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June 6, 2003

Hearing 'aides' bring gospel to deaf

From: - Jun 6, 2003

by Marc S. Botts, Editor

The Rev. Raynor Andersen got his first taste of what ministering to deaf people was like when he was a seminary student some 30 years ago.

Anderson said it wasn’t an enlightening program at the seminary that set him on his path of ministry. Rather, it was a visiting priest who caught his attention.

"It’s odd the way I got started in it," he said. "When I was in seminary in Philadelphia I was bored to death with the curriculum. There was a deaf priest who used to come to the school to teach sign language. I took his course and started to help out with the deaf at his church."

Today, Andersen and the Rev. Erich Anderson-Krengel minister to two deaf churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut . Anderson-Krengel is the first deaf person ordained in Connecticut in nearly a century, but he is not without peers in the Episcopal Church .

"Interestingly, the Episcopal Church has ordained 47 deaf people into the priesthood, beginning with the Rev. Henry Syle in 1876. There is no other church that has a deaf ministry that can even come close to that. So, it’s a long and glorious history," Andersen said.

The two churches Andersen ministers to demonstrate what he said is a denominational commitment to deaf ministry, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Jon Barr, president of Silent Word Ministries , a non-denominational organization that assists churches in establishing deaf ministries, said that while many churches in the United States offer ministry to the deaf, there are not many specifically for the deaf. Most deaf communities are not large enough to sustain an indigenous deaf church, he said.

"There are not a lot because there are not that many deaf people, relatively speaking," Barr said. Most large cities, like Chicago or Los Angeles, may have one or two deaf churches in them.

Deaf ministries in hearing congregations, on the other hand, are much more prevalent.

Speaking Their Language

Silent Word Ministries, located in Trenton, Ga., was established in 1966 to help churches start deaf ministries and to help existing ones flourish.

Silent Word offers training in such things as American Sign Language (ASL) and has an extensive literature library for people interested in ministering to the deaf. It offers services for deaf people as well.

"We also have a Bible Institute program where deaf people can enroll and take classes from their home," Barr said. "It’s a correspondence school. We have over 300 involved in that."

Through the institute, deaf people can take a variety of classes on the New Testament, Bible doctrines and Christian life.

"The biggest need of deaf people is not to hear but to hear the gospel. That solves a lot of needs right there," Barr said.

"With a deaf person, how else are they going to hear the gospel?" Barr asked. "They can’t listen to radio, they’re not going to be able to do it on TV. The only way for them to get it is if somebody tells them in their language."

How To Get Started

Sign language can take years to master, Barr said, but it only takes a few weeks for a person to learn enough to interpret sermons to deaf people.

"There are several different sign languages. American Sign Language is the only actual language among them," he said. The three most widely used in the United States are ASL, Signing Exact English (SEE), which utilizes true English form for reading and writing, and Pigeon Signed English (PSE), which is a mixture of ASL and SEE.

Barr recommends training more than one interpreter to be most effective.

At Graceland Baptist Church in New Albany, Ind., for example, six interpreters are trained and at least two switch off during different parts of services. This not only gives the deaf audience variety in interpretation, but it allows a larger number of people to stay active in the ministry they enjoy.

"Interpreting, like anything, is something we’re called to," said Graceland’s Viny Burns. "Its fun. We have a blast doing it. It’s our heart that comes through the signs."

Reaching the Lost

Because the deaf community is typically small, churches don’t stand to gain much in terms of growth with outreach efforts aimed at the deaf. Barr said most churches start deaf ministries out of a desire to fulfill the Great Commission.

"The scripture says we are to reach the poor, the lost, the lame and the blind," said Barr. "We (Christians) are to reach all people and this is a ministry. It’s not something the church really gets anything out of. It’s an opportunity to give and to reach people that otherwise would not be reached."

Although churches may not experience much growth in numbers, Andersen said the spiritual growth is significant.

"In a way it does something for the church in that it ministers to the whole body," Andersen said. "The fact there are deaf churches where deaf people can worship in their own language creates a wholeness for the entire diocese. People are not excluded."

Burns, who has been a deaf interpreter since 1977, said those who minister to the deaf are rewarded for their efforts by being instruments of the gospel.

"When you look in their eyes and see understanding of the Gospel of Christ, there is such a thrill and satisfaction," she said.

"The Bible says ‘On that day the deaf shall hear the words’ of the Lord ( Isaiah 29:18 ). But we can take this day and offer them the word of the Lord also and let them be excited the first day they were here because we professed the gospel through our hands," she said. "So, there’s a great satisfaction in interpreting."

More Than Interpreting

Barr said one of the things Silent Word stresses to churches is being a complete ministry to the deaf.

"Not just interpreting the service, but the ministry part of it where you’re helping deaf people with their doctor appointments, helping them set up a budget so they can pay their bills or helping them because they have car problems," he said. "All of these things are easily communicated with hearing people, but deaf people need somebody to help them with these things. It’s an actual ministry."

Burns, who has helped several churches develop deaf ministries, said watching hearing churches embrace the deaf community is a special treat.

"It’s awesome to see a church grab hold of a vision for deaf ministry and then go with it for10 or 20 weeks of sign language where we’re not just learning signs but learning signs for a purpose," she said. "We’re learning signs to have them come to our churches where our faces and our hands are going to be used for Christ."

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