Empowering the Deaf Community within the Church

by | Case Studies, Facilities, Leadership

By Amber Reddig

It can be a very calming experience when a hard of hearing or Deaf person walks into the sanctuary and sees an interpreter chair at the front of the stage. However, an interpreter for the service isn’t the end-all-be-all answer for those individuals coming into your midst. Inclusion in the church goes deeper than just interpreting a simple Sunday service. New Danville Mennonite church in Lancaster, PA, went above and beyond to make sure those who are not able to hear the service are still able to actively participate. 

Start With The Basics

First, they adapted Sunday services to be more deaf-friendly by hiring a seasoned interpreter for services and extracurricular events on the schedule. “We…had open discussions on how to work with an interpreter and proper etiquette,” shared Pastor Robert Brody. It was important that they hire someone willing to put in a little extra time throughout the week.

They also needed someone who would be prepared on Sunday mornings. An interpreter can’t be someone who comes in and just ”wings it,” especially with the difficulty that biblical names can present. In order to do this, they needed a team approach. Ashley Shenk, a Sign Language Interpreter for the church, said it’s important for the Pastor to be “willing to share notes with the interpreter” in order to make the interpretation of the service a success. Likewise, she added, the worship leader needs to share the songs before Sunday morning. And if the primary interpreter is unavailable, a seasoned sub interpreter needs to be called in and given the same notes as the primary interpreter. 

It was important to keep an open chain of communication with the Deaf and hard of hearing individuals in their church as to how the interpreter was doing. Did they enjoy the interpreter or did they prefer someone else? After all, each interpreter has a unique style, and they wanted to make sure they had the right person for their congregation. It only seemed fitting to allow those using the services the most to be the ones choosing who interpreted for them each week. 

Filling Out The ASL Ministry

Next, they wanted to make the church feel more welcoming. They didn’t want anyone hard of hearing or Deaf to sit in the congregation talking only to or through the interpreter. So, they encouraged the congregation to take sign language classes, made available at the church for anyone willing to learn. “[It] shows people care if they take the time to learn the basics to communicate,” Shenk said. The church also made interpreters available at group events upon request, with adequate timing, so if anyone hard of hearing or Deaf desired to attend, they did not feel left out or unable to participate.

The church also made adjustments to items displayed on the screens during the service. Pastor Brody said they “tried to include worship items that were specific to Deaf culture, such as a worship video we used that did not have any actual singing, just ASL and subtitles.” Furthermore, they added signing into music videos or found existing programs like Deaf Missions to interpret Bible verses.

Lasting Benefits

Once those in the Deaf community felt welcomed, they began to form lasting friendships and started to take on church responsibilities. It was important to the church that everyone relates to being an equal member of the body of the church. Having a Deaf or hard of hearing individual in leadership roles was not only welcomed but strongly encouraged. “Even though I didn’t know a lot of ASL, the activity helped drive the conversation and communication,” says Brody. What better way for the church to learn how to improve the way they run their services for the Deaf community than to have someone who thoroughly understands giving suggestions for change? 

Through leadership roles, interpreters, and an understanding congregation, Deaf and hard of hearing individuals can feel included and will thrive in a loving and welcoming atmosphere. Equally, Deaf individuals can teach about their culture, empowering themselves and the rest of the church to be more inclusive. This kind of inclusion takes time and planning but makes the church a better place for a broader part of the community.

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