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God of Life, See Our Prayer: Deaf Episcopalians Demand Real Inclusion

screen_shot_2015-06-22_at_9.43.16_amBy Gail Goldsmith, staff writer

When Dick Mahaffy prayed the Prayers of the People in the General Convention Eucharist Thursday morning, he saw the deacon bidding the congregation to say the words: “God of Life, hear our prayer.” He watched as the interpreter signed, “God of Life, see our prayer,” in American Sign Language. In his heart, his prayer was: “God of Life, accept our prayer.”

Mahaffy, who is profoundly Deaf*, is a postulant in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts studying at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass. His membership in the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf offers an opportunity for advocacy in shaping Church communities.

*According to the National Association of the Deaf, “Deaf” refers to people who share a language, American Sign Language (ASL), and Deaf culture; while “deaf” (lowercase “d”) refers to the audiological condition.

The Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (ECD) is an association that advocates for the Gospel and the sacraments to be experienced in the language and practices of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, lay and ordained. ECD shares worship resources, offers grants and training for religious interpreters, and has advanced legislation at past General Conventions. At this convention, it is focusing on a petition for open captioning in The Episcopal Church’s leadership development materials. That petition can be signed at the ECD booth in the Exhibit Hall.

While The Episcopal Church was the first denomination to have a church for deaf people and the first to ordain deaf persons to Holy Orders in the United States. The Church now has a shortage of deaf clergy, making training resources for clergy and laity particularly valuable in the effort to give life and space to Deaf worship.

“We don’t have a lot of Deaf clergy, but we have a lot of skilled hearing clergy,” said the Rev. Marianne D. Stuart, a hearing child of Deaf adults. Stuart signs and speaks simultaneously. “St. Thomas’ Deaf Episcopal Church in St. Louis has a priest skilled in sign language and lay folks that are too. They partner with a hearing congregation for some services and they also welcome hearing folks,” she said.

Language, Culture and Imagination of Deaf spirituality

Stuart is the priest at St. John’s Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, Ala., which was founded and historically run by Deaf clergy. She also leads services at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf, a small congregation in Mobile. “They lost their priest, he died, so I go down there to lead services every fifth Sunday,” said Stuart. “They are waiting for a signing or Deaf priest to be available to lead them.” The lay Eucharistic ministers lead the services between her visits.

With few Deaf clergy, Deaf worship often depends upon the laity. “I feel very lucky that The Episcopal Church empowers lay leaders. If we depended solely on priests, we would lose so many of the skills and experiences,” the Rev. Erich Krengel said. “Flexible development of leadership in and out of the parish brings people together for Deaf worship.”

Deaf worship depends on the skills of the leadership and the needs of the community. Deaf spirituality happens when worship is centered in what’s essential in the Gospel reading, homily, liturgy and communication, rather than “hearing culture.” For example, when Stuart reads the Gospel, she signs it, using visual language to communicate mood, tone, and emotion, and she turns her body to play off the interpreter, casting them as characters in the Gospel, as if talking to each other.

This creativity allows for a liberating, rather than oppressive, spirit of worship. This is not worship as translated from the idioms of hearing speech to ASL, but worship planned for a Deaf audience, led by a priest within their community, recognizing that Deaf worship needs to reflect the language, culture and imagination of their community:

“Many clergy don’t know how to preach healing. A Deaf man isn’t going to be healed into hearing,” Mahaffy said. “Healing is internal. Healing for me is about being healed out of oppression and isolation…It’s oppressing to have words of hearing in our liturgy. It doesn’t fit our culture.”

Alternatives and Best Practices

ECD also offers a long-distance alternative to trying to train and hire Deaf or signing clergy—a live-streamed service of Holy Eucharist celebrated by Stuart. DVDs also are available. St. Ann’s Episcopal Church of the Deaf, New York City uses live streaming for its service with reserved sacrament.

In a congregation with a hearing priest skilled in sign language, the liturgy might be interpreted in ASL. In a congregation with a priest who does not sign, an interpreter skilled in the use of worship and liturgical signs would be needed—and usually paid by the parishioners who need the service. ECD offers grants for interpretation services. Matching grants require that the church contribute some funds, so it has ownership in creating the conditions for welcome and hospitality to Deaf persons.

“Bishops and priests shouldn’t be concerned with the numbers of how many deaf people go to a church,” Mahaffy said. “Rather it should be about providing ways for the Holy Spirit to enter in, because we are all the Body of Christ.”

No “One Way” to Welcome

ECD provides many options out of the recognition that there is no singular Deaf or deaf experience. “Many Deaf people do not use English,” Stuart said. “It isn’t their language; ASL is. We have to go to them.” Other people may be late-deafened from age, apart from Deaf culture, and not learning ASL. Some use “pure” ASL, which has both distinct signs and word orders; others use ASL signs with English word order. Some people are Hard of Hearing. As there is no singular experience to the narrative, ECD’s message is acceptance of many differences.

Be Open!, ECD’s awareness campaign, complements the big conversations of this General Convention’s conversations: structures of experience around sacraments and the language we use to pray. Be Open! is a reference to “Ephphatha!”—Jesus’s exhortation in Mark 7:34 to a man who is deaf and does not speak, taking these words to be encouragement of expression and healing to liberation.

image “Be Open! is not just about captioning,” Stuart said. “Be open to the differences among us. Be open to the Holy Spirit and you can find wonderful things.”

In encouragement of Deaf leadership and service, Episcopal Conference of the Deaf is organizing for action at this General Convention, but will not be advancing legislation. “We’ve passed resolutions at other General Conventions, but there has been no action, “ said Cass Martensen, secretary and General Convention coordinator for ECD, who is late-deafened, communicates orally with ASL, and is assisted by hearing aids.

Change in Strategy, Change in Accessibility?

ECD is circulating a petition, Open Captioning of Video Materials provided by the Episcopal Church. A Public Petition for General Convention 2015, which calls for the creation of video resources for information and leadership development. “Off and on for 10 years, we’ve been asking politely and there has been no action, so we are trying a different kind of power with this petition,” said Martensen. “We’re planning a fall visit with the next presiding bishop to present our petition.”

The Safeguarding Online training, published by Church Pension Group, is a crucial component of leadership training and often required by dioceses—and, therefore, a frustration when not accessible to those seeking to volunteer. Church Pension Group, which delivers the Safeguarding program, provided this statement over email through its office of communications: Church Pension Group’s Safeguarding program is now delivered predominantly via the web, and our current web modules are or will be formatted for closed captions.”

Currently, the components of the Safeguarding Online training vary in accessibility. The most commonly used training is conducted over audio with no captions. For another, key words appear on screen, while uncaptioned audio plays over, and two videos feature uncaptioned audio, while two others are captioned, without descriptive text.

“We have a lot to offer the greater church,” Martensen said. “All we are asking is to have access to the wonderful things the Church provides as resources, so we can offer ourselves in service to the greater Church.”

Thank you to Mary Clare Litzen for interpreting the interviews. Thank you Rev. Dr. Hilary Smith for the video.