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February 8, 2003

Church enjoys signs of growing fellowship

From: The Tennessean, TN - 08 Feb 2003

Staff Writer

New building to let the deaf feel music's beat

Clint Akins used to goof around in church, playing Nintendo or drawing pictures.

It's not that he didn't want to pay attention. He couldn't. Akins, 20, is deaf, and his family's church didn't have an interpreter.

For the last six years, though, things have been different. Akins is one of about 100 members of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church, which will break ground later this month for a $1.5 million building specially designed for deaf worship. Speakers in the floor will help people with hearing impairments feel the beats of the music. Seats will be specially spaced to give congregants more room to sign along with the songs. The church will be equipped with large TV monitors.

The congregation was started by the 5,000-member Brentwood Baptist Church but is currently an autonomous church within the church.

At Akins' former church in Franklin, he'd pass the time during services by signing to friends who knew American Sign Language. Now, he signs to participate in the singing with the congregation or in responding to the pastor.

The Rev. Brian Sims, pastor of the Brentwood deaf congregation, cited statistics showing that 80% to 90% of the deaf people in this country don't attend church — primarily because no one communicates to them about God. That's why ministries to the deaf are so important, he said.

Some local churches such as Holy Name Catholic Church, Brentwood United Methodist Church, New Song Christian Fellowship and Mt. Zion Baptist Church offer sign language interpreters at some worship services, and Central Church of Christ and Hermitage Church of Christ have deaf congregations.

Sims also is considering simulcasting worship services for congregations that don't have a ministry for deaf people.

Cynthia Stiles, an architect with HH Architects in Dallas, is designing the building. She said she wasn't aware of any other buildings built specifically for the purpose of deaf worship.

Stiles, who is hearing impaired, went to deaf worship services at a Dallas church to help her understand the needs of the worshippers. She uses a cochlear implant to help her hear and worships with a hearing congregation. But her experience made it especially meaningful, she said, to have the opportunity to work on this project.

''I find it exciting that this is going to be a place for deaf people,'' said Stiles, who grew up in the hearing culture.

Sims, pastor of the Brentwood congregation, the second-largest Southern Baptist deaf church in the country, said no one had ever asked him why God made them deaf or took away their hearing. Most deaf people have a great sense of pride about their condition, he said. They point to people like John Gregg, a deaf man who invented shorthand, and Juliette Gordon Low, a deaf woman who founded the Girl Scouts.

Deafness is such a part of who they are that if given the chance to hear, most deaf people would decline it, Sims said. That would be like asking people if they would want to change their race, said Sims, whose adoptive parents were deaf.

Brentwood Baptist Church started an interpretive ministry in 1984. It became an autonomous congregation on May 1, 1995, when Sims was hired as a full-time pastor. Worshippers travel an average of 70 miles round-trip to participate.

Joy Mangrum drives from Smyrna for worship three times a week — Sunday mornings and evenings as well as Wednesday nights. For many years, Mangrum said, she dreamed and prayed for a deaf congregation with a pastor for the deaf.

Now she's living that dream. Mangrum, who was born deaf, now has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her parents, who were gospel music singers. Last Sunday she led the congregation in signing several songs.

''That's one of my favorite parts,'' she said through an interpreter.

Janet Clark, who lost her hearing because of an inner ear disorder several years ago, said that learning sign language and joining the Brentwood church had allowed her to regain everything she lost. After losing her hearing, she had stopped attending her old church, and she could no longer sing on key.

''I have everything I had before,'' she said. ''I can teach. I have friends. I can sing. I am so content. I am totally at peace.''

To learn more

The Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church worships at 11 a.m. Sundays at the Brentwood Baptist Church, 7777 Concord Road. Currently the congregation worships in the church's choir room. Call 850-3101 or 373-9574 (TDD) for more information about its services.

© Copyright 2003 The Tennessean