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July 24, 2004

Making a joyful silence

From: Toronto Star, Canada - Jul 24, 2004

Signed scripture reading, invocation, hymns and prayers attract worshippers to churches for deaf Fellow parishioners offer deaf

At this church, heads are not bowed in prayer, nor are eyes closed in religious rapture. If they were, half-jokes the pastor, it would be a sure sign of sleep.

Instead, all eyes focus rapt attention on the pulpit, where the messages that spring from Rev. Bob Rumball's acrobatic hands are of redemption and grace, justice and salvation through Jesus Christ.

There's also a zinger thrown in: "Hearing people think they know everything, but they know nothing!" Rumball harrumphs in his sermon, his gnarled hands morphing his spoken words into sign language. "And they're the ones making choices and decisions." Heads nod knowingly.

The 50 or so people who've gathered this Sunday morning at Rumball's Evangelical Church of the Deaf, located on a sprawling campus on Bayview Ave., seem no different than worshippers at any similar Christian venue, except that the scripture reading, invocation, hymns and the Lord's Prayer are recited in sign language, while the Bible's entreaty to make a joyful noise unto the Lord emerges as silent devotion.

What's the main difference between deaf and hearing Christians? "Dedication, commitment and the fact that deaf Christians know enough that if they're going to get help, they're going to come to the deaf church," states the no-nonsense Rumball, a former halfback for the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders who has pastored deaf Christians since 1955 and is considered the dean of deaf ministry in Canada.

It's not that there aren't any other spiritual outlets for deaf and hard of hearing Christians in Toronto. But they are few in number. And there seems to be little consistency, or will, in the provision of sign language interpretation at hearing churches. Those which do can rarely match the kinship that pervades churches for the deaf.

Claudia Moscato, a 41-year-old data processor who was born deaf, eyes a reporter quizzically when asked why she attends the Evangelical Church of the Deaf each Sunday.

"Because I'm deaf," she deadpans through an interpreter. "And because here, I have the opportunity for fellowship with other deaf people."

Moscato, a member of the church's Deaf Women for Christ ministry, says she might understand a hearing service. "But that doesn't mean it's a good place for socialization. I feel comfortable here."

Agrees congregant Brian Buckingham, a 57-year-old postal worker: "This is the only place I can find help and fellowship."

That's a common refrain among deaf worshippers. Chris Werenrich, one of three American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at Queensway Cathedral in Etobicoke, concedes that while going to church is often a social exercise for the hearing, it's even more so for the deaf.

While hearing Catholics, for example, wouldn't normally worship at a Protestant church, the deaf of all Christian denominations regularly pray together, Werenrich says. (Indeed, the Evangelical Church of the Deaf is part of the United Church of Canada's Workgroup on Deaf Ministries.)

Because music plays such a big role in Christian worship, deaf worshippers are often short-changed, says Adele Routliff, who began interpreting church services at the age of 11.

"Worship services are so dependent on music to set an atmosphere in which to approach God," says Routliff, who provides ASL interpretation at Crossfire Assembly in Hamilton. "Most of the deaf can't hear that. That aspect of worship is not accessible. How do you convey music? I can convey rhythm, but not music."

General accessibility is another big issue, Werenrich points out. "A hearing person can go to any church, any crusade, any concert they want. A deaf person always has to arrange, always has to make special plans."

That is, if they go to church at all. In the United States, figures have shown that between 80 and 90 per cent of deaf Christians don't attend a house of worship regularly because they feel ignored or underserved by the hearing world.

In Canada, where church attendance is generally lower than stateside, the figure for deaf attendance may be lower still, says John Blake, director of the Lacombe, Alta.-based Canadian Deaf Ministries, which provides a variety of services to help the deaf "build a relationship with Jesus."

"Partly because most deaf people as children had little or nothing available for them in church, very few actually regularly attend church," Blake says. "And relatively few churches have anything in sign language for deaf people." In those which do, often the interpreter "is just a volunteer and has had to learn signing from classes, and here and there, and really struggles with mastering sign language."

For the deaf, church is "far more than just attending a signed service, it is a spiritual support group. It's hard for the deaf to receive much support from a hearing church because of the huge communication barrier."

Language isn't the only barrier, says Norm Ferguson, deaf pastor of Lighthouse Deaf Fellowship at Queensway Cathedral.

"Many hearing churches don't understand deaf needs because of language and culture," says Ferguson, whose small congregation is run by deaf people.

Deaf culture, activists have explained for years, centres on exploding old myths that deafness is a handicap or deformity. Today, deaf culture and heritage are celebrated as a source of pride, extending to religious worship.

Some hearing churches, for example, don't accept that the deaf can run their own services, says Ferguson. "They prefer to control all people. Sometimes, the deaf are frustrated with (the) hearing."

Rumball, one of whose seven children is deaf, echoes that sentiment.

"Oh, the deaf have had sad experiences with hearing people because hearing people have said 'We know what to do.' They think they know what's best for the deaf. We (the hearing) had a philosophy that deaf were handicapped (who) had to be normalized, integrated and mainstreamed."

His church has helped dispel the belief that the deaf can't handle their own affairs. The congregation, whose roots go back to the 1872 founding of the Ontario Mission of the Deaf, is part of the $7 million Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf, opened in 1979 on six acres of landscaped property in North York. Though there are hearing people on the board of directors, the campus belongs to and is controlled by the deaf. It offers social, residential, psychological and vocational services, and runs a summer camp for deaf kids in Parry Sound, Ont.

Rumball, ordained as a United Church minister, has pioneered eight mission churches for the deaf, as well as deaf ministries in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. On many days, he interprets for the deaf in the courts, hospitals and jails. Among his numerous awards was the Order of Canada in 1976.

Despite all that, there's a lack of leadership training for deaf Christians in Canada, rues Rev. John Graham, who, with his wife Suzan, established Deaf Alive Revival Evangelism (DARE) in 2001 to reach "lost deaf souls" around the world.

The Grahams are probably the only deaf ministerial couple in Canada. Along with their mission, they co-pastor New Life Deaf Church in Milton, Ont. (The calling runs in the family: his two brothers-in-law are pastors of Maranatha Deaf Fellowship Church in Toronto).

Unlike in the U.S., there are no seminaries for the deaf in Canada, says Graham, but adds that Master's College and Seminary in Toronto provides night classes in a half-dozen languages, including ASL.

That's one indication of how far the deaf have come. To have ASL recognized as a full-fledged language by a religious institute "is an amazing step forward," Routliff says.

Back at the Evangelical Fellowship of the Deaf, Rumball is busy shaking the hands of those in a reception line. "In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll," he quotes from the book of Isaiah, and adds with a wink, "but they're not waiting for that day. They going to hear it now."

Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer specializing in religion. He may be reached at csillag@rogers. com.

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