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Raising deaf awareness, opening hearts

Woman doing sign language interpretation at General Conference 2016

The Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. offers tips for how churches can offer grace and hospitality to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

REV. LEO YATES, JR.
UM Disability

Deaf Awareness Week occurs annually in the last week of September. This year, it is September 24-30, 2018. It begins on Monday, and concludes with The International Day of the Deaf on Sunday. The history of this observance goes back several decades to 1958 when The International Day of the Deaf was first celebrated by The World Federation of the Deaf. Deaf Awareness Week is mostly observed by Deaf communities around the world; however, its observation in wider society has been growing, including United Methodist churches. 

There are many Scriptures that speak to hospitality, one being Romans 12:13, which reads, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” The Church (we are the church) is to share with ALL people in knowing about the gospel, inviting them and showing hospitality are essential elements to welcoming them.  By observing Deaf Awareness Week, churches engage and challenge their communities by being open and inviting to Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind persons and their families.

For decades, many Deaf and hard of hearing people would attend an all Deaf church that typically had a Deaf pastor or a preacher who was fluent in sign language. However, more Deaf and hard of hearing people are going to hearing churches, in part, because they wish to attend worship with their hearing family members. 

Hospitality is about conveying the sense of welcome. Through active hospitality, (hearing) churches can be inviting and accessible by offering such things as:

  • a captionist (a person typing on a laptop, which is projected on a screen)
  • making copies of the sermon available
  • having a sign language interpreter – here is a link to a brief guide
  • promote the special Sunday
  • disseminating an ABC (manual alphabet) card in the bulletins
  • enclosing bulletin inserts
  • show Deaf-friendliness by posting deaf-related articles to the church bulletin board
  • ensure that the microphone is used consistently during worship so ALL can hear what is said
  • if using multimedia, include a song or two of signed music
  • have the choir sign a hymn or have a soloist sign a song
  • teach some signs, or discuss accessibility during the children’s sermon.

The list could go on and on. The book, Deaf Ministry, 2nd Ed., has more creative ideas, as well as different Deaf ministry models for churches to consider. Global Ministries’ Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Committee offers a plethora of resources for this special week and for beginning a Deaf ministry. Most importantly, hospitality is key. This combines being pleasant and present, along with being welcoming. One of the most beautiful ways a church can be welcoming is learning to sign: basic phrases such as Good Morning (click the link for others) to everyone who comes through its doors. One word of advice is to refer to Deaf people as “Deaf and hard of hearing people” instead of “hearing impaired” or “those with hearing impairment.” (“Hearing impaired” is outdated.)

Conway United Methodist Church in Orlando, Florida is a hearing church with a Deaf ministry. It hosts a Deaf Awareness Sunday event where the Deaf members help lead worship, invite a guest preacher who signs, and their Deaf choir performs. Magothy United Methodist Church of the Deaf (a Deaf and hearing congregation) in Pasadena, MD, has a potluck luncheon in honor of The International Day of the Deaf (held on Sunday) and hosts a free ASL class for the community. Billy Deters of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Titusville, Florida, the president of the United Methodist caucus, United Methodist Congress of the Deaf, says “Our church loves when Deaf people come worship with us. We’re talking to our pastor about doing something special.” At Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, the pastor for the Deaf congregation, Rev. Dr. Tom Hudspeth shared, “Sign language offers grace to hearing people, it is a means of grace. We extend hospitality and accessibility all year long. Truly, many Deaf people are stewards of grace and they have so much to offer the wider church.” 

When churches open their hearts to Deaf and hard of hearing people and their families, they also begin to better recognize some of the older members (and not-so-old) who are experiencing hearing loss. Some of these members miss out what is being communicated, and others fall away from the church altogether. Keep in mind, some of them are substantial givers to the church. Practicing some of these ideas of accessibility and hospitality may help prevent them leaving.

Deaf, hard of hearing, and Deafblind people are such a gift to the church because they bring their rich Deaf culture and language in a way that blesses the faith community in so many ways. Certainly, as with other members, they have their gifts for ministry and a place at the table. So, swing wide the doors on September 30th and observe, in some way, Deaf Awareness Week. Invite those from the Deaf community to worship with you Better yet, make your worship more accessible so everyone will know all are welcome at your church.

~reprinted with permission from the Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.’s blog in UM Disability, the online news from The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities.

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