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February 13, 2005

Signing to God

From: Columbia Missourian, MO - Feb 13, 2005

A Fulton church is focused on meeting the spiritual needs of the deaf

February 13, 2005

Music bursts from two speakers set up in front of the basement meeting room. More than 70 pairs of hands move in the air and clap to the beat of the song. Although the sounds of piano and guitar reverberate deep in the chests of those signing their praises to God, the vast majority of the congregants cannot hear a note of the music.

And although their song is unspoken, they know God hears every word.

First Baptist Church began a deaf ministry in 1900. Over the years, its membership has waxed and waned. More than a century later, though, an independent deaf church has begun meeting in the basement of First Baptist's annex in Fulton.

The seeds were planted by the church's leaders, Amber Shorter and Rebecca Pursley. They attended a seminary for the deaf in Costa Rica to prepare for their mission and are now working together to grow a love for God in the hearts of the deaf in mid-Missouri.

"Our purpose is to reach all deaf people no matter what the denomination," says Shorter, communicating with the help of Pursley, who can hear.

And for God's word to reach deaf people, Pursley says, they must experience him in their own language — in this case, sign language. Shorter is quick to mention that the deaf have their own culture, as well.

"Hearing sit in rows," Shorter says. "Deaf sit in circles. Hearing use fancy words and flowing music; the deaf use a drum beat. Their bodies move with the music. Hearing go back and forth in the Bible looking at scriptures. The deaf get lost when looking for them."

Shorter compared a deaf person attending a hearing church to someone engulfed by a culture that was not her own with no one to translate the words and meaning of the service. "The deaf culture is a story culture," Pursley says.

Angie Esser felt lost in a hearing church. She met Shorter on her first day in Fulton, when she arrived to take a job at the Missouri School for the Deaf.

"I grew up in a Catholic Church with my parents." Esser says. "My mom interpreted for me. I never felt a strong bond with that church. I also never understood salvation or things about God. I learned the signs for the Lord's Prayer and signed along every Sunday but never really understood what it meant.

"One Sunday, Amber (Shorter) stood up and did the Lord's Prayer in American Sign Language," she says. "I didn't understand it until that day when I saw it in my own language. Now, when I go back to the Catholic Church I understand the words and phrases. My faith has improved since coming here."

Many other deaf people experience the same type of disconnect with family members who aren't deaf.

Ninety percent of deaf children are born into hearing families, Pursley says, and the feeling of missing out on things is almost universal.

Pursley says that someone once told her God spoke only English, not sign language. Such shared experiences create a strong bond among the deaf and speak to the importance of having a deaf church, not just an interpreted service.

"It creates the attitude, 'You're deaf, I'm deaf, we don't need to know anything else,'" Shorter says. "The deaf need to know that God speaks their language and knows their culture."

Please see SIGNING, page 9C

Esser says she understands God's word better when she attends the deaf church. "God's message is important," she says, "and I want nothing to be lost."

Shorter and Pursley work hard toward that end. They experienced some of the fruits of God's work on Jan. 23, when in a joint session with the hearing of First Baptist Church, the congregations gathered for the baptism of a deaf couple, Floyd and Delores Peckenpaugh. As the Peckenpaughs were submerged in the baptismal waters, the whole congregation's arms rose, hands shaking high in a visual sign of support.

Pursley learned sign language out of necessity. She grew up with a brain tumor and suffered frequent seizures. In 1995, her doctor informed Pursley that she needed to have surgery that could result in the loss of her speech. A year before her surgery, Pursley and her mom began taking sign language classes.

"Through my prayers, I asked God to preserve my speech," Pursley says. "I made the proposal (that) if he gave me my speech, I would use my sign language and my speech to glorify him."

Her ability to speak was preserved, and she now uses her sign language skills to introduce others to God. The Peckenpaughs were among the first.

"I started coming in October," Floyd Peckenpaugh says. "I attended other churches in the past. I didn't understand what the verses said or what was going on, but in a deaf church there is more sign, so I understand. I no longer feel upset inside. I feel peace."

After the baptism, about one third of the congregation rose and headed across the street to the annex for the deaf service. The group ranged from young Missouri School for the Deaf students to gray-haired men and women.

Twenty minutes lapsed from the baptism to the start of the rest of the service. No one showed signs of impatience.

Please read SILENT, page 9C

"It's not uncommon to start late," says Tessi Muskrat, a member of First Baptist's congregation. "We call it deaf time."

Conversation went on throughout the room, with Muskrat interpreting for the hearing. The quiet was occasionally punctuated by a punch of laughter. Then, the lights flashed and everyone turned toward the front of the room, where Shorter was preparing to begin the service, which opened with prayer. While the person who led the prayer closed her eyes, everyone else watched as she signed the words to God. When the prayer was over, the sounds of hands slapping echoed through the room as the worshippers signed "Amen."

Next, the congregation sang three songs, with the deaf members signing the words. The pastor who gave that morning's sermon was visiting from St. Louis where he ministers to a deaf church. Although he can hear, he didn't use his voice nor mouth the words. The hearing in the congregation strained to listen to Muskrat as she quietly interpreted. She paused at times when the pastor signed phrases that didn't translate into English.

The deaf congregation's eyes were glued to the pastor; if they looked away, they might miss something he said. The room was quiet, the flow of air from the heater vents and the hum of the fluorescent lights nearly the only sound.

The sermon was followed by announcements. The deaf congregation has many opportunities to be involved, from weekly Wednesday night Bible studies to youth camps.

After the service, the group left the annex and crossed the street to First Baptist's main building. There was still more visiting to be done, and some hot chili ready to eat.

Shorter described herself as a brand-new Christian when she began to attend First Baptist in 2000, drawn by the Sunday school class for the deaf. She never thought she'd eventually become the leader of the church.

"On my first Sunday there, Pastor told me, 'You will be the future deaf leader.'" Shorter says. "I thought he was nuts, but I took his words before God and asked him what truth they held."

Copyright © 2005 Columbia Missourian