IM this article to a friend!

May 5, 2005

Deaf probe God's truths

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - May 5, 2005

Retreat re-examines 1984 statement of their role

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(May 5, 2005) — It's been more than 20 years since 10 people composed a document to help explain the role God has for the deaf as part of the Christian Liberation movement.

Named after the Claggett Retreat Center in Buckeystown, Md., where it was drafted during the four-day retreat in 1984, several of its original authors, including Patrick Graybill of Rochester, are reuniting in Rochester tonight to discuss the Claggett Statement.

"In the beginning, we weren't coming together to write anything, just to explore what it might mean," said Bill Millar, who was pastor of a church for the deaf in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the time. "We would just talk and it was one of those magical times where stuff started to explode."

The group, including deaf people, interpreters and hearing people who work with the deaf, agreed that most deaf people have low self-esteem and think of themselves intellectually, emotionally and spiritually inferior to hearing people.

"On the final day, we drafted a rough statement of our shared faith, hurts and hopes," said Charlotte Baker-Shenk, an ecumenical educator from Sharpsburg, Md. "It says a lot of hard stuff. It's truth telling after years of many secrets. It's bringing out into the light what has been hidden for too long."

Among their other findings:

•"We do not view deafness as a sickness or a handicap. We view it as a gift from God, which has led to the creation of a unique language and culture, worthy of respect and affirmation."

•"The Church generally has not looked upon deaf people as a potential gift or resource to the broader Christian community."

•"Religion has become one more place where deaf people feel they are told to stop being deaf and try to be hearing. They must try to fit into hearing forms of worship with its heavy emphasis on music, its wordy English liturgies and its love for ancient phrases — all through an interpreter they frequently can't understand."

The Claggett statement was printed in Sojourners magazine, which is published by a Christian ministry that attempts to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice.

Graybill, a retired visiting associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said the statement caused a bit of a stir in the hearing community. Some thought it was taking an "us versus them" position, but that was not the writers' intention, Graybill said.

Instead, their meeting led to the formation of Christians for the Liberation of the Deaf Community, a national ecumenical organization of deaf and hearing Christians. The group's leaders met twice a year for about a decade, providing training for members of local deaf communities.

"We focused on deafness as God's gift to the world," Graybill said. "We discussed how to empower deaf people as well as others to realize that it was the truth. Otherwise we would feel negative about being deaf. Once they realized that they are God's children like others and God can understand how they communicate, they will feel good about themselves and become assertive in whatever they hope to be."

Much has changed for the deaf in the past 20 years, and there have been substantial moments of empowerment. One was a major victory in 1988 when deaf students at Gallaudet University in Washington protested until a new college president — one who was deaf — was selected.

And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, meaning more rights for the deaf in education, employment and accessibility, including closed captioning on television.

"There have been a number of victories, but the reality of the challenge of having a subculture within a culture with its own language is still a factor," Millar said.

Millar, who recently found his original handwritten notes he crafted into the Claggett Statement, planned to bring the five pages to tonight's discussion at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, 1100 S. Goodman St.

Also attending will be the Rev. Ray Fleming, who joined the group in 1985. Fleming is pastor of Emmanuel Church of the Deaf in Rochester, which uses Our Lady of Good Counsel Church.

Graybill, a deacon, said he is honored and surprised the Claggett Statement is still viewed as a landmark document.

"I have seen improvements in the deaf community as they can have choices," Graybill said. "Of course there are some obstacles left. I sense that we deaf people are born to be educators."

The event is sponsored by Colgate's Social Justice Committee and the University of Rochester Deaf Studies Cluster.

Copyright 2005 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle