[Episcopal News Service] When the Rev. Marianne Stuart celebrates Eucharist on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama, the worshipers may be in pews a few hours south in Mobile or more than a day’s drive north in New York.
The hearing daughter of deaf parents, Stuart simultaneously signs and speaks services as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf in the Diocese of Alabama. Her weekly Eucharists are “livestreamed” over the Internet using Skype to allow Episcopalians in deaf congregations without priests to participate in the service at their own locations and receive the bread and wine using reserved sacraments from local parishes. Stuart also sends DVDs of each week’s upcoming Gospel and sermon to about 30 addresses – mostly for individuals, but also a handful of churches that use them during Morning Prayer and one woman who uses the Gospel for a deaf Bible study in North Carolina. Elsewhere, Episcopal churches such as St. James’ in Hackettstown, New Jersey, offer American Sign Language interpretation of their services.
It’s all part of an effort to minister to the spiritual needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people and is the latest incarnation in a long history of deaf ministries within the Episcopal Church.
“The Episcopal Church began ministry among deaf people more than 150 years ago – when the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet began services in sign language in New York City in 1852,” reports the website of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf. Gallaudet began St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf – believed to be the first organized church for deaf people in any denomination – and organized other Episcopal deaf congregations throughout the country.
The Episcopal Church also was the first denomination to ordain a deaf person – the Rev. Henry Winter Syle in 1876, according to the website. He and Gallaudet share a feast day (Aug. 27) on the Episcopal calendar.
Gallaudet’s father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, “was the one who brought sign language and the idea of education for the deaf to the U.S.,” Stuart noted. And his brother, Edward Miner Gallaudet, “founded Gallaudet College, now University, with congressional support and Abraham Lincoln’s signature in 1864. This is the only liberal arts university specifically dedicated to the education of the deaf in the world.”
The Episcopal Church probably has 25 deaf churches today, most run by hard-of-hearing or deaf lay leaders, said Stuart, ECD president.
Years ago, there were many more deaf priests because “the unemployment opportunities for those who were deaf were limited to things like teachers for the deaf, preachers, manual labor,” she said. “Now, in 2013, the whole world has opened up.” Deaf people today “can be anything they want to be.”
The decrease in deaf priests also reflects general cultural trends, she said. “It’s the same for the hearing churches, too. There aren’t that many young people marching to priesthood.”
The deaf community also is shrinking, said Bishop Philip Duncan of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, which includes St. Mark’s Church for the Deaf in Mobile. “Some of the things that were not able to be cured are able to be changed to allow people to hear, with the Cochlear implant and things like that.”
Stuart’s father was priest-in-charge of St. Mark’s. After he died in 2011, no sign language-proficient priest was available to serve the deaf congregation, located 381 miles from Birmingham. “I am closest, and I could go down there, but I couldn’t go down there very often,” she said.
Then Duncan participated in a service where he received a man into the Episcopal Church via long-distance video connection. The man had recently been deployed by the military. “We could see him, he could see us,” the bishop recalled. “We had him up on a big screen, and everybody in the congregation watched, and it was just fabulous.”
That experience inspired launching similar weekly live broadcasts from Stuart’s church to allow St. Mark’s and other deaf churches to participate in a Eucharist. The distant churches receive the video via laptop and projected it onto a screen in their sanctuaries.
“The idea is, when we go through the service … it’s just like you’re sitting in the pew with me at St. John’s,” Stuart said. “We say the prayers together.”
Unlike passively watching a television broadcast, congregants participate by pausing the live feed and reading the day’s lessons themselves. “When we get to the Gospel, they come back in,” Stuart explained. “I read the Gospel. I give them the sermon. And then they all join back in to the Nicene Creed. … I go slow, and I give directions on what’s coming next.”
When it’s time to deliver Communion, lay eucharistic ministers in the local deaf churches use presanctified bread and wine, Stuart said.
So far, four churches, including St. Ann’s, have used the livestreamed services, either regularly or intermittently.
St. Ann’s congregation first met at New York University in 1852 and today worships in the lower chapel at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York. It “attracts deaf, deaf/blind, hard-of-hearing, multiply handicapped as well as hearing individuals from other communities including university students interested in learning about deaf culture and participating in our Holy Eucharist,” said lay eucharistic minister and worship leader Evelyn Schafer, who is deaf, in an interview via e-mail.
“As [the] Rev. Thomas Gallaudet taught us, we welcome everyone. Our congregants are from a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds; this makes us very diverse in our ministry. On any given Sunday one can expect between 15 to 35 or more participants. After the service we provide a hot lunch, as many deaf [people] travel from afar in the metropolitan area to attend the services.”
St. Ann’s previous priest, the Rev. Maria Santiviago, retired in 2011. A deaf supply priest, the Rev. William Erich Krengel of Connecticut, now preaches once or twice a month and officiates at services using his voice and sign language. The other Sundays, the church uses Stuart’s DVD and/or the livestream, said Schafer, one of two lay members leading the church. “The use of the DVD has been a blessing. The livestream has some technical problems which must be resolved.”
The congregation also holds an increasing number of ASL-interpreted joint services with its host Parish of Calvary-St. George’s and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Schafer said.
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church of the Deaf, a mission started by Thomas Gaullaudet in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, also has used the live video but not frequently because the services are broadcast at 11 a.m. but the East Coast church typically worships at 10 a.m., said licensed eucharistic minister Thomas Hattaway. Deaf since he was 18 months old, he communicated over the phone through an interpreter, with whom he was connected via videophone.
