When Moses was tending to his flock, a voice from the burning bush called him and instilled in him a call to ministry. Perhaps this same voice might be calling your church to a new ministry, such as Deaf ministry.
Why “Deaf” ministry? It is helpful to know that when one sees a capital ‘D’ in the word Deaf, it indicates a cultural, communal, and linguistic population who uses sign language. The lower case ‘d’ in “deaf” indicates hearing loss or a person with hearing loss who does not have an affiliation to the Deaf community. While September is Deaf awareness month, attention to Deaf ministry can be done at any time during the year. This month is a good time to highlight The United Methodist Church’s Deaf history and its Deaf ministries as they relate to The United Methodist Church.
In general, Deaf ministry is an umbrella term for doing ministry with d/Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, and Deaf-blind individuals and their families. Also, Deaf ministry is recognized by welcoming, providing care, being in ministry with, and including in the life of the church d/Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, and Deaf-blind individuals.
The only two Deaf churches that I have found in the denomination are located in the Baltimore Washington Conference. They are Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf and Magothy United Methodist Church of the Deaf. At one point in the denomination’s history, there were other Deaf churches. They were the Chicago Mission for the Deaf that began in 1892 and the Washington United Methodist Church of the Deaf that began in 1969, both of which have since closed. While there may not have been other Deaf churches, there have been Deaf congregations, some affiliated with churches, while others were stand-alone mission congregations. For instance, in the Western North Carolina Conference, there was a strong Deaf ministry for a few decades during the 1970s to the early 2000s, in which it had three Deaf congregations – located in Morganton, Gastonia, and Asheville. Here in the United States, one Deaf congregation is located at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. It has its own Deaf worship service, as well as other Deaf ministry related programs, led and served by Deaf leaders. On the global front, Deaf congregations are also located in the annual conferences in Congo and Kenya, as well as in other countries. Deaf ministries are more prominent than we think. Just because there is silence doesn’t mean they’re invisible.
A survey conducted in 2014 by The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries, a committee of Global Ministries, and The United Methodist Congress of the Deaf, a caucus, show that there are dozens of Deaf ministries within the United States, often overlooked due to being smaller ministries, but are nonetheless seen as gold nuggets in their jurisdictions. The most common type of Deaf ministry, but not the only type, is an interpreted ministry, where a sign language interpreter delivers interpreting services at a worship service and sometimes at other church-related programs. Right now, the up and coming star in Deaf ministry is in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, as it has over twenty Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and their families who participate in the life of the church at Waretown United Methodist Church.
United Methodist Communications, in collaboration with the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries, recently established an online video ASL glossary so those using sign language can have access in their primary language to better understand what The United Methodist Church is about and what its beliefs are. These videos can be found here. This video project, an evangelism tool, was done, in part, to communicate to those in the Deaf community that they are valued in The United Methodist Church.
There are several facets of Deaf ministry, such as: 1) having a Deaf church or Deaf congregation, 2) an interpreted ministry, 3) a hard-of-hearing and late-deafened ministry, 4) a Deaf-blind ministry, 5) Deaf advocacy, and 6) Deaf missions. The book, Deaf Ministry: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of God (2015) discusses these ministry models, as well as educates churches about Deaf ministry program planning, as well as ministry considerations. Also, The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries offers various resources, grants, and free consultation for churches that are considering implementing a Deaf ministry or needing to improve upon their existing ministry. Like it was for Moses, is there a burning bush calling your church to a new form of ministry, such as Deaf ministry? If so, pray and discern what facet of Deaf ministry God may be leading your church to begin.
The Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a deacon serving in the Baltimore Washington Conference. He is also a committee member of the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries and a member of the Commission on Disability Concerns in his annual conference. He is a licensed clinical professional counselor, a nationally certified sign language interpreter, and an associate pastor at Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church in Frederick, MD.