For deaf worshipers, a gesture of concern Interpreters sign services CENTRAL -- Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg

February 22, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

William Pond and Janie Watts are serious about what they're doing as they stand before the congregation of Westminster United Methodist Church, translating the words and music into American Sign Language.

So serious that since they began alternating as interpreters for the weekly 8:30 a.m. services Jan. 3, each has studied planned hymns and advance copies of the sermon before the service.

So serious that they're constantly learning new signs, thinking about idioms, figuring out ways to convey the meaning of an abstract idea that will make sense to someone who cannot hear.

The regular interpretations of services grew out of a more informal arrangement that began several years ago when deaf people started attending the church.

Mr. Pond was on call to interpret, but the deaf parishioners had to make arrangements with him in advance, and sometimes he would have to be out of town and couldn't meet their needs. They could still attend the service, of course, but without someone to translate it into sign language, most of it would be meaningless.

Now that the 8:30 service is regularly signed, "They can count on an interpreter being there rather than showing up and hoping someone would be there [to interpret]," Mr. Pond said.

Both praise the church community and the two pastors, the Rev. David Highfield and the Rev. Gayle Watson, for their support.

Mr. Pond taught a sign language course at the church last summer and, now that he is signing services regularly, some of his former students occasionally comment on how his interpretation made a point clearer.

Commitment from the church community makes a difference, Miss Watts said.

She had volunteered in the past to sign services at other churches and found it hard to continue when the pastor's response was, "Oh, OK, Janie, if you want to do that, you can."

But she did learn to think fast on her feet.

At one fundamentalist church, she recalled, the minister would get into his sermon and start speaking so fast that her fingers couldn't fly fast enough to keep up with him.

Westminster United Methodist Church sponsored a deaf-awareness Sunday before the regular interpretations began.

Members of a committee that planned the interpretations also discussed how to make it most comfortable for deaf congregants with Mr. Pond and Miss Watts.

The interpreters now stand in the front of the church below the pulpit, but they have talked about standing side by side with the pastor during the sermon. The pastors seem to be receptive, they said.

Music is the major challenge, both interpreters said.

"You look at hymns and some of them are flowery," Mr. Pond said.

Miss Watts added, "Hearing people are often not direct, but deaf people are very direct, so you're trying to change that flowery language to something direct."

Repetition in hymns presents challenges, too. The Hallelujah Chorus in Handel's "Messiah," for example, repeats the word "Alleluia" over a series of different notes that the hearing ear perceives. Miss Watts said the challenge for an interpreter is to find different ways to make the sign that will show variations for those who cannot hear changes in the notes.

Mr. Pond was involved in Westminster United Methodist Church, where he also leads a chime choir, at the time deaf community members began attending services. So it was natural that the church would turn to him for interpretation.

He probably began training for the task years ago, although he didn't know it at the time. When he sang in the youth choir as a boy, he and his friends had to be quiet during the service. So they communicated by finger spelling.

Mr. Pond put that skill aside and forgot about it while he earned a bachelor's degree in art at University of Tampa in 1972, got teacher certification at Western Maryland College and began teaching art at Sykesville Middle School.

He thought he might like to go into special education, so he began taking courses in sign language. He liked the language, and after three years at Sykesville Middle, he left to take a job at the Frederick campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf, where he is now in his 14th year as an art teacher.

Mr. Pond said he really hadn't considered interpreting, but the WMC faculty began calling on him to turn lectures into sign language, and he obliged.

He and Miss Watts met on campus when two interpreters were needed for a class attended by deaf students and a deaf-blind student. The deaf-blind need individual interpreters because they drape their fingers over the interpreter's to understand the words being spelled, Miss Watts explained.

Miss Watts was a student at Western Maryland 23 years ago when the college was starting its deaf education program. She got interested, took courses in sign language, then graduated as a physical education major in 1973 and began teaching in Harford County schools. She returned to WMC to get her master's degree in deaf education in 1977.

She began teaching physical education at the Columbia campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf in 1984-85, taught there for six years, then came to Westminster High School as a special education teacher in 1991-92.

When the church began regular interpretation for the deaf, Mr. Pond asked Miss Watts to work with him.

It's a rewarding experience, she said.

"It's seeing the Lord at work. I really believe he gave me the gift to be able to do this," she said. "Sometimes I'm interpreting and I almost want to jump out of my body and say, 'Hey, that was a neat idea.' "

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