Today I hosted a session at ACU’s Summit in which a gentleman named Bob Anderson discussed the need to train deaf people to minister to deaf people. He has a deaf brother, he explained, and that’s how he first became interested in this ministry. When his brother was young, the thing to do with deafness was ignore it, to treat deaf children like all other children. Apparently, the thought was that they would just learn to read lips. I imagine that doctors and others who recommended this were trying to practice tough love, thinking that the hearing impared would need to learn to live in a hearing world. Mr. Anderson’s brother attended school for fourteen years before it was decided he should leave school and get a job. For fourteen years, he sat in a room full of children with whom he could barely communicate and watched teachers’ moving mouths and still hands without ever really knowing what was going on; at the end of those fourteen years, he was completely illiterate. It was only years later, while Mr. Anderson was in college in Arkansas that he learned of a school for the deaf just 150 miles from his family home in Illinois. No one had ever told them of its existence.
It’s stories like this that really get my ire up. How is it possible for people to be so callous? Doesn’t every child deserve an education, even those who have disabilities? I think that the resounding answer is yes, and I feel like our understanding and education have come a long way since Mr. Anderson’s childhood, though it is probably still very limited. But as his presentation continued, I began to think for the first time how very difficult it is for deaf people to live in a world dominated by people who can hear. I realized that of all of the marginalized and voiceless peoples I’ve studied or read about or thought about, the deaf may be the most marginal, and worse, the most forgotten about group.
What really drove this home for me was the point Mr. Anderson was making. Deaf people, he said, are born into a mission field. Deafness creates it’s own subculture and sign language is truly another language, he explained. So when a person is born deaf, he or she is like a missionary child who grows up in another culture, fluent in the language, and capable of influencing people there as a resident, not an outsider. You see, deaf people don’t get worship services like hearing folks do. Think for a second about a typical Sunday service; what sense is most engaged? I’ll give you a description of the things I love most about my church gatherings:
A thousand voices rise together in well-loved four part harmony, which you learn as a child not so much from the song books in front of you as from your mother’s soprano, your father’s tenor, your sister’s alto, your neighbor’s bass. The song is a good old hymn, one that brings instant memories of my granddad’s clear tenor voice leading the worship at the small Bangs Church of Christ. There’s a visual memory of him in a brown suit and boots, his hand keeping time up at the front of that gray-carpeted room with two rows of pews and ceiling fans and a sign at the front announcing the number in attendance last week and the numbers for the hymns we’d sing. But the visual is really subservient to the auditory memory. Now, this next song is much newer. I learned it in high school, and I instantly remember loudness and laughter and the strong, sweet alto voice of my friend Carrie, whom I almost always sat by during youth group activities. Now, we all recite together The Lord’s Prayer, a thousand voices rising up together in pious agreement. This is one of my favorite parts of Sunday morning. And now it is time for the sermon, so someone reads the scripture on which the sermon is based, and then the preacher stands up and speaks, his voice bringing laughter, or tears, filling us with hope, passion, repentance, or something else. And once the service ends and we all stand up, stadium-style seats flapping up in a noisy commotion, and begin to cheerfully and noisily greet our friends and new acquaintances around us. I know that when I leave my home congregation, it is the sounds that I will miss most of all.
Deaf people don’t have access to any of this. Unless they are very skilled lip-readers or there is a sign interpreter, they don’t really get to experience church as we do at all. Mr. Anderson told us that his brother sat on the pew next to him every church meeting while they were growing up and watched the preacher and song leader stand up there and move their mouths, all hand gestures comprehensible only in relationship to the sounds they were meant to enhance. And his brother couldn’t read the hymnal, and he couldn’t read the scripture. All he could do was sit there and, I imagine, guess at what was going on around him.
With improved education, deaf people today have an advantage of being able to read, though Mr. Anderson observed that they are generally lacking in literacy skills, to allow them to participate at least to some degree. And these days, a lot of congregations use projectors and screens and Power Point presentations, providing a visual experience beyond just the people standing up at the front. But most places still only really accommodate those of us who hear. Mr. Anderson’s point this morning was not that every church should have a sign translator; in fact, it was nearly the opposite. He was more concerned with training deaf people to be ministers to deaf people, and I left with the impression that he was advocating services by deaf people for deaf people. He seemed to be envisioning deaf congregations, not in order to segregate but because deaf people, with their cultural differences from the hearing, have a different way of worshiping. That makes sense to me as our primary mode of worship involves sound. But while that may be ideal, I wonder what we can do for now in places like my church to help the hearing impaired feel welcomed and like a part of the body of Christ. And I don’t know that I have any answers, but as I learn to see the church as a place of welcome for all comers, a place of refuge for those roughly thrust into the world’s margins, and a place where the highest concerns are the needs of the Other, I will remember that my definition of worship must somehow expand to include silence, and that the Gospel of Christ is not limited to the sounds through which it is most usually expressed.