Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Deaf church makes a new beginning

Hearing pastor with signing skills takes the helm at Bread of Life Lutheran in south Minneapolis

Ministry to deaf Christians is not unusual. Many Twin Cities congregations — more than 70 Lutheran congregations by one count — provide sign language interpreters for their worship services. But a worship service conducted entirely in sign language is a lot less common.

That’s what makes Bread of Life Lutheran Church (BOLD) in the Seward neighborhood of south Minneapolis unique. The 50-plus-year-old congregation is the only ELCA deaf parish in Minnesota. In recent times, the congregation has struggled with declining membership, worship attendance, and financial support. This past January, the congregation had to take a sobering look at the possibility of closing its doors for good.

That’s when members of the congregation asked Susan Masters to step in and help them discern whether closing was in the near future. The recent Luther Seminary graduate is a familiar face at Bread of Life. “This isn’t the first time I have served here,” she told Metro Lutheran. “Before I went to seminary, I served here twice as an interim — for 14 months in 1996-97 and then for eight months more in 2001-02.”

Masters thought she was coming in to help close the church, but the congregation decided there was still work to be done, and ministry to be carried out. “So we have fired back up and we are turning the ship around,”  she said. “It’s been an amazing learning opportunity for me to witness resurrection in a community of faith.”

So, what gives a hearing pastor a passion for deaf ministry? In Masters’ case, it was a family matter. “My sister is deaf, so I grew up signing. Over the years, my ministry path just kept bringing me back to the deaf community.”

Worship at Bread of Life, located one block north of Lake Street not far from the Mississippi River, is an intimate experience. “In January, we were averaging 25 people on Sunday,” Masters explains. “Now we are averaging about 50, and financial support is slowly increasing. We thought we would be closing, and now we need to think about getting a Sunday school program in place for the fall.”

Historically, deaf Christians are less tied to denominations than those in the hearing community. “Deaf people tend to choose congregations that provide them access,” Masters says. “A deaf person may be a lifelong Baptist, but if the Methodist church provides a sign language interpreter, she or he will likely go there. Access will often trump loyalties to a particular denomination.”

The Rev. Beth Lockard is national coordinator of deaf ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A deaf woman, she is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Westchester, Pennsylvania. “Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran is one of the eight or nine churches in the nation that is led by deaf people, and the only one that owns its own building,” Lockard told Metro Lutheran. “We hope Pastor Masters’ leadership will empower BOLD to continue its mission and ministry with and among the deaf community whose eyes are their ears.”

Twin Cities Lutherans might like to broaden their horizons with a visit to Sunday worship at Bread of Life Lutheran. The congregation is located at 2901 38th Avenue South in Minneapolis. Worship begins at 10:30 a.m. “Our services are conducted in American Sign Language, but we provide voice interpreters for hearing folks who do not sign. If we expect hearing churches to provide access to deaf folks, then of course we will offer access to hearing folks who visit or belong to our church.”

The voting members at this spring’s Minneapolis Area Synod Assembly got a taste of what “deaf worship” is like. One entire service during the assembly was led by members of Bread of Life congregation. Participants learned that deaf people show their appreciation not by clapping but rather by waving their hands in the air, which is visible. And the preferred music at a deaf service has a strong, heavy beat, which participants can actually feel.

There are 40,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the state of Minnesota. A large number of them live in the Twin Cities, where more services for the deaf are available. Masters says there’s more awareness among the general population these days toward the needs of deaf people. “Providing access to any community that needs it is both an evangelism and an ethical issue,” she says.

One way hearing congregations can offer accessibility for deaf people is to provide sign language interpreters in their worship services. “Bread of Life is available as a resource to help Lutheran congregations explore how to become more accessible to the deaf community,” says Masters, “as well as how to welcome and meet the spiritual needs of their deaf members.”

Congregations may also want to consider becoming partners with Bread of Life Lutheran. Financial support is important, although the parish isn’t looking for handouts. While the congregation would welcome infusions of cash in the short term, Masters explained that for the long term Bread of Life wants and needs to become financially self-sufficient.

“We’ve gotten good support in the past from both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Area Synods,” said Masters. “But perhaps we have been too dependent upon that outside support, which has hurt our stewardship efforts.” In good Lutheran theological style, she sums up with a paradox: “In the long term, we must become more financially independent, but in the short term, we need financial partners.”

For more information about Bread of Life congregation, call the church office at 612/721-4292.