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May 20, 2003

Church for deaf prays for help

From: Riverside Press Enterprise, CA - May 20, 2003

INLAND: The Riverside-based congregation is at odds with Caltrans over an eminent domain order.


RIVERSIDE - Empty beer cans and fast-food wrappers rest against a rusting chain-link fence separating a two-story stucco church from honking horns and screeching tires on Interstate 215.

The parishioners don't mind the traffic racket -- they can't hear the noise anyway.

Calvary Deaf Church provides what others can get at any church -- direct worship of God, without interpreters.

For five decades, the church has served deaf people from Temecula to Victorville, but reconstruction of the interchange linking Interstate 215 to Highways 60 and 91 threatens the church's future, members and leaders say.

Caltrans wants to take the property by eminent domain as part of the $295 million project. A church official says the state's offer is less than half of what it would cost to move into an equivalent complex, a contention that surprised Caltrans.

At Sunday's morning service, the 40-or-so parishioners were asked to pray for a positive outcome in negotiations that have gone on for months. Some wonder what will happen if they don't have a new church by October, when Caltrans' deadline to move expires.

"Church is like school," David Robinson, 64, of Moreno Valley said in sign language, which was translated by the Rev. Tom Mather, the church's pastor. "If you can't go to school, you can't get a job, you can't read. It's the same with church. How can you know God? How do you have fellowship with your brother and sister? You fall away into oblivion."

Negotiations not hostile

No one at the church questions the need for the interchange project, Mather said. Like most who encounter the infuriating junction, parishioners support an improved version of the outdated cloverleaf design.

"This is not hostile," said Mather, 62. "But there are one or two areas that are very, very touchy that we have not been able to negotiate."

Mather plans to ask for assistance in negotiations at today's Riverside County Board of Supervisors meeting.

The church's complaints caught Caltrans off-guard. State negotiators thought the conversations were going well, said Tim Watkins, a Caltrans spokesman.

"They are 95 percent complete," he said. Watkins said he could not discuss the particulars of the talks but added, "we are following all the legal guidelines."

Mather says he has spent months viewing other comparable properties and he figures it will cost $4 million to replicate the church and surrounding property, the parsonage for a pastor's home and three apartments for deaf parishioners. Caltrans is offering less than half of that, Mather said, although Caltrans is trying to work with the church.

The church paid off debts on the property years ago, and Caltrans' bid will thrust the church into debt.

Apartments helpful

The apartments' occupants, ranging from a former homeless deaf man to a deaf mother with three deaf children and two hearing children, pay about one-third what the market would bear, Mather said. They live on Social Security checks.

Caltrans has offered to pay for the families to relocate, and it will make up the difference in rent for 42 months, Mather said. It's a decent offer, he conceded, but he fears for their future when the 42 months are up.

The church has long been a haven for the deaf. Bea Berry, the daughter of two Assemblies of God ministers, founded the church in 1956 after moving from San Francisco to Riverside. She came knowing the area had a need because it had a California School for the Deaf.

In the early years, Berry held prayer sessions for the deaf in the living room of the parsonage of what was then Calvary Church. That church moved to a new location, leading deaf members to buy the property at the dead end of West La Cadena Avenue and create Calvary Deaf Church.

The prime location draws new members from freeway travelers.

"Anything is special when you have been with it 40-some-odd years," said Donna Kuhns, 74, of Riverside, whose husband, David, 77, is deaf. "We have roots in this church."

Rare find

What makes this church unusual is that it is a deaf church. Such places are uncommon in the United States, but have been in existence nationally since 1852.

Joyce Mather, the wife of the church's pastor and an employee at California School for the Deaf in Riverside, said it's the only church in Southern California that she knows is operating separately from a hearing church.

Some hearing churches offer interpretive services. But those rarely provide interpreters for every aspect of a church's life. Deaf churches also are favored by deaf people because they can take leadership roles, said the Rev. Jay L. Croft of St. John's Episcopal Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, Ala.

"We get our language literally 'first hand,' rather than having it funneled through an interpreter," said Croft, who is the president of the board of directors of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf. "We are able to tailor the sermons and discussions to our lives."

At Sunday's Calvary Deaf Church service, parishioners joined together in prayer and song that is as similar to a hearing church as it is different. Music played from speakers as Joyce Mather led the congregation in song.

Some signed and sung, with a flurry of integrated movements from the pews and faltering lyrics that sounded like moans. In a way, it had a distinct feeling of people connected, in a way vastly different from a hearing church.

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