About 40 members belong to the church, with 10 to 15 attending on an average Sunday, meeting in the chapel at St. John’s Norwood in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he said. Like St. Ann’s, St. Barnabas is between priests, with Hattaway and two other lay ministers leading the congregation. Sometimes, he leads Morning Prayer. Sometimes guest preachers – including Lutheran ministers – will visit.
Hattaway makes some pastoral visits. “In the past, we did have interpreters who would come in and interpret for people who were deaf and blind,” he said. The church also had a children’s ministry. “Without having a priest in place, everything’s been kind of put on hold at this point.”
St. Ann’s, which the Diocese of New York considered closing before Santiviago arrived in 2007, continues a variety of ministries beyond Sunday services, Schafer said. A Thursday Outreach Ministry provides an opportunity for socializing.
“Some of our congregants are homeless, unemployed and isolated,” she said. “In order to help them grow, they require motivation and encouragement. Therefore, we have expanded our Thursday program by exposing our congregants to various social and educational programs in the community and beyond.”
A General Theological Seminary student, Deacon Arlette Benoit, recently led Bible classes for the church, which she has chosen as the place where she will officiate at her first service after becoming ordained a priest, Schafer.
Offering ASL-interpreted services
While not all dioceses have deaf churches, some congregations throughout the church offer ASL-interpreted services. ECD provides funding for up to three years to help congregations establish interpreted services and also provides grants to pay part-time clergy salaries or to assist deaf seminarians, Stuart said. ECD receives funding from the Episcopal Church – $24,000 over the current triennium – and also supports itself with endowments and donations, she said.
The Diocese of Newark’s deaf ministry is housed at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Hackettstown, New Jersey, which offers sign-language interpretation for all its services and events. The church’s deacon, the Rev. Sheila Shuford, is deaf, and the rector, the Rev. Cathy Deats, herself an interpreter, is hard-of-hearing.
“We do mostly information and referral,” Deats said. In 2012, the ministry reported to diocesan convention that its outreach efforts included six months of chaplaincy services to deaf patients at a psychiatric hospital, mentoring a deacon postulant regarding deaf ministry and providing emergency interpreting services to Hackettstown’s hospital.
According to the report, 17 percent of American adults – 36 million people – report some degree of hearing loss. “The hard-of-hearing and late-deafened (becoming deaf in adulthood) are by far the majority of people with hearing loss which our churches will encounter.”
Having experienced hearing loss herself, Deats, who has worked as both interpreter and deputy at General Convention as well as signing at diocesan events, understands the frustration of trying to follow what’s being said. “People don’t realize, it’s not volume. It’s the size of the room. It’s background noise.” Wearing an assisted listening device may mean “you can’t hear anything that doesn’t come through a microphone.”
But people at a meeting may ignore repeated requests to use the microphone or repeat a question.
“At some point, you give up,” she said. “After awhile, I’d say, ‘I’ll get what I can get, and maybe I’ll think twice about going to such a meeting,’ because it’s frustrating, and I don’t want to be the one – oh, there’s that pain … who’s always talking about microphones.”
In advocating for deaf churches, “There are a number of deaf people who are fearful that their culture of deafness and language will be lost. I share the fear about the language,” Deats said.
But she also thinks there is a tremendous mission opportunity in reaching out to those with some hearing loss.
“There’s such a huge population of hard-of-hearing individuals,” she said. “I can’t believe we can’t include them in some kind of outreach. … It affects more and more people. We’re all going there, like it or not: If you get old enough, you’re not going to hear as well.”
She added, “I really do respect a deaf person wanting to be in worship where they don’t have to watch an interpreter. I think there should be deaf liturgy, no question about it.”
With an interpreted service, Deats said, “you have to watch constantly” and pay attention to both the person talking and the interpreter. “Then there’s the responsive readings. We read the psalms like our pants are on fire, and that’s almost impossible for a deaf person to participate in, whereas in a deaf service they make accommodation for that.”
Hattaway attended church with an interpreter in Florida and now attends St. Barnabas in the Washington, D.C. area. He’s comfortable with either an interpreter or signed service, he said. “It doesn’t matter, either way.”
But Schafer said she feels more comfortable at St. Ann’s. “At our deaf church, the sermons are shorter and consequently less tiring on the eye. I feel more connected to the priest as he invites us to ask questions after his sermon. In a hearing church, there is a greater physical distance between me and the priest. Also, although interpreters are useful and necessary, they create an invisible barrier between a deaf person and the priest.”
“I grew up in the hearing world struggling to understand and to learn about my Christian faith in a hearing church,” she said. “I attended hearing services, studied in Bible classes, was confirmed but did not hear my ministers and teachers. I depended on the reading of books to teach myself. I also depended on my family, especially my loving mother who took the extra time to assist in my religion and educational growth.”
Today, she feels she has the best of both churches: St. Ann’s and the hearing church that supports and sometimes worships with them, Calvary-St. George’s, she said.
And she appreciates her church’s history, as America’s first church for the deaf, she said. “I enjoy sharing the history of St. Ann’s with people from all over the country and the world. I can fully share my faith with other deaf and hearing people alike.”
— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent. Churches or individuals interested in learning more about the DVDs or livestreamed services from St. John’s can contact Marianne Stuart at firstname.lastname@example.org.