As our nation celebrates the new millennium, our churches find themselves becoming more culturally diverse. The Family of God has a challenging task; they must learn how to integrate new children of God – these new culture groups into The Church. Now, more than ever, churches are interpreting Sunday morning services in many different languages to deliver God’s message to the flock. The obvious interpretation is that of various spoken ethnic languages.
What is not so obvious, but no less important is what is referred to as “manual forms of communication” using a person’s hands and body language. There is much more to this than just “signing” or using “sign language”. It involves a range of communication from English based signing systems (not languages, but modes), to the cultural language of the Deaf (American Sign Language or ASL), which earned recognition as a formal language in the early 1960’s. Justin Long, with Network for Strategic Missions reported that out of the 278 million individuals in the United States today over 16.6 million are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing, whereas globally their numbers exceed 364 million.
When Jesus gave The Great Commission, the Church defined this to mean delivery of The Gospel in other languages to other lands. Numerous churches are expending vast amounts of resources in foreign missions, while overlooking uncharted territories or “home mission groups” within their own area of influence.
The Deaf community is such a group that needs to receive The Gospel in its own language. Accurate delivery of the message is fundamental, but there must be a collective effort between four groups in the Church (see figure 1). The technical ministry, music ministry, pastoral ministry, and Deaf ministry must put forth a team effort that results in Deaf individuals having access to God’s Word.
The technical ministry is comprised of those who handle lighting, sound, video, visuals, and associated equipment. Lighting plays a critical role since the Deaf language is visual and it affects their ability to participate on equal footing with the rest of the congregation. Deaf parishioners eyes can also become fatigued quickly from muscle strain if ambient lighting is not adequate. More often than not, the lights are dimmed or taken to black for baptisms, prayers, songs, concerts, dedications, and confirmations.
Under these conditions, you should attach a small light to the podium or music stand from which the interpreter(s) work. It would also be appropriate to have a spotlight on the interpreter – which does not include a flashlight aimed at the face. (I’ve been there and done that- like signing to a train). When similar lighting suggestions have been made to church staff members, their responses range from “It will be distracting to the congregation” or “It will interrupt the flow of the spirit”, to “It will take the focus off of the presenter(s).” No matter what lighting challenges arise, both the Deaf Ministry and the lighting crew can work toward an optimal solution.
The second group within the technical ministry is the sound crew. Simply put, the interpreter must be able to hear in order to interpret the information. In most churches, sound is not a problem, however there are issues such as being able to hear the music and not the vocalist. One effective solution involves a portable headset with receiver that the interpreter wears in which he or she hears the lyrics from the vocalist. We refer to this device as a “loop” system, which enables the interpreter via the headset to clearly hear the person speaking into the microphone.
This effectively reduces the amount of information missed by the interpreter due to sound difficulties. In addition, during concerts, many churches set up a separate speaker near the interpreter’s feet so that he or she can hear the spoken word and lyrics clearly. To ensure adequate sound levels, do a sound check and monitor the interpreter during the service as well as the pastor. Also, use simple hand gestures between the interpreter and sound technicians to identify problems with sound or the need for adjustments.
This seems elementary, but the sound crew and the interpreter(s) must be part of a team effort focusing on ministering to the Deaf. The third group within the technical ministry is responsible for visuals, video, and associated equipment. Churches, for the most part, have used projection devices to display visual announcements and Power Point presentations. These visuals are fully accessible and accepted by Deaf congregation members. Active videos that accompany a sermon or visiting missionary are another story altogether.
Although it is possible to interpret the audio portion, the Deaf must lock their eyes on the interpreter to receive the complete verbal message, but by doing so they miss the visual experience. What a disservice! A good solution is video captioning, which is widely accepted by the Deaf since they are accustomed to observing it in movies and television. When similar suggestions have been made to former church staff, their responses range from “We can not require the missionary to give us videos ahead of time.”
or “We did not know that a video would be shown.” or “There was not enough time to caption the video.” to “We do not know how to caption a video.” Due to accessibility problems, the church must request that visiting presenters provide their videos in advance to allow time for captioning. Technologies exist that enable churches to caption their own videos at a reasonable price, however outsourcing this task is also an option. The music ministry group consists of the worship leader or music minister and supporting staff.
Music in general is difficult to interpret without preparation. Special music tends to be even more difficult because of poetic rhymes, and figurative language within the song. The music ministry leader can play his team role by providing the song list with the lyrics ready for the interpreter(s) a week to three days before the service. Interpreters are aware that song additions, song changes, and song sequencing may change so that the service flows properly; trained interpreters can deal with this scenario. The interpreter(s) may also desire to attend the worship or orchestra practice to help prepare for the worship and special music. Where larger events are concerned, depending on their complexity and duration, additional interpreters should be required.
Special concerts and holiday celebrations demand that you give program details (script, length of program, songs with lyrics included, and order of service) to the interpretation group several weeks before the event. Make sure to inform the interpreter(s) of the practice schedules and the final dress rehearsals so they may attend and become familiar with the positioning of performers on stage. The pastoral group consists of the pastor, his staff, and assistants.
The pastor’s responsibility is to preconference with the interpreter(s) – to provide necessary outlines, scriptures and other sermon related material to the interpreter(s) a week to three days prior to the service. This allowance of time is very important due to the dense nature of scripture and the need to be able to pre-translate. The interpreter may still approach the pastor with follow-up questions before the sermon. The interpreter(s) understand that even with due preparation, scriptures, or other material might be added at the last minute and they are trained to deal with both scenarios.
Sometimes our pastors express anxiety or distrust when asked questions regarding sermon notes. They may think an interpreter who makes such requests lacks faith or shows incompetence, but this is not the case. Pastors should exercise wisdom and recognize the value of preconferencing, which serves as a catalyst enabling God to connect with and convey His heart to our Deaf members. The fourth and final group is the religious interpreters.
Religious interpreting began centuries ago and at that time, churches utilized their own parishioners or family members of the Deaf to interpret church services. Although paid professional interpreters have only existed for a few decades, they are still forging ahead in their professionalisms whereas religious interpreters are lagging behind.
Today, most consider religious interpreting inferior in comparison to other kinds of interpreting, such as medical or legal. Some interpreters view the Church as a place to practice one’s skill before entering the “real world”. In addition, a stereotype exists around the concept of a religious interpreter. They are viewed as “do-gooders” or “bless your heart” individuals who attend church but lack fluent language ability and interpreting skills. This stereotype unfortunately is somewhat true.
In a recent study conducted by Gallaudet University, only two percent of those surveyed had a degree in ASL. Even more unsettling is that less than ten percent of those surveyed have been involved in an accredited interpreter training programs. It will take a while to overturn this stereotype due to the amount of untrained and unprofessional religious interpreters. You may ask, “Why the push for professionalism, it is only interpreting for church”.
Inasmuch as the pastor is the vessel through which the Word of God presents itself, the interpreter serves a similar capacity for the Deaf. Therefore, the interpreter should be the conduit by which the Lord’s intended message flows from the church leadership to the Deaf parishioners. To become competent vessels, religious interpreters must develop into professionals and they must have support from the Church to be successful. Religious interpreters can contribute by becoming pioneers and setting forth new standards to combat mediocrity prevalent in our churches. Although the following list is not all-inclusive, here are a few suggestions: 1) Networking with other religious and secular interpreters. 2) Attending workshops to help stay current with interpreting and ASL trends. 3) Study training videos and read professional literature.
4) Join national professional interpreting organizations like the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) or the National Association for the Deaf (NAD). 5) As professionals, requiring compensation from religious institutions. Unless we raise the standard, interpreters will continue to do a disservice to the Deaf they serve. Establishing a cohesive team of the four groups is a step in the right direction, but you are not out of the woods yet.
A few more considerations will make your efforts complete. First, education is a key element missing in most millennium churches. Consequently, there should be a basic informative session, which concerns deafness, Deaf culture, etiquette for the culture, communication suggestions, using an interpreter, etc. Require the four groups to attend and open the session to the congregation. Also, place an informative sheet covering the same information in the bulletin or in a church mail out. Next, have the church purchase a TTY (telephone of the Deaf) for the office so that the Deaf may have access to the church leadership and administration.
Furthermore, agree to train the Church administration to send and receive calls on the TTY. This may sound like a huge task but its operation is elementary. Plug in the machine just like a regular phone, type an outgoing message on the keyboard, and read an incoming message on the horizontal digital display. Finally, encourage the Deaf parishioners to participate in church programs so that they may become ministers to their own culture. A highly respected religious interpreter once wrote, “Be sure to involve the Deaf people in all aspects of church life such as skits, Sunday school lessons, special events, and social gatherings. Allow Deaf people to usher or serve Communion- even lead in prayer along with an interpreter. Every bit of exposure the deaf members receive will in turn educate the church body. Remember, Deaf people need what all people need- a sense that they are respected as whole persons, leaders, communicators.” (Sampley, 1989)
Following these guidelines will make the difference between a good and an awesome Deaf Ministry. Just like in a wagon wheel, a ministry represents a “spoke” in that wheel, whereas the Word of God represents the “hub”. Deaf Ministry is just one of the supporting “spokes” that work toward presenting the Gospel. We can accomplish our goal by working as a team to deliver God’s message in their own language and then providing opportunities for growth in the knowledge of our Dear Savior. Personally, I desire, as a religious interpreter for the Deaf, to be part of a team that can assist in raising the standard of ministry. Together, may we be able to stand before the Lord and testify that we did with all our might what our hands found to do. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)