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June 21, 2003

Signs of the Spirit: Minister uniquely suited to lead deaf congregation

From:, TN - Jun 21, 2003

By Tracy Adams
June 21, 2003

Chip Penland isn't just a preacher who knows sign language.

His listening eyes, talking hands and unique upbringing make him a perfect fit for the deaf ministry at Kirby Woods Baptist Church, according to senior pastor Robert Pitman.

"He has an intimate knowledge of deaf culture," said Pitman, "He has a real heart and a real love for deaf people."

That's because Penland, 27, was born to deaf parents in Gainesville, Ga., and grew up in a household where deafness seemed normal.

Although he is not deaf, watching his mom and dad live with their disability gave him the tools and the attitude to serve the deaf.

"Growing up, my family seemed normal to me," Penland said. "I didn't know that my home life was all that different until I got older."

Penland's capacity to not see deaf people as "all that different" makes him a great fit at Kirby Woods, which got a sudden influx of deaf members about four years ago.

A group of deaf Christians who had been meeting at First Baptist Church downtown since 1953 began looking for a new church home - someplace closer to the suburbs.

With help from First Baptist, they settled on Kirby Woods.

About 100 deaf people joined the church on the same Sunday, Pittman said.

"We knew we would have to find a pastor for deaf people."

The church began a three-year search that ended with Penland.

"It's difficult to find someone with not only a knowledge of sign language but with the understanding of a person who grew up in that culture," said Ben Cox, an audiologist and member of Kirby Woods.

Cox also grew up with deaf parents. He was the interim lay minister for the deaf ministry at Kirby Baptist before Penland arrived.

Having a pastor who lacks understanding in deaf culture "just won't work," Cox said.

"Very few pastors focus on the deaf population," he said. "They don't know how to speak to the unique . . . spiritual needs deaf people have."

When writing his sermons, for example, Penland throws in word illustrations to emphasize a point, as do many preachers.

But unlike pastors for hearing people, Penland makes sure his examples are ones deaf people can relate to.

"A story about the sound a car makes would " Penland begins, then moves his right hand over his head. Deaf parishioners would miss the point of an example that referred to sound.

To Daren Weeks, 37, a deaf member of Kirby Baptist, a pastor like Penland has made a big difference.

"I understand better (since Penland arrived) because he makes things basic," said Weeks, whose mother, Patricia Cooper, interpreted for him.

Cooper added: "Reverend Penland is making a real difference. He is just as demonstrative in his sermons as deaf people are in their conversations. That makes a real difference."

One-on-one counseling is also an area in which Penland would make a difference, said Cox.

"Before, deaf members would have to bring an interpreter in for marriage counseling or just to talk about personal matters," Cox said. "That's no longer necessary because Brother Penland is fluent in sign language."

In the Southern Baptist Convention, there are only 50 pastors for the deaf in the United States, said Pitman. And Penland is the only such pastor in the Mid-South.

Penland's move to Kirby Baptist is particularly significant considering there are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 culturally deaf people - those who use sign language as their first language - in the Memphis metro area, said Ron Aven, executive director of Interpreting Service for the Deaf.

"I like to think it's part of my calling to build bridges," Penland said, adding he is interested in linking the deaf community to businesses with "wares that speak to their needs."

He also said he would like to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf people.

"I know it's a lofty goal, but the biggest difference (between hearing and deaf people) is not the ability to hear," he said. "It's the lack of understanding."

Penland envisions his deaf congregation as one that transcends racial and socioeconomic lines.

"I see our future as bright," he said. "We are a ministry for deaf people and families of deaf people. We welcome everyone to come to a service and see for themselves that we are doing God's work."

- Tracy Adams: 529-2323

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