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December 27, 2004

A 'sound doctrine': Bethel Deaf Fellowship helps hearing-impaired worship

From: Northwest Arkansas Times - Fayetteville,AR,USA - Dec 27, 2004

BY KIRK KRAMER Northwest Arkansas Times

Posted on Monday, December 27, 2004


The Bethel Deaf Fellowship, pastored by the Rev. Rocky Shifflett, has recently moved into their own building on North Salem Road, a few blocks north of Fayetteville's Holcomb Elementary School. The numbers at Shifflett's congregation may not match larger churches in the region, but the faith and sense of purpose of his parishioners are strong. "God wants this house to welcome the deaf community to come and worship him," said Shifflett before teaching his Sunday school class yesterday. "We emphasize Christ. My heart reaches out to the deaf to lead them to the Lord."

Providing a place of their own for deaf people to worship has been a cooperative effort by several clergymen of the Southern Baptist Church. But the spark was lit, and the flame coaxed to life, by a laywoman who was not content with a passive role for herself and other deaf Christians. Priscilla Scanlan wanted deaf people to assume a leadership role in the life and worship of the church. "I have never seen a church where deaf people become ushers or help take up the collection," said the Fayetteville native. "They just sit to one side and watch, without participating."

Scanlan moved back to Fayetteville in 1993 to care for her aging parents. Her father was the Rev. Paul Bond, longtime pastor of the Elkins Community Church. "The first thing I wanted to know was, is there a deaf church, a place where I can go and worship?" she said Sunday.

Scanlan did not find a deaf service, but she found two services which were interpreted. "Interpreted services are good, but it's more like secondhand information," she said.

Shifflett's wife Cynthia, a hearing person who interprets her husband's sermons as he preaches them in sign language, said that some deaf people find interpreted services unsatisfying. "They want more of their own sense of belonging than when they are part of a hearing church," said the pastor's wife.

Scanlan said that deaf people worship differently. The services are "spoken" in sign language, and the music is loud, allowing the members of the congregation literally to feel the music's vibrations. Overhead projectors are used to display pictures, or the words of hymns.

When Scanlan's parents died and left her a house, she found that renting it was not a success. After one tenant tore the place up, she said she prayed, "Lord, what do you want me to do?"

In the fall of 2002, a church for deaf people began meeting in the house, with five members. Once a month, an old friend of Scanlan's from Kansas City came to Fayetteville to preach for the small congregation.

In 2003, as attendance grew and the congregation outgrew Scanlan's house, officials of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention helped find larger venues in other church buildings.

The Baldwin and Ridgeview Baptist churches allowed the Bethel congregation to conduct worship at their buildings.

In December 2003, Rocky Shifflett, a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and former president of the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf, traveled to Fayetteville from his Ohio home to preach a revival. Scanlan and her husband Buzz had met Shifflett and his family years before at Baptist conventions for the deaf.

The congregation and local church officials, impressed by Shifflett's abilities and what Scanlan described as the minister's "sound doctrine," began working to find the wherewithal to bring Shifflett to Fayetteville as the Bethel Fellowship's full-time pastor.

With the help of area congregations, Scanlan said the congregation was able to make Shifflett an offer. "He accepted — lo and behold, here he is," said Scanlan.

Twice after Shifflett's arrival in April, Scanlan heard about an empty church house at 3340 N. Salem Road. Each time she thought there was no way the congregation could afford its own building, having just assumed a share of the responsibility for the support of a full-time pastor.

Then one Monday the Rev. Joe Jones of the Shiloh Community Church approached Shifflett and asked if his congregation would like to use the building on North Salem. "I turned God down twice," said Scanlan. "I couldn't turn him down again."

The congregation moved into the building in October.

They hold worship services on Sundays at 3 p.m. Church school is at 2 p.m. Besides the adult Sunday school class taught by the pastor, his 19-year-old son Jason teaches a class for both deaf and hearing youth. A Wednesday evening prayer service begins at 7 p.m.

Sunday attendance averages 20 to 25, but has been as high as 51.

The Southern Baptist Convention publishes literature written by deaf people, for deaf people. The denomination's Sunday school board also produces a special Sunday school curriculum for the deaf, which the Bethel congregation uses.

Cynthia Shifflett said that interpreting sign language requires special training. "Just because you can sign does not mean you can interpret into English. Deaf people think in concepts based on signing. The concepts [in American Sign Language] are in pictures. I have to change them into English. It's harder to voice in English than to interpret in sign."

The Shiffletts' four children all have normal hearing. However, English was their second language. "When the children were little I wanted them to learn to sign first, so I didn't talk," said Cynthia Shifflett, who works part-time as an interpreter at the University of Arkansas. "They could all sign before they could talk. Signing was our main mode of communication, especially when Daddy was home."

Scanlan's old house, the one that served as the congregation's first home, now serves as a parsonage for the Shiffletts.

Rocky Shifflett, who worked as a draftsman before studying for the ministry, has served churches in his native Texas, Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.

The congregation has a Website: http: // betheldeaf/

The church e-mail address is betheldeaf@yahoo. com; its phone number is 571-1930 (TTY).

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