Like weary pilgrims who have found a haven, members of the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf celebrated yesterday in a place of their own.
For years, the congregation of deaf people -- one of four in Baltimore -- shunted between school cafeterias and cold church basements, losing ministers and meeting places in their trek from building to building. Yesterday, the nearly 50 pilgrims ended their wandering, gathered in their own church building off Beechfield Avenue near Arbutus.
"It's all theirs," said the minister, the Rev. Peggy Johnson, smiling at the fresh white paint and pink curtains in the renovated sanctuary. "They are the church leaders. In a hearing church, you can bet not one of them would be on the board, because hearing people don't usually know sign language. Here, they do it all."
In many churches, even those with deaf interpreters, deaf people tend to be isolated. Often, an interpreter is present only for the sermon -- causing the deaf person to miss out on personal contact and other aspects of church life.
But at Christ Church, one of three United Methodist deaf congregations in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, the service is geared for members' needs.
That means the service is conducted "at the speed of sign language and not at the speed of a hearing church.
And they don't have to sign hymns with lines that talk about hearing. Their music is bigger than sound," Ms. Johnson said.
Ms. Johnson, a hearing person, spoke as she signed the announcements and the sermon. The congregation signed the hymns and the creed. A robed women's choir signed the special music. Eyes stayed open during the Lord's Prayer; prayers, too, are signed.
Members said they feel like they are not alone at Christ Church. Neither are they curiosities, or at the mercy of an interpreter.
"I am so very happy to have this church," signed Catherine Vaccarino, 56, the choir director. "I feel God touch my heart, and I hope other people will come. God is for everyone."
Charles Waters, 78, remembered walking alone "through dark streets in Baltimore in 1929" to visit the original Christ Church of the Deaf. The Rev. Daniel Moylan, a deaf minister, began the church in East Baltimore and preached there until his death.
In later years, the 95-year-old congregation floundered. When Ms. Johnson came to the congregation three years ago, less than a dozen people attended regularly.
"It was awful. Bills, problems, a mess," she recalled. But, as she reminded the church yesterday, "God speaks the best in darkness. God can make good come from bad."
Things began getting better for Christ Church when Ms. Johnson heard that Beechfield United Methodist Church, a hearing congregation, had an empty building. When the two churches realized they could help each other, Beechfield offered its building and some money for renovation.
Members of both congregations and other volunteers pitched in to paint and hammer, to add handicapped ramps and attach flashing lights to the fire alarm. New hearing and plumbing systems were also installed.
"It feels like a miracle," said Ms. Johnson. "Every Sunday here is going to be like a Christmas present."
Ms. Johnson wishes the church had a deaf pastor, but members are thankful for their own building.
Vivian Hook, a longtime member of Christ Church, extended her hands, embracing the little church with a gesture.
"If we didn't have this, I'd stay home," she said. "I'm so grateful."