No Barriers for Deaf People at FMHouston

Submitted by: Dr. Julie Howard | Email: docjhoward@gmail.com | URL: http://redefiningdeaf.com

A national policy adopted by First Methodist Houston, Texas to uphold true accessibility.

Theological/Biblical Stance:
Christians have believed and taught from the very beginning that God is the Creator of all people, that Jesus came to save all people, and that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to all people. And yet we know that over time, the Church has grown and continues to grow in its understanding of this inclusive doctrine.

The Deaf Community takes to heart the mandate in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and making them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (28:19-20) Deaf Christians are painfully aware that over 27 million Deaf or hard of hearing persons (“The Deaf Nation”) find church doors partially or completely closed to them. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Yet, how shall the Deaf and hard of hearing come to believe, and how shall they have eternal life, unless and until the larger community of faith embraces them, as Jesus did, and removes the barriers to communication?

Those who have been fortunate enough to have received the Word of God, and the grace of baptism, long for the larger church to reach out to their Deaf brothers and sisters who have not heard the good news. They cry out, in the name of the very God that the Church continues to preach and incarnate, “I have seen the suffering of my people…and heard their cries…and will deliver them.” (Exodus 3:7-8) God Himself reminded Moses and reminds us: “Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)

Truly, as the church grows in understanding of the human and divine call to inclusivity, the Deaf Community in our midst has stood as a silent minority on the margins of our awareness, our allocation of resources, our evangelical outreach and mission priority. Surely, the time has come for the Church to cry out in the ancient words of Isaiah (43:8-19) “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!…I work and who can hinder it?…I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and the rivers in the desert.” For the Deaf Community, whose eyes are their ears, and whose hands are their voices, the prophetic voice of the Bible is a message of hope.
Join us as we take this message to heart!

Barriers in Church Settings
ALL persons who have a hearing loss typically face major frustrations and barriers in church settings. In North America, that means that over 27 million people find church doors partially or completely closed to them. Here are some typical stories that are told by countless persons:

“I grew up sitting in church next to my parents, not understanding a word. I was bored and angry that I had to sit still with nothing to do. My mother let me doodle on the church bulletin but that didn’t hold my interest for very long. I hated Sundays. Now as an adult, I’m glad I don’t have to go there anymore.”

“I went to a church a few years ago that advertised they were providing “sign language interpretation” for their main service. Great! I eagerly showed up and sat down in front. But when the interpreter started signing, I could hardly understand a thing! It was painful to watch her the whole service. Afterward, I went up to her to ask how she learned sign language. At first, she couldn’t understand me, but then when she finally did, she said she was enrolled in her SECOND COURSE!! She also confessed she didn’t understand the theological language of the pastor very well. Needless to say, I didn’t go back again.”

“I was very active in the church, taught Sunday School for many years and served on the boards of various women’s groups. But then I started to loose my hearing and stopped understanding what was going on. I became very depressed and isolated. I don’t go to church any more.”

“For several years, I went to a church that provided an interpreter who was fairly skilled. I learned a lot but felt very uncomfortable during all those long, boring songs which hearing people love so much. The interpreter did her best to sign them clearly – but all that archaic language with ideas fitted together because they rhyme just didn’t do anything for me! Also, the worship services were so “verbal”, so many words without visual images and or any drama. As I became more empowered in my identity as a Deaf person, I no longer felt willing to just tag along and sit passively through a worship service that didn’t really speak to my heart. I left. But I wish we could have a Deaf worship service with leaders who use my language and share the message visually.”

What can be done about these and other common barriers? This is a question that FMHouston took as an important one. A question that was vital to the growth of it’s family, both hearing and Deaf.

Observations of Hearing Church Members
It has become clear to many hearing persons who have worked in Deaf ministry for a number of years that their efforts have frequently not been successful. In fact, despite years of ministry efforts, perhaps less than 10% of the deaf community is churched. And some Deaf persons have had unusually negative experience in churches. Many hearing members now realize that this lack of success has, in part, been due to a number of problems.

“We have lacked the linguistic ability and cultural sensitivity to listen to the Deaf community. We have not recognized the uniqueness of Deaf culture. We have made decisions for Deaf and hard of hearing persons. We have exerted control over Deaf ministry and have imposed a “hearing” perspective on it. We have perpetuated a model of Deaf ministry which has had limited success in effectively proclaiming the Gospel.”

“Many of us now commit ourselves to listen to the deaf community and to hard of hearing persons. While we listen, we accept that we will not speak for Deaf or hard of hearing persons. We will experience a change in status and a re-defining of our role. We will work to stretch current church structures so that Deaf and hard of hearing persons may assume their rightful roles as leaders, visionaries, etc.”

Now is the time for us to use their gifts and experience to facilitate the empowerment of Deaf leaders who can then work effectively in their communities to share the good news of God’s love.

Ecumenical Imperative
Because the Deaf (deaf or hard of hearing persons) in many local communities may be few in number, this ministry begs for inter-denominational, inter congregational collaboration to meet a long list of goals and objectives. Although we know that having all of them in place would make for a “perfect world”, First Methodist Downtown Houston’s Redefining Deaf Ministry is seeking to accomplish as many of them as possible over time. For Deaf people who use American Sign Language as their primary language and who identify with Deaf cultural values, FMHouston opens it’s arms and welcomes everyone into the church family. To view this article in full, which includes the list of goals and objectives mentioned, please visit http://redefiningdeaf.com.

About Dr. Julie Howard

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