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Sounds of silence

"Sounds of silence" Continued...

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

While many of the deaf feel comfortable functioning in the hearing world, many also feel a cultural divide, a chasm of silence that the deaf tend to feel more profoundly than do those with hearing.

"Sometimes when I am at a cash -register or if I am trying to talk with a McDonald's employee, they get scared of deaf people and sometimes give us a hard time," says Gallaudet's Abenchuchan: "Sometimes, it can become very lonely if there is a group of hearing people and no one in the group knows sign language. You are around people, but you are -completely alone."

Deaf and hearing cultures can have difficulty mixing, unlike other cultures, because the deaf have one characteristic that keeps them from fully assimilating. "The deaf can never learn to hear," Rebecca Hinckley says simply. She has worked in deaf ministry for almost 30 years. She and her husband David are part of Fairfax Church of Christ's deaf congregation, though they themselves are not deaf.

Integration of the deaf in hearing churches can be hard too, though some have visions of the two worlds worshipping together. The National Community Church in Washington has ASL interpreters in two of its services, and pastor Jason Yost hopes the church can begin a campus ministry at Gallaudet: "We want to bridge the gap. We're all created in the image of God. We need to come together, whether hearing impaired or blind or a different race. I hope we're not naïve in thinking that."

Some longtime deaf ministry workers say incorporating the deaf in hearing worship tends to take away from their ability to worship and be leaders in the Christian community. Abenchuchan, who leads a deaf service separate from Fairfax Church of Christ's main hearing service, says that integrating the deaf into hearing churches is like trying to integrate German-speaking and Spanish-speaking congregations.

ASL interpretation in hearing services may further isolate the deaf. Deaf members sit together, close to see the interpreter, and few hearing members talk to them afterward. Without any ownership of the ministry-interpreters are always hearing-the deaf generally leave the church if the interpreter leaves.

Furthermore, interpretation is not very effective in communicating the gospel. Deaf culture lives on the visual, and hearing church services with interpreters rarely adjust to focus on the visual elements of worship.

"Deaf people like stories, they're more like an oral people," says Geoffrey Hunt, a sign language translation coordinator for Wycliffe Bible Translators. He's quick to say he doesn't speak for all deaf people, but from his general experience: "They might go to a church with an interpreter and not know for years and years what is being preached."

LeeAnn Carrera, who is deaf, runs the Baptist campus ministry at Gallaudet. She urges ministries to teach the Bible chronologically, from Genesis to Revelation, and notes that stories tell the gospel better than a barrage of words like "sanctified," which has no equivalent in sign language. The story of Jesus healing a deaf man in Mark 7: 31-37 resonates deeply for some in deaf culture, showing that Jesus' message reaches everyone.

"Jesus is following deaf culture," says Stuart Thiessen, who is deaf and works in deaf ministry: In the account, Jesus takes the deaf man away from the crowds-that's vital for communication-and then Jesus lets the man know what He is about to do by touching his mouth and his ears, looking up to heaven, and then healing him, giving him hearing and speech.

Thiessen, now 38, had a hard time hearing by the time he turned 4: "I just thought I was a broken hearing person." By the time he turned 18 he was completely deaf. He says he began to realize that deafness wasn't just a flaw in his body but was important to his identity, like being Irish or Hispanic. Since he wasn't born deaf, he learned more easily to lip-read and speak and is now getting a master's degree from the University of North Dakota.

Thiessen married a hearing woman and now has two children, both hearing. He has helped plant deaf churches and is working as a translation consultant with DOOR International Ministry, a deaf-run organization. His ability to communicate both within and without the deaf community allows him to be a bridge between the two worlds, something a hearing person with ASL training can't do.

But with no full ASL translations of the Bible, it's hard for Thiessen to teach a deaf congregation. One translation of the New Testament into ASL exists: Council Bluff Deaf Missions in Iowa signed the New Testament onto DVD, a method Wycliffe translators agree is more effective than sign writing, a print version of visual signs. The process began over 23 years ago and translators are partway through a translation of the Old Testament.

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