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United Methodists hold church’s first global deaf conference

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A UMNS photo by Erik Alsgaard

Candis Shannon (with microphone), president of the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf, welcomes people to the conference.

July 20, 2005

By Erik Alsgaard* 

BALTIMORE (UMNS) — An international gathering of deaf, hard-of-hearing and late-deafened people drew more than 200 participants for the first ever Global United Methodist Conference of the Deaf.

The July 14-17 event, hosted near Baltimore by the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf, was the culmination of years of hopes, dreams and plans. Mainly, it was about missions.

“Our dream is to see the mission outreaches that we’ve all been in contact with under one roof,” said the Rev. Peggy Johnson, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, one of only three deaf congregations in the denomination. “This is a conference where people will tell what’s happening in mission in their country” in the deaf community, she said.

The Methodist family has a long history of sending missionaries outside the United States to provide education and resources for deaf people. As far back as the 1850s, Methodist missionaries were running schools for the deaf in Korea.

One result of that work today is the Rev. Joo Hai Kang, an ordained Presbyterian pastor serving four deaf communities and a deaf United Methodist church in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual (regional) Conference.

“I became deaf at the age of 2,” he said, speaking through an interpreter, “and I went to a deaf school in Korea.” That school has its roots in the 1850s Methodist missionaries.

Joo established a deaf church in 2001 and has formed two or three other Bible study groups in southern Illinois. He said he serves four different areas as a circuit-rider.

The conference, which used no less than six simultaneous sign-language interpreters during sessions plus computer-assisted real time translations, offered participants a chance to learn what deaf communities in other countries are doing in mission and ministry.

“The Koreans, for example, are doing some really landmark kinds of ministries with enormous numbers of ordained deaf pastors,” Johnson said. “So we hope to sit at their feet and learn how they do evangelism.”

In Zimbabwe, society is anti-deaf, said David Ennis, president of the Northeastern Jurisdiction deaf organization, a co-leader of the conference and member of Middletown United Methodist Church in Frederick, Md.

“They don’t have much of a ministry in Zimbabwe,” Ennis said through an interpreter, “but it’s starting to get a Methodist ministry there and helping them to be able to be established on their own.”

Ennis traveled to Zimbabwe and Kenya in 2001, helping set up a deaf ministry in Kenya and empowering the people there to support themselves.

Conference leaders highlighted a need for increased ministry and leadership in the church’s deaf community.

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Winnie Quintilian of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore interprets during the Global Conference of the Deaf.

Joo said he prayed more deaf people would go into ministry. “Deaf people feel more comfortable when they are around other deaf people; it creates a culture.”

Although the conference itself was not designed for local churches wanting to learn how to do deaf ministry, the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf is eager to serve as a resource.

“One of the goals of this body, from a national level on down, is to be a resource for local churches that want to expand or enter into deaf or hard-of-hearing ministry,” said Michelle Menefee, a member of First United Methodist Church in Houston and of the Congress of the Deaf’s national board. She served as one of many American Sign Language interpreters during the conference.

“Deaf ministry is not just somebody signing the worship service on Sunday morning,” she said. “It needs to be every bit as comprehensive as you would have children’s or youth or any other type ministry.”

Menefee told excitedly how her home church began a signing ministry eight years ago for two or three people, only to have the ministry expand to include hard-of-hearing adults and several autistic children.

“We ended up serving a much broader group of people without ever realizing that was going to happen,” she said. “What we didn’t know about was that God had a whole lot of other people there that we didn’t know about.”

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Photo courtesy of The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry

Michelle Menefee (right) translates Candis Shannon's remarks into American Sign Language.

The rate of hearing loss in the United States is expanding at an alarming rate, said Candis Shannon, member of First United Methodist Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, and president of the Congress of the Deaf. This is a growing group of people, she said, and a growing ministry for the church.

“So many people go to church that are hard of hearing and they can’t understand,” Shannon said. She noted that many, inexpensive communication tools are available for local churches to help, from assisted-listening devices to computer-assisted note taking and projection.

Resources available to churches include:

  • “Signs of Solidarity: Ministries with People Who Are Deaf, Late-Deafened, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind,” published by the National Committee on Ministries with Deaf, Late-Deafened, Hard of Hearing and Deaf-Blind People, and the Health and Welfare Ministries Unit of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Available for $7 per copy from Service Center, 7820 Reading Road, Caller No. 1800, Cincinnati, OH 45222-1800.
  • The Congress of the Deaf’s Web site, www.umcd.org.
  • American Sign Language translations of The Faith We Sing and The United Methodist Hymnal from the United Methodist Publishing House, at (800) 672-1789 or www.cokesbury.com.

“Once you get past the communications technology, then you get to the real issues, and that’s communication between people,” Shannon said. “The real gifts that people have to give come to the fore.”

For this group, that is what it’s all about.

“We’ve been praying for Pentecost,” said Menefee, talking about the challenges of putting on a conference using many different sign languages. “This conference has had all the makings of a Tower of Babel, but we’ve been praying for Pentecost. It feels like maybe that’s what we’re going to see.”

*Alsgaard is managing editor of the UMConnection newspaper and co-director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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