Deaf Worshipers Sign A Joyful Noise In Magothy

January 15, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The stillness in the church is full of words you cannot hear.

No chattering or whispers echo in Magothy Church of the Deaf as a Sundaymorning service begins. But friends sign hello to one another, embracing and welcoming. A young couple exchanges pleasantries. The minister's hands, moving in sign language, greet well-known faces.

At this United Methodist Church on Mountain Road, deaf people arenot alone. They are not curiosities or at the mercy of an interpreter.

The several dozen members know that this gathering belongs justto them. The pastor, the Rev. Terri S. Cofiell, speaks aloud as she signs the announcements and the sermon. The congregation signs the hymns and the special music. Eyes stay open during the prayers, becausethey too are signed.

Some have waited for this kind of belonging all their lives.

Jackie Stover had gone to church for 16 years without understanding a word. When she turned 16, she rebelled. "I read lips, but I couldn't understand much. I said, 'I'm not going to church again. I don't understand.' I felt bad."

Later, at Gallaudet University, she learned sign language. When the Magothy church was incorporated in 1982, she and her husband, Jim, were among the first to join.

Another church member, Florence Johnson, says, "All my life I was dragged to church. I sat there and looked at the beautiful windows and wondered, 'What are they talking about? I don't know.' "

She'd study the windows, then find the stories in the Bible at home and so teach herself about the Gospel.

Coming to Magothy is like coming home, says Jackie's husband, Jim, chairman of the church's administrative board. "This is an understanding group of people. And there's no other place to go."

An estimated 3,000 people in Anne Arundel County are deaf, says Steven French, director of Community Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, an umbrella support group.

But only one deaf church meets in the county, says Cofiell. Only a handful of deaf churches exists in the metropolitan area.

Magothy is one ofthree United Methodist deaf congregations from Baltimore to Washington. A few other denominations also have deaf churches in Washington.

Cofiell is a hearing person who was drawn into the deaf community while a seminary student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. A deaf couple joined a congregation with which she was working to fulfill her seminary requirements. When the young woman became ill with cancer, Cofiell visited her in the hospital but soon realized she couldn't communicate with her parishioner.

"We'd write notes back and forth, but I thought it seemed strange to write out our prayers,"Cofiell says. "I thought I should be willing to learn to sign."

She worked in several ministries before coming to the deaf church. Shealso serves as pastor at a hearing United Methodist church in the county.

"The biggest benefit for me has been finding out about deaf people and their lives. I thought of deafness as a loss. But these people have full, active lives and gifts for Christian work and the ministry," Cofiell says.

She's also become aware of how much the church and society exclude people who are different.

Many churches don't have deaf interpreters at all. Even at those that do, deaf people tend to be isolated, Cofiell says. Usually the interpreter is presentonly for the sermon, forcing the deaf person to miss out on the personal contact and other aspects of church life.

Churches specifically for deaf people are a solution, Cofiell says. She advocates such segregation because of the language barriers between deaf and hearing people.

"It would be wonderful if we could all be in the same church," she says. "But these people need to have something in their language. I don't like mainstreaming of the deaf, because they lose too much."

On a recent Sunday, Cofiell spoke about an unhappy period ofher life during seminary. Sunshine in the small sanctuary reflected against the stained glass as the pastor explained that Christ could be light to her congregation.

"It's during the worst times in my life that I feel God's presence so completely with me," she said, handsmoving as she signed. "We need to look for the light. It's here withus; we just need to keep following it."

The church for the deaf meets in the Magothy United Methodist Church, a building bright with Scandinavian blues, reds and golds. The deaf service is scheduled between two morning services of the hearing church.

Church members emphasize their gratitude to the Methodist church in which they meet. "The hearing church has accepted us. They share their love with us. That's part of what it is to be a Christian. If they didn't share their building, we wouldn't be able to be here," says Ed Johnson.

Being pastor to a deaf congregation poses unique problems, Cofiell says. Many deaf adults received little religious training as youngsters. Thislack of context is compounded by the sign language systems.

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