Feb. 16, 2004
A UMNS Report By Mary Cahill*
1895 in Baltimore, the Rev. Daniel Moylan founded the oldest
operational church for the deaf in the Methodist connection. Today, that
story continues - on videotape.
leadership team led by the Rev. Peggy A. Johnson of
Fulton-Siemers/Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, is videotaping
the faith stories of the older members of her congregation as a project
on deaf black history.
are many people in the church who cannot read or write," said Johnson.
"Many read at a third grade level. A very small number read well. Very
few of the members speak with their voices, one or two."
use solely sign language, Johnson explained. "English just isn't their
medium, but videotape is. They can see the signs and they love to tell
to a taping session, Johnson noted that in her congregation, the young
people are particularly uninformed about the older members' heritage and
faith. She plans to use the videotape to help the youth gain an
appreciation of the trials and struggles their elders have been through
and how their faith in God sustained them.
is their history?" Johnson asked. "No one has ever written it down.
There is only one book in print on black deaf history." (Black and Deaf
in America by Ernest Hairston and Linwood Smith.)
are way behind in capturing the history of this community," Johnson
said. "By having the church write the story would mean we would be
taking the lead in the human rights issues that this presents ... rather
than following behind, as we often do."
car pulled up in the driveway of a ranch-style group eldercare home in
Columbia, Md. Inside, Bessie Hall, 96, waited, dressed in an elegant
three-piece black suit and a smile that outshined the bugle beads on her
camera rolling and lights beaming, team member Al Couthen, who was
twice president of National Black/Deaf Advocates, allowed his hands to
begin the swift and graceful dance that is American Sign Language.
did you start coming to the church?" he signed. Hall's hands began the
story as her niece interpreted aloud for the hearing members of the
was schooled by my [hearing] parents until I was 17," she signed. "Then
I went to school at Overlea, a black school for the deaf. I was shy and
awkward, but my husband, Thomas, got me to go to church and I learned
to sign better.
joined the church in 1930, when Rev. Moylan was pastor. I enjoyed
singing and signing in church. At first I was very nervous, but I began
to sign more and more, and then I traveled with the choir. My husband,
Thomas, was custodian at the church. He fixed things and painted."
Hall's story continued to unfold.
time ago, black deaf people sat on one side of the church and the
whites sat on the opposite. When Louis Foxwell (the pastor succeeding
Rev. Moylan at Christ Church of the Deaf) came, we sat everybody all
story is one of about 20 planned interviews. The completed video will
premiere locally in January 2005, at the 100th anniversary celebration
of the founding of the Whatcoat Mission for Colored Deaf, and
denomination-wide at the 2005 celebration of Deaf African-American
video will have a voice-over narration for the hearing audience and a
printed transcript. Because most deaf people live below the poverty
line, the videotape will be distributed to Christ United Methodist
Church of the Deaf members and United Methodists across the connection
at a minimal cost. The United Methodist Commission on Archives and
History, the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United
Methodist Board of Global Ministries will receive copies as well.
There was a sense of urgency in Johnson's words as she described this project.
objective is to capture, while we still have them with us, the valuable
faith histories of our African-American deaf seniors. Their words are
encouragement and true discipleship for this younger generation of deaf
people who seek to find faith and meaning in their life.
people are a culture," she said. "Sometimes they have been an oppressed
culture. The Body of Christ, to be whole, needs to include this
*Mary Cahill is a writer for the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.
News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.