf Calvary Church in Frederick. We both decided that our New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to make a stronger commitment to our church. Hopefully after reading this article, you will do the same. Remember, by doing so you will not only be helping the church and the community, but according to scientific research, you will be improving your chances of enjoying a longer, healthier life.
Brittany Branch-Smith recently returned from Japan, where she volunteered teaching American Sign Language. She now lives in Frederick. Reach her at email@example.com.