Many worshippers still ‘waiting for a sign’

By Susan Green, Special Contributor…

LAKELAND, Fla.—For the parishioners shepherded by the Rev. Lisa Jordan, believing is seeing—literally.

“We don’t include a lot of music in our worship,” said the pastor from the Washington, D.C., area during a visit in March to the Florida Conference. “We depend more on visual forms instead of rhythm and verse.”

Donna Rininger teaches a sign language class at First UMC in Lakeland, Fla. PHOTO BY SUSAN GREEN

Ms. Jordan is pastor of Magothy United Methodist Church of the Deaf and associate pastor of Christ UMC of the Deaf, both in Maryland, and chaplain at Gallaudet University, an institution of higher learning for the deaf and hard of hearing. She is profoundly deaf herself and knows the importance of communication through sign language and other means that don’t depend on the ear to interpret God’s message.

She also is vice president of the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries, which met this month at the Florida United Methodist Center and visited First UMC, Lakeland, for worship services. Committee members brainstormed about ways to improve the denomination’s efforts to include people who can’t hear well in worship services everywhere.

Those efforts date to the 1920s in Florida, but committee members said few churches across the U.S. have heeded the call to reach out to brothers and sisters with serious hearing loss in ways that make them feel at home in worship and fellowship.

Patricia Magyar, executive secretary of health and welfare with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, also attended the meeting in Lakeland. She said afterward by email that she agrees that the denomination’s approach to deaf ministries has been “limited in scope.”

“Unless a person in the congregation or pastor has a passion for deaf ministry, interpreters engaged and creation of programs for the deaf would be non-existent,” Ms. Magyar said.

“We strive to be an inclusive church,” she added. “The best approach is to educate the congregations and then with this knowledge and education, build programs that work for the deaf community.”

Jeff Burns, the committee’s president, was raised United Methodist. He moved a few years ago from San Diego, Calif., to Columbus, Ohio, and said he reluctantly resorted to attending a church of another denomination in order to participate in worship through American Sign Language (ASL).

He said his local conference office could not point him to a list of churches that offered worship services with a sign language interpreter. He culled through the websites of UM churches in his community but was unable to find the services he needed to be engaged in Bible study, worship and mission work.

Despite being able to read lips, Mr. Burns said he misses much of what people say, especially when their heads are bowed in prayer or they are moving around in worship. He and many others whose inability to hear cannot be addressed through assistive technology need sign language to be fully engaged.

“It’s frustrating,” said Mr. Burns, who adds that he knows deaf and hard of hearing people who would like to attend church but stay away because they feel left out.

“I want to have a dialog without misunderstanding what people are talking about,” he said. “How are we open hearts, open doors, open minds when we’re not accessible for the deaf and hard of hearing?”

He noted that most churches, perhaps driven by requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, have built ramps for people in wheelchairs and addressed other special needs but still lag behind in answering the call of what is considered to be one of the most common disabilities: hearing loss.

Ms. Jordan said churches should not need a law to heed the call.

“I think from my perspective, the church is not leading the way,” she said.

The Rev. Tom Hudspeth, consultant to the committee and longtime advocate for the deaf on UMC boards, has profound hearing loss. But as an executive pastor at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, Texas, he leads a variety of worship services to meet the needs of those who hear and those who don’t.

One service, for instance, offers a twist on interpretation: Dr. Hudspeth delivers his sermon in sign language, with all the facial expressions and gestures he considers critical to the message, while an interpreter vocalizes the sermon for listeners who don’t know sign language.

“Some people who are hearing keep coming back because it matches their way of processing information,” Dr. Hudspeth said.

When a church gets a call from someone asking whether there’s an interpreter, the response ought to be, “We’ll get one there,” he suggested.

“It’s that kind of spirit that we need in church; it’s that gesture of hospitality.”

Dr. Hudspeth and others on the committee said offering sign language isn’t enough, however. Churches need to find ways to include everyone in ministry and fellowship.

“Deaf people want to be able to share their gifts,” Dr. Hudspeth said. “It’s more than just interpreting.”

Ideally, the denomination also should be able to offer opportunities for people who communicate through signing to mingle with others who know ASL, perhaps by establishing more missions that cater to the needs of the deaf.

Mary Moore, who is deaf and attends First UMC, Lakeland, said that may mean changes in United Methodist curricula and teaching methods to encourage more deaf people to attend seminary and aspire to leading congregations.

Ms. Moore grew up attending church in another denomination but prefers the Wesleyan teachings of the United Methodist Church. About two years ago, she found First UMC, Lakeland, which offers ASL classes to the community. She agreed to help students practice their budding skills.

“My interest grew, and I wanted to be a part of this church,” Ms. Moore said. “The Methodist way really speaks to me. This is where I belong.”

She said she wants to do more than worship, though. She wants to be involved in Sunday school and mission service. Recently, the church received and matched a $3,000 grant from the UM Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries to bolster programs for deaf people in the Lakeland area.

Ms. Moore said the church has offered Bible study and fellowship programs geared toward the needs of the deaf and recently began offering free movie nights featuring captioned films. She also represented the needs of people who don’t hear well at a regional conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C., last summer.

Becky Petrie, who has taught ASL in schools and at First UMC, said the church has offered sign language interpretation for at least one Sunday worship service each week for 25 years or more, but the congregation does not have many deaf people attending. She said churches need to consider different ways to include people with hearing loss because the needs can vary dramatically depending on the individual.

She is hopeful that Ms. Moore’s leadership will make a difference.

“You don’t have a deaf ministry until you have the deaf involved in leading that ministry,” she said. “We have that now.”

At least one hearing person who’s learning sign language at the church has been inspired by Ms. Moore as well.

“I’m here because Mary is such a unique person,” said Lynda Jardon, who got to know Ms. Moore at First UMC’s worship services.

“It’s not fair that she has to do all the communicating. . . . I want to get to know her.”

Ms. Green is editor of Florida Conference Connection (, an online publication of the UMC’s Florida Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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