Deaf Ministry: Making New Connections
By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
WHAT? WHO’S MISSING FROM OUR PEWS? The Jones and the Smith families are here. It's the Deaf and hard of hearing people that are missing.
When we, as concerned viewers seeking inclusion take a careful look around the sanctuary, we’ll likely realize that Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind people are the ones missing. We try to be faithful to the mission of The United Methodist Church (UMC), which is to make disciples for transformation of the world; however, this has been a challenge for many of our churches, as many of us have been losing members. Thinking strategically, we need to be thinking outside the box in order to turn this trend around. Reaching out to new populations that will bring new vitality and focus to the faith community is needed. And we don’t have to go far: many churches may have a Deaf community on their doorsteps and not even realize it. According to an older National Council of Churches report (1997), approximately 10% of Deaf people go to church, while obviously many more feel the church doors are partially or completely closed to them.
Deaf ministry is an umbrella term for being in ministry with or being inclusive of Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind people and their families. Some of us likely realize that Deaf people have their own culture that is made up of values, beliefs, similar experiences, and a shared sign language that takes part within a Deaf community. When one sees a capital “D” in the word Deaf, it indicates the cultural aspect of the word deaf. Historically, the church has been an extended community for Deaf people, in particular, in the mid to late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The church is where Deaf people would gather for social gatherings, worship, and for missional reasons. Though this community has lost numbers, it is still occurring in some areas of The United Methodist Church, such as Pasadena, Maryland, Dallas, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana.
When one considers reaching out to the Deaf community, it's necessary to identify what your church's motives are. For example, having a paternalistic motive is unhealthy and is usually a red flag that will drive away Deaf and hard of hearing people. An all-too-common example of this is not seeing Deaf people as equals, but as a group of outsiders to be converted and ministered to. On the other hand, a genuine desire to be inclusive with an equal opportunity to be a part of the life of the church, an opportunity that would reach beyond coming to worship on Sundays, is a far more desirable reason to reach out.
A Wesleyan approach to community building is to do what John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, did—go to the people. This would include learning about Deaf culture by attending Deaf events in the community, learning the (sign) language, and realizing that not all Deaf people are the same. Remember, it's about building genuine, loving relationships, not saving souls (the Lord does this). Mark 7:31-37 describes Jesus healing a Deaf man. In this story, Jesus uses the word, “Ephphatha” that is, “Be opened” (v. 34). Who is to say that Jesus wasn’t actually speaking to the deaf man’s community and telling them (and us) to “Be opened” to this man and include him in their community. For our congregations, perhaps 1 or 2 deaf or hard of hearing people is who we'll have as well. And, that's okay.
The General Board of General Ministries (GBGM) has a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministry committee that offers ministry ideas, grants, and consultation to churches. Also, the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf has jurisdictional leaders who can also offer suggestions and possible resources.
In the book, Deaf Ministry: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of God (2015), the author recommends using a multicultural framework when growing one's congregation that honors each other's culture within the same faith community (Zuniga, Nagada, & Sevig, 2002). Suggestions include:
1. Sustained communication: explore and develop empathetic connections, and find strength and value in each other's perspectives. Each language group must have equal access to communication (e.g., having interpreters, assisted listening devices, and/or captioning).
2. Consciousness raising: encourage individuals to recognize, question, and broaden cultural understanding from various cultural groups (e.g., sharing cultural norms without oppressing the other cultural group).
3. Bridging of differences: build connections across differences and have a commitment to social justice. It's about building understanding and collaborative ties (e.g., having different cultural expressions within worship).
4. Social justice perspective: maintain a social justice perspective that fosters conversations between various social groups, including periodic reflection (e.g., have a social justice committee that connects to the annual conference board of church and society).
5. Faith: include God in interactions; this would include incorporating moments of grace that assist the church's relationship with God to be the primary focus, not the only focus, but the primary focus (read John 15:17).
There are a number of recommendations for how to begin a Deaf ministry.
1. Prayer: ask God for guidance on what type of Deaf ministry your church should do. Deaf ministry is more expansive than worship on Sundays.
2. Enlist leadership support: having the pastor's support will often help get ministries off the ground.
3. Gather a team: a team is the heart of a successful ministry.
4. Begin small: begin with the people and resources God has provided. Perhaps some fundraising is needed in order to pay a sign language interpreter or to hire a Deaf person to teach a sign language class.
5. Educate the team and congregation: hold a study about Deaf ministry that may include the book Deaf Ministry: Make a Joyful Silence or invite a Deaf person(s) to teach your team sign language (be willing to pay the person for their time).
6. Include Deaf people into the church: include them in leading worship (e.g. leading the congregation in the Lord's Prayer).
7. Adjust as the ministry grows: re-evaluate the ministry periodically and adjust it where it needs to be adjusted.
Perhaps your church already has a Deaf ministry. Wonderful! Perhaps you're looking for ways to expand it. Suggestions for this include:
1. Include your Deaf ministry on your church's website.
2. Offer a sign language class so several or many people can be familiar with basic conversational phrases (Deaf and hard of hearing people want to talk to more than just the interpreter).
3. Teach the church greeters and/or ushers basic sign phrases (e.g. Welcome, good morning, happy you're here, and bathroom).
4. Work closely with a nearby college ASL program and offer silent dinners at your church.
5. Invite a Deaf choir or a signing choir to perform during worship.
6. Do an outreach ministry by extending your church's hospitality to the community (e.g. bring meals to a habilitative day program in the area or adopt a group home with people with disabilities).
7. Connect to your state or local government Deaf agency. Some have newsletters or email announcements.
8. Subscribe to other Deaf ministries' newsletters so you can be included in any news and stay informed of any locally-held events.
9. Revamp the church's newsletter to include Deaf-related articles (e.g. an article about hearing screenings).
10. Do an outreach to the Alexander Graham Bell Association chapter, or a similar group, in your state that might include providing baked goods and drinks at their chapter meetings. There are MANY hard of hearing and late-deafened people (those who lost their hearing later in life) in everyone's community. Not all hard of hearing people and late-deafened people are a part of the Deaf community. But, that's okay! Some use sign language, while others do not.
There are many more possibilities than just these ideas; what's important is to begin with prayer and see what vision God has for your faith community. Deaf ministry is about rethinking what the church can offer and how it can connect to Deaf and hard of hearing people in your community.
Zuniga, X., Nagaa, B.R.,& Sevig, T.D. (2002). Intergroup dialogues: An educational model for cultivating engagement across differences. Equity and Excellence in Education, 7-17.
About the writer: Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a provisional deacon serving in the Baltimore Washington Conference. He serves on the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries.