By Stephanie N. Grimoldby
Growing up as a deaf child in the Philippines, Mary Grace Asuncion felt unsupported. Her family didn’t know sign language, nor did they care to learn. “I wasn’t able to talk to anybody,” the 44-year-old recalled. “My mind was dead. It was extremely frustrating.”
When she moved to the United States in 2013, life continued to challenge her. She married into domestic violence and finally called 911 to separate herself from a toxic, dangerous partner.
Then she found Christ the King Deaf Church, a two-point congregation in West Chester and Philadelphia, Pa. The community is home to Beth and Bill Lockard.
Beth, pastor of Christ the King and the first deaf female pastor in the ELCA, did what she has done for years—she helped the woman find the physical and spiritual resources she needed.
Asuncion started taking classes at Christ the King to improve her English and her American Sign Language (ASL), and that bloomed into driver’s education classes, citizenship classes and more. As her social skills grew, so did her confidence.
On May 14, Asuncion became a U.S. citizen. Today she lives in her own apartment and works at a county hospital doing specialized cleaning of the surgery rooms. She’s also one of her congregation’s most engaged volunteers, Beth said.
“Now, I’m happy,” Asuncion said. “Before, when I was alone, nothing made sense. So now, the Bible, church, working with people, history, communities, it all makes sense. … [I have] a community, and the sermons make sense, and that’s what is most important.”
Unfortunately, many deaf people in the United States face obstacles similar to Asuncion’s, Bill said. The majority of families who have a deaf child don’t know how to sign, he noted.
And around 90% of the deaf community in the United States are not churched, Beth said, adding, “That’s not how it should be. Generally speaking, as a deaf community we can compare ourselves to an ethnic minority with our own language and culture, rather than a disability community.”
The Lockards have seen that there aren’t enough advocates for deaf people, especially for immigrants and inmates. They’ve advocated for the deaf community for decades, and for 11 years they have led the Deaf Community Action Network (DeafCAN!), working with about 250 deaf and hard-of-hearing constituents each year, including refugees and immigrants such as Asuncion. A ministry of Christ the King, DeafCAN! serves a large Bhutanese deaf community in its region.
Bill, program director for DeafCAN!, said every day is a challenge, especially when it comes to funding, and even finding interpreters isn’t easy. There are 130 sign languages, so even if an ASL interpreter is available, they can’t translate for someone who uses Nepali sign language. “The [professional] people we usually meet are often not able to translate their expertise and services to this community. [Communication] falls on us,” he said.
These are the sort of considerations that show the ministry’s uniqueness. “The work that Beth and Bill do, and services that DeafCAN! provide, they’re making sure that people are not going to fall through the cracks in the system,” said Christine Shelly, a hearing member of Christ the King and an ASL interpreter who volunteers with the Lockards. “[Beth] doesn’t need those words ‘treat others how you want to be treated’—she lives them every day through the grace of God.”
When Beth isn’t teaching citizenship class or helping her husband with other DeafCAN! endeavors, she’s pastoring Christ the King. She has adapted the liturgy for the congregation, which includes both deaf and hearing members. Every worship service is conducted in ASL, while Bill or another interpreter voices the service for hearing members who don’t know sign language.
“We have roughly translated the [Lutheran Book of Worship] liturgy,” she said, “but the pace is slower than a hearing worship service and we have maybe one song or none at all.”
A different member signs the Lord’s Prayer each week, and they tend to read one lesson, usually the Gospel, which is the basis of Beth’s sermon.
“My sermons tend to be dialogue sermons where I may ask the people a question and get their comments and answers,” she said. “This assures me that people are following the flow or if more expansion is helpful. Many of our people come from unchurched backgrounds or grew up in a congregation without a sign language interpreter or signing pastor. … [Much] of our religious terminology is unknown or unfamiliar: ‘Christ the Good Shepherd,’ ‘the Alpha and the Omega,’ grace, the parables, psalms, apostles, etc.”
That understanding is spot-on, Asuncion said, adding, “I knew nothing about God or church or the Bible growing up. I didn’t understand what the big words meant in the Bible, so getting it all translated with a deaf pastor, it’s been really enjoyable. I’m finally in a place where I can fully participate.”
The ELCA has around 10 groups with functioning deaf ministries, said Beth, who also serves as the part-time ELCA coordinator for deaf ministries. In that capacity, she supports and advocates for deaf ministries, communicates with synods and others, and works closely with the Evangelical Lutheran Deaf Association.
In addition, there are only three female deaf Lutheran pastors: Lockard; Ruth Ulea, a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria; and Lori Fuller, who just graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and will be ordained later this year.
“The problem is, English is a second language for most deaf people, and seminary is tough with tons of books to read and papers to write, all in English,” she said. “I’m fortunate that I’m bilingual [in English and ASL]. … I became deaf when I was 6; I was hearing for 6 years … I had that advantage. Most deaf people don’t.”
While having interpreters is a step in the right direction, the deaf community needs more deaf leaders, Beth said. “I think some churches hire people who are good signers, but they’re really not interpreters,” she said. “They know kindergarten-level sign language. Whereas at a deaf church, there are totally equivalent language concepts. I think at a deaf church, for someone like Mary Grace [Asuncion], they have a chance to become leaders: they get on church council, the choir … they get to be fully participants, not just people who come and sit in the pew. Whereas in interpretive worship, all you do is warm the pew.”
Shelly agreed: “I have interpreted church services, and the deaf or hard-of-hearing congregation has to receive my interpretation of a spiritual leader or the laypeople doing the readings—and interpreting in any language is not a perfect science. But to have Pastor Beth is such a wonderful gift because there’s no interpreter needed.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need interpreters, because everyone would know sign language.”
Beth said her dream is to help start a Deaf Lay Leadership Academy—a mini-seminary of sorts that would be led by deaf people for deaf people so they could become evangelists within the community.
“I would love to see that happen,” she said. “I enjoy seeing people learn and grow to reach their potential as God’s children and become empowered to help themselves and serve others in the process. With 90% of the deaf community unchurched, our field is ripe but harvesters are few.”
To learn about the Evangelical Lutheran Deaf Association, visit eldadeaf.org.