Once, the senior pastor of a renowned megachurch came to me and said, “We provide interpreting services every Sunday, but no Deaf people come to our church. What have we done wrong?” I told him, “It’s because everyone goes to the Deaf church across the street!” Sometimes, a church seeking to welcome a specific group of people ends up causing more harm to them than good.
Like this megachurch, many churches invest a lot of time and money in making their services more accommodating of Deaf people. But they often do not realize that their ministry may be more effective if instead they invest in supporting already-existing Deaf churches where Deaf people are able to worship in their own culture and language.
While Deaf adults can self-advocate and decide for themselves which church is the best fit for them, many Deaf children are not able to do so and, as a result, end up being stuck in churches where they are unable to flourish maximally. Ninety percent of Deaf children come from hearing families, and 75% of their parents are not fluent in sign language. Many, if not most, Deaf children grow up in severe isolation, not being around anyone who knows sign language at school or home. Clearly, Deaf children need a community where they can communicate freely and build profound relationships with other people. Deaf churches and other churches that have Deaf people in their congregations are able to provide these children with such a community.
However, many Deaf children are held back from joining a Deaf church because their churches mistakenly think that, in order to minister to these children, they need to make them feel at home at their churches. Ironically, those churches end up excluding the very children they are trying to include. If a church attempts to include a Deaf child without really understanding her communication situation, they will not help take down communication barriers, but instead perpetuate them.
In their attempt to be inclusive, people at a Deaf child’s church will probably wave and smile at her more often than her hearing peers at school, but this is not all she needs. What she needs are deep, meaningful conversations. Also, many hearing churches attempt to include Deaf children by providing interpreters at services, not realizing that most interpreters are rather substandard, and even highly skilled interpreters still cannot provide Deaf children full access to communication that their hearing peers enjoy.
Moreover, many churches wrongly assume that hearing parents have all the resources they need for raising their Deaf children. In fact, many hearing parents are desperate for additional resources for raising their Deaf children. Many times when hearing parents with Deaf children meet me, they weep because I am the first Deaf person besides their child that they have ever met in their lives. They are overjoyed to find out that their Deaf child may turn out to be okay after all, because I myself lead a “normal” life—having a college education, job, and family.
Many churches do not have Deaf adults who are able to help hearing parents raising Deaf children or serve as spiritual mentors to those children. Also, many churches do not have other Deaf children for them to befriend and with whom to share a deep spiritual journey—something that is very difficult for them to do with their hearing peers who are not fluent in sign language and do not understand their Deaf identity.
Deaf children’s unique situation indeed challenges the theological vision of inclusion. In his essay, “From Inclusion to Belonging,” John Swinton rightly exhorts ministers to “amplify” their act of inclusion of people with disabilities by ensuring that people with disabilities are not only being accommodated but also welcomed to the extent that they feel they actually belong to the church. Yet, Swinton does not address the fact that sometimes a particular church is not the right place for certain people. Thus, a church’s action of “extreme” inclusion, as envisioned by Swinton, may come down to twisting people’s arms, pressing them to belong to their church when they actually feel that they do not.
Amos Yong, in an article entitled “Disability from the Margins to the Center,” encourages churches to be more proactive in creating an inclusive, accommodating, and welcoming environment for people with disabilities. However, Yong’s radical vision of inclusion does not address the fact that sometimes a church is simply incapable of creating an environment that ministers to certain people, and that it might be best if they let someone else minister to them. Furthermore, Yong and many other theologians claim that the inclusion of people with disabilities does not only benefit people with disabilities, but also those who perform the act of inclusion, since people with disabilities can provide them with fresh insights into life. Such statements need to come with a caveat, warning people against romanticizing the inclusion of people with disabilities since it can produce harmful consequences, as demonstrated in the integration of a Deaf child into a hearing church.
For these reasons, churches should be challenged to not only be inclusive but also to be cooperative. That is, they must be willing to work with other churches and ministries in order to ensure that a Deaf child will be fully included somewhere—it may be with them, it may be somewhere else. More importantly, being cooperative also means empowering Deaf people to minister to their own people. This consists in learning from them, working with them, and sometimes getting out of their way to let them to do the ministry to Deaf children themselves.
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Noah Buchholz is a Ph.D. student in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary and lecturer in the Program in Linguistics at Princeton University. Previously, he served as Assistant Professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at Bethel College. He has been involved in Deaf ministry for more than 10 years in different capacities, including pastoring three different Deaf churches. He holds a B.A. from Wheaton College and M.Div. and Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary.