Saints at the table: Remembrances of Whatcoat
Feb. 16, 2004
A UMNS Report By Melissa Lauber *
wasn't that long ago that some people thought deaf people should not be
married. The Bible, in some people's minds, labeled them as disabled.
are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear," the
Scripture says. Society read these words, and in their ignorance, cast
the deaf into an isolated spiritual ghetto.
their spirit lived on and refused to be diminished. In places like
Gallaudet University in Washington and in the United Methodist Church,
the deaf developed a culture, complete with their own language, customs,
beliefs and saints.
journey was not always an easy one, especially for deaf
African-Americans. Within the Methodist segregated church of the 1950s
and 1960s, they were not a part of the all-black Washington Conference,
because there were no black pastors who could communicate with them.
one concerned pastor -- the Rev. Daniel Moylan, who taught shoe-making
at a school for the deaf and blind -- and the enthusiasm of a handful of
faithful people created the first congregation for black deaf people in
the Methodist Church.
a room at Christ United Methodist Church for the Deaf in Baltimore, the
Rev. Peggy Johnson called "seven saints" to gather at a table and share
their stories. These stories will become a part of a video remembrance
project in 2005.
their 70s and older, the group has several things in common. All of
them came from happy families and none of their parents or siblings knew
American Sign Language.
each arrived at Overlea School for the Deaf and Blind in Baltimore when
they were between the ages of 6 and 12, and learned their language
skills there, starting with learning how to finger-spell their names.
Each of them cried with fear when their families left them at the residential school and remember it as if it were yesterday.
Each also found their way to Whatcoat Black Deaf Mission in Baltimore when they were young adults.
Waters, the oldest and most talkative of those at the table, remembered
painting the basement of Whatcoat Methodist Episcopal Church, where the
black deaf people worshipped from 1905 to 1917.
took a year to renovate, Waters said through a translator. "A farmer
named Gehb gave us the money. Two deaf men did the painting, I was one
of them. … One thing we needed was a furnace," he added. "We did a show
on a Saturday night, with skits and performances. … In the end, the
church was beautiful."
to Waters, "black and white people together were forbidden. So the
white deaf people had the proper place upstairs, and the blacks go to
the basement. We worshipped at 10 a.m. They worshipped in the
Hawkins and Devonne Johnson were baptized at Whatcoat. They remembered
the Rev. Moylan as "a man who would come to people's homes to eat, spend
the night and help anyone in any way he could." After his wife's death,
Waters recalled, Moylan moved into the church and slept behind the
in Moylan died in1943. While the white deaf church was assigned
pastors, who communicated through interpreters, the black deaf
congregation was left on its own, said Hawkins.
Horsey's husband Jerome was smart, she remembered. He took over the
preaching. Waters led the hymns. No one served communion to the
congregation for the next 14 years.
Louis Foxwell Sr., who was serving as an unofficial lay leader of the
congregation in the 1950s, promised that his son would be appointed to
be their pastor.
1957, Louis Foxwell Jr. brought the white and black congregations into
the same space. "He said, 'from here on out everybody will be together.'
That was forbidden. He didn't care," Water said. "So we sat in a
separate room on the right. The white people stayed on the left."
Eventually, they came together.
the years, in other buildings and under other pastors, the church truly
merged into Christ United Methodist Church for the Deaf.
"For us," Ellsworth and Grace Bouyer said, "God is very, very important. The church shows you how to believe in God."
sign language does not easily allow for abstract thought, many deaf
people have difficulty answering hypothetical questions, said translator
when asked how their lives would be different without the presence of
Whatcoat Black Deaf Mission, those around the table were adamant.
church is worthless," they said, almost in unison. "People jump up and
down and pray and sing and you can't hear anything. It's worthless."
And so, said Johnson, these people developed their own community to experience God.
Jan. 1, Whatcoat Mission for the Colored Deaf will celebrate its 100th
anniversary. Johnson is planning a big party to celebrate. "What these
people have done is remarkable," she said. "They are the saints of God."
*Melissa Lauber is associate editor of the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.
News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.