Giving praise to the Lord, in sign language
Churches for the deaf are flourishing in the Twin Cities, becoming a spiritual magnet for people from throughout Minnesota.
Can a deaf person hear the voice of God?
It took years before Les Lawer heard the answer.
As a child, he was saddened by the soundless banter that left him lonely on family car trips. He longed to know why God had made him different.
Now, as the pastor of a congregation for the deaf, he knows why: It was a gift.
"If I was hearing, what would I be like? I don't know," said Lawer, 63, pastor of Deaf Dakota Hills Church in Apple Valley through an American Sign Language interpreter. "Being deaf, there's a plan in my life, and I think that's his gift to me."
Lawer, a native of Oregon, followed what he believes to be God's calling all over the country. He has ministered a handful of deaf churches, including the Apple Valley congregation he founded 12 years ago. He oversaw deaf fellowship for the national Assemblies of God for nearly a decade. He preaches weekly in a language specifically aimed at those who cannot hear.
He isn't on a solo crusade. There are at least eight deaf churches in the Twin Cities — an extremely high concentration for a metro area of this size, said the Rev. Emory K. Dively, half of a husband-wife pastor team at the Twin Cities Deaf Assembly of God. He shares his Highland Park church building with a separate Asian-American deaf church mostly made up of Hmong parishioners.
"What we have here is truly unique," Dively said of the flourishing deaf church community.
SIGNING HANDS SING
On a recent Sunday morning, a couple dozen people quietly filter into the old chapel of Mt. Olivet Assembly of God in Apple Valley, where the Deaf Dakota Hills Church has met for the past nine years. A male parishioner leads the congregation in an almost-silent song. The lyrics are familiar:
"He is Lord, He is Lord
He has risen from the dead
And He is Lord
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess,
That Jesus Christ is Lord."
But for the most part, the hands, not the tongues, declare that testament. With no need for a piano or hymnals, the worshippers study the motions of the lead signer and mirror his fingers that flutter and slice in the air.
"Lord" is signed by forming an "L" with the thumb and forefinger and moving it diagonally across the torso like a sash.
"Dead" looks like two hands turning over as if dying.
To declare "amen," parishioners place a fist in the other hand's palm.
A hearing member of the church, Joy Beougher, voices ASL for her boyfriend and a visitor, who both hear. Beougher, 26, started coming to the church when she was still "an awkward signer" studying to become an interpreter at North Central University in Minneapolis. Now she is a member who helps coordinate the children's programs.
"I was appreciative I was welcomed even though I was different," said Beougher, who signs out of respect for those who can't hear even as she speaks to her boyfriend.
In the back of the chapel, Felipe Ramos murmurs emotionally, as if chanting. The North Central University student later explains that as a Pentecostal, he is accustomed to expressing God's power through movement and voice, such as speaking in tongues. Some deaf Christians, such as Dively, have been known to even "sign in tongues."
Ramos, 21, is among a cadre of young people from the school who aspire to start up churches for the deaf across the country. A Los Angeles native, he hopes to become a pastor in his parents' homeland of Mexico or in Hispanic communities in the U.S.
Lawer paces in and out of the pulpit, signing about the importance of work. He considers his preaching style a form of "total communication," an intricate relationship combining facial expressions, movement, visual aids, scribbling on the whiteboard and even drama.
He quotes the Book of James: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?" Lawer reads. "I will show you my faith by what I do."
On Labor Day weekend, the pastor urges the congregation to work for God in whatever jobs lie before them. "If you start working for the sake of work, watch out," the preacher warns.
Lawer says one should labor to give glory to God.
The sound of fists slapping open palms punctures the silence.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
Deaf churches have thrived in the Twin Cities because of the unusually large number of deaf people who are drawn here from all over Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services estimates that 500,000 Minnesotans, or about 10 percent of the state's population, has some degree of hearing loss. About 67,600 of those would be considered deaf, said Marie Koehler, regional manager of the state's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services.
Although the state has no way of pinpointing where deaf Minnesotans live, Koehler has heard that about half of them reside in the metro area. That's because the cities offer a wealth of resources for the deaf, such as social clubs, health and wellness programs and schools, she said.
Religion also draws Twin Cities transplants. Koehler's staff knows of nearly 50 churches and synagogues that offer special services, such as wireless headpiece receivers for churchgoers who are hard of hearing. Interpreted services at hearing churches have multiplied at an "amazing" rate, Koehler said.
"It's wonderful," she said. "The ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, doesn't necessarily mandate that, but churches are seeing it as a service they can provide to their parishioners."
But even the most skilled sign-language interpreters cannot guarantee a perfect translation, says Dively of the St. Paul church. Some "hearing" puns or jokes do not cross over to signing.
ABSTRACT CONCEPTS, CONCRETE NEEDS
In church especially, communication is crucial when explaining the intangibles of faith.
"In deaf culture, you have to rely on concrete things a lot of times, but religion is abstract," said Dively, who serves as the current president for the deaf fellowship arm of the national Assemblies of God.
Moreover, said Dively, deaf pastors know intrinsically how to give sermons that relate to the experiences of being deaf. Even the sight of a deaf pastor can inspire deaf parishioners to serve others in the church, he said.
Lawer and his wife, Charlotte, have watched their Apple Valley church blossom from informal meetings in crowded basements of deaf families. Lawer, a Rosemount resident who works full-time at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport post office, says he tries to delegate responsibilities to groom future leaders to take over when he's no longer around.
He said when he was younger, he didn't pay much attention to the sermons when attending hearing churches. Some interpreters tended to be expressionless — the equivalent of a monotone speaker, he said.
But in his early 20s while living in Portland, a hearing pastor of a deaf church told him about a deaf evangelist visiting for a weeklong revival.
"Deaf, huh?" Lawer thought, intrigued.
He intended to go just once. But night after night, something urged him to return the next morning. "The Lord was talking to my heart," he said.
This time, Lawer said, he listened.
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