Deaf Lutherans discuss the struggles of being church
Imagine being the pastor of a congregation in which: 1) your members grew
up attending church, but everything — the worship service, Sunday school,
Bible studies — was conducted in a language they could not understand …
and interpreters were not provided; 2) your members were told that there is
biblical proof that they are incapable of having faith; and 3) as soon as they
became adults, most of them would leave the church and return only very
In July, nine such pastors and lay ministers, engaged in deaf ministry,
attended the bi-ennial retreat of the Evangelical Lutheran Deaf Association
(ELDA) of the ELCA in Roseville, Minnesota. Half the leaders were themselves
deaf, and all sessions were conducted in American Sign Language (ASL).
For three days, these leaders enjoyed a rare opportunity — to discuss with
their colleagues the struggles and joys unique to deaf ministry. What follows
is part one of a two-part interview discussion that includes Russ Rockwell
(Pennsylvania), Mark Koterwski (South Dakota), Beth Lockard (Pennsylvania),
Dorothy Sparks (Minneapolis), Don Rosenkjar (Los Angeles), Dayton William
(Chicago), Sarah Anders (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), Gisele Berninghaus
(Appleton, Wisconsin), and Susan Masters (Minneapolis). The one signing is
identified by their initials.
Metro Lutheran: Talk a little bit about some of the unique struggles you face
in deaf ministry.
BL: It’s generally believed that more than 90% of the nation’s deaf population
is unchurched. There are many reasons for that. For many years some
denominations taught that because the Bible says faith comes by hearing the
word of God, deaf people cannot have faith. Imagine that being the good
news the church shares with you: ‘You’re not capable of faith!’ So that’s our
starting point, where we begin our ministry.
SA: One of our biggest challenges is figuring out how to neutralize that
message and convince deaf people to return to the church once they have
GB: Colleagues in hearing ministry sometimes do not understand the nature
or added stresses of deaf ministry. Most pastoral tasks in a deaf setting
typically take twice as much time. Because ASL is a visual, manual language
— not written down, and quite different from English in terms of grammar
and structure — resources available to hearing congregations typically do not
work as well for deaf congregations. Consequently, pastors often end up
having to create their own curricula for Bible studies, confirmation, adult
DS: If I want to attend a synodical event or a conference that will enhance my
pastoral skills, I have to work out arrangements to have a sign language
interpreter there first. Everything has an added layer — and expense — for
ML: How is deaf worship different than hearing worship?
DW: Hearing congregations tend to go home when worship is over. My deaf
members have stayed as long as four hours after we’ve ended worship! Deaf
folks are so isolated during the week, and church gives them an opportunity
to see their friends, catch up, socialize.
DR: Deaf worship is more interactive. While hearing worshipers tend to sit
quietly throughout a worship service, deaf worshipers constantly interact with
one another and the preacher the whole time. It’s not unusual for the
preacher to ask questions and the congregation to answer back, like a teacher
DS: There’s a strong sense of not wanting to miss anything. Remember, deaf
folks have grown up excluded from so many sources of information that
hearing people take for granted — the radio, television, cubicle conversation
at work. They are hungry for information, even at church. They want to learn
and make up for that lost information.
DR: Because our language is manual and not spoken, we tend to be highly
visual. We love the liturgical colors, the banners, the incense. Everything that
bombards our other senses is wonderful! And because ours is not a written
language, storytelling is quite valued in the deaf community. Deaf churches
like to “act out” the stories of the Old Testament and the Gospels instead of
just read them.
RR: Again, because deaf people tend to be more isolated during the week,
passing the peace allows for an opportunity to make contact with one
another. In a deaf worship, you make sure you pass the peace to everyone! It
simply wouldn’t be acceptable to leave someone out!
These ministry leaders will discuss other unique issues and opportunities
facing the deaf community and its worship and outreach in the second part of
this discussion in the September issue of Metro Lutheran.