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May 12, 2007

Sounds of silence: Deaf congregation meets for service every Sunday at Faith Community Church

From: Journal Times - Racine,WI,USA - May 12, 2007

by Lee B. Roberts

Journal Times

The worship service starts out much like that of other Christian congregations. People file into the pews, prayers are said, songs are sung and announcements are made.

What sets the 10:45 a.m. Sunday service at Faith Community Church, 215 S. Newman Road, apart from most other worship services is the quiet that envelops the sanctuary when it begins. This service, led by the Rev. Richard Steinbach, is that of a deaf congregation.

Since those who attend the service, including Steinbach, cannot hear, there is no organ music and very few spoken words. Instead, the pastor and others who help lead the service communicate with sign language and facial expression. And members respond in the same fashion.

Some members use their voices, as well as their hands, to sing. But most of the service is silent, yet very lively, as the enthusiasm of both the pastor and the small group of parishioners is evident in their animated communications.

Like many church services, this one is a mix of serious reflection and storytelling, with moments of lighthearted humor. The sermon the day we visited was titled "Ask for the Old Paths," and dealt with the pathways that early Christians were commanded to follow by Jesus Christ, and how they relate to the different paths people can choose from today.

It is an atmosphere that people such as Lynne Ziolkowski really appreciate being able to worship in.

"It definitely feels different than going to a hearing church," said Ziolkowski, who has been worshipping with the deaf congregation for about three years. "It feels much better. It is so much easier for me to be with deaf people."

Not only does the deaf congregation provide a more direct worship experience than one done through an interpreter, it also gives them a greater sense of family worshipping with people who understand the deaf culture, members say.

Violet Coleman, who has worshipped with a number of different congregations through the years, said she feels very much at home with the deaf congregation.

"I never liked being in church when I didn't understand what was happening," she said.

Partners in worship

The deaf congregation, which has no official name, exists in partnership with that of Faith Community Church, a hearing congregation. The community church holds its own services just prior to those of the deaf group, and then offers Pastor Steinbach and his parishioners use of its sanctuary and classrooms on Sundays. The two congregations also worship together once a month, with a sign language interpreter present.

"We are a family together," said Steinbach. "We get together on the first Sunday of the month, with interpreters for the communion service. After service we have Family Gathering, and we share the testimonies and prayers.

"It is a blessing to get together so the hearing congregation can get to know the deaf better," he said. "They even took up a sign language class that we provided. We are all on the same team."

Members of the deaf congregation are very thankful to Faith Community Church for its support.

"Faith Community is very supportive of this ministry and what we stand for," said Randall Suhr, a member of the deaf congregation who helps lead the services. "There are wonderful people here, with a real sense of community."

Suhr said he hopes that more people will come to know the deaf congregation and understand that they have the option of worshipping this way.

"I want them to know that God has a place for them in life," he said.

Reaching out

Steinbach, who has been leading the deaf congregation for about eight years, said he is also grateful for the opportunity to serve with Pastor Dino Galati and Pastor Keith ???? (I'm checking this), of Faith Community Church.

Other churches in Wisconsin offer deaf ministries, he said, but in many cases it involves using a sign language interpreter during the regular, hearing services.

Deaf churches have been around since the 19th century, when the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet established a deaf congregation that eventually grew into St. Ann's Church for the Deaf (still active today in New York City), but they are few and far between. The first church to have an ordained deaf pastor was Philadelphia's All Souls Church, which ordained Henry Syle in 1876.

"It is my desire to see more deaf pastors to minister the deaf congregations throughout Wisconsin," Steinbach said. "In the United States, only about one percent of the deaf go to church, while many of them have no way of knowing Jesus Christ, as their Savior."

For information about the deaf congregation, contact Pastor Steinbach at

More information about Faith Community Church is available at

or by calling (262) 886-3766.

© 2007 Journal Times