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April 30, 2004

Westerfield's ministry is a 'sign' of the times

From: Sebastian Sun, FL - Apr 30, 2004

By Terry Galvin staff writer
April 30, 2004

SEBASTIAN — It was almost 20 years ago, but Kathy Westerfield can remember it well, almost as if it were yesterday.

Her first encounter with the deaf, or hearing impaired, took place at an Episcopalian retreat in the Washington diocese when she and her husband, Andy, were living in Maryland.

"That was the very first time I had been around deaf people," Westerfield recalled. "When I heard the retreat was going to include the hearing impaired, too, I thought to myself, 'Oh, man, this is going to be a drag.' I thought we were going to be writing notes all weekend.

"The only time I was ever involved with sign language of any sort before that was at bus stations, or train stations, or malls when people would come up to you and hand you these cards saying they were deaf or hearing impaired and looking for handouts.

"How dreadfully wrong I was," said Westerfield, 60, a mother of four and grandmother of six.

That one weekend, however, changed Westerfield's life.

Now, as a member of St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church here, she signs for songs at the offertory or communion at 10 a.m. every Sunday and she has been for the past four years.

Said the Rev. Susan Bubbers, pastor of St. Elizabeth's, "Kathy Westerfield has a very positive, helpful role in our service. We Episcopalians believe many things can help us worship. We use audio and visual aids for our worship. Her ministry is a very visual aid. When I was in Orlando, some big churches might have had something like this, but I haven't seen it (signing for songs) in many churches since then.

"What Kathy does is designed to be more helpful for worship, especially for the hearing impaired. But it is a visual aid for the hearing, too. It's an art form, just like the music is, a visual art form and it helps us worship, in total."

Strangely enough, Westerfield has not had any formal training in sign language. Rather, she spent numerous weekends at retreats while living in Maryland before moving to Sebastian seven years ago, learning sign language while working with the deaf and hearing impaired.

"Other than that," Westerfield said, "I guess you could say I was self-taught. Through computers, books, friends and one in particular, Linda Wick, also a member of the Washington diocese, who helped me not only learn sign but also gave me numerous e-mail addresses to discuss sign with others who were well versed in it. That, for the most part, is how I learned to sign for songs.

"They say when you sing, you pray twice," Westerfield explained. "Well, I think when you pray and sing and sign, you pray more than that. When I sign in church, I can actually feel the Lord touching my fingertips. There is a beautiful stained-glass window in the back of the church of Him and I look directly at it while I'm signing for the songs on the altar, and that is the feeling I get when doing it."

Westerfield said she heard of the Rock The Silence ministry, a musical program for the deaf also featured in today's Sebastian Sun, and attended it not long ago.

"If you're into sign language at all, and even if you're not," Westerfield said, "it was an incredible performance. In fact, we're hoping to have them (Rock The Silence) perform at our church in the near future, too. I was truly touched, enthralled by their performance. It was amazing. It is something so awesome, I guess that's the only word I can use to describe it."

Where sign language is concerned, Westerfield does have one regret.

"I wish I learned sign language as a child," Westerfield said. "I think every school in America should have a sign language class as an elective. You can get so much out of it. We fought so hard to get it into the schools in the Washington diocese, but without success. The children now learn French, Spanish, but most of them will never use it later in life. With sign language, even though the signs sometimes change with the times, you can use it for a lifetime."


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