By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 16, 2006
Richard Skiba travels an hour from his home parish to attend Mass in a language he more intimately understands—sign language.
Skiba, a Catholic who is deaf, joins others in the deaf community who rely on trained interpreters within the Archdiocese of Atlanta to translate the Mass as well as learn more about the Bible and the church in pursuit of a deeper understanding of God. The Ministry With Persons With Disabilities is an archdiocesan ministry supported with funds from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal and seeks to serve Catholics who have a variety of disabilities. With guidance from director Ed McCoy, the office now hopes to beef up efforts to address the needs of the deaf community, along with others with disabilities, through the recent hiring of Deb Garner, now coordinator of the archdiocesan office and who has served as an interpreter for the hearing-impaired for 17 years.
Garner, also the director of the deaf ministry at the Church of the Transfiguration in Marietta, understands the hunger Catholics who are deaf have in wanting to learn more about their faith and to practice it.
“There are a couple of deaf eucharistic ministers and some who have expressed an interest in becoming lectors,” she said. “Some are becoming more comfortable and want to become involved in different aspects of the church.”
Garner understands that to accomplish this, interpreters are an important part of the journey and that the training takes time. She explained that sign language is not just “English on your hands.”
“It’s more conceptual,” Garner clarified. “It’s more like one of the Romance languages, like French or Italian, because the syntax is different.”
She has stayed involved in this area of ministry because “the people are great. …Once you make friends how can you walk away?”
Personally, she grows spiritually because of her efforts.
“It also allows me to develop my own faith more deeply,” she said. “If I’m interpreting I have to prepare beforehand and from that I’m usually wanting to know more about the readings and how to relate them to my everyday life.”
And then there is the thrill of connecting, which she came to understand early on.
“At one particular Mass, and I can’t tell you what the homily was about, the priest shared something so deep that I wondered if I could get his message across. But then I saw a deaf parishioner up front who started crying. I remember thinking that there was no way she would be crying if she hadn’t understood. That was a light bulb moment for me.”
Camille Greeley, also a parishioner at Transfiguration who serves as an interpreter, came to this ministry 12 years ago and recalled childhood memories of her “giant Italian family,” some of whom were deaf.
She is an advocate of families learning sign language because, similar to her own family, she finds that often relatives, including parents, shy away from learning to communicate with family members who are deaf.
“They can have many meaningful conversations with their deaf children,” she said.
She described the three “styles” of sign language as being American Sign Language, (which uses idioms and a lot of one’s body to communicate), Pidgin (a combination of anything one knows that is ASL along with word-for-word signs) and “exact English.”
Mentoring is an important component for those seeking to become an interpreter at Mass and other archdiocesan events, she said. Members of the deaf community who benefit from the services of interpreters become teachers. Aspiring interpreters then take “baby steps” such as signing the simple “Lamb of God” at Mass when ready.
Greeley continues to be attracted to this ministry.
“I love to teach the Gospel,” she said. “Most deaf adults have had no religious education and I’m very sensitive to this, which is why I encourage attending a Bible study.”
She also values the candor of those she serves.
“You can’t get anything past a deaf person. They see everything and there’s no beating around the bush.”
Through the efforts of individual churches that have interpreters and with the support of the disabilities office, the archdiocese can provide interpreters to assist in a number of situations. These interpreting services for the deaf and hearing-impaired include:
- Preparation for baptism, first Communion, reconciliation and confirmation of children and youth, including a weekend retreat for confirmation candidates;
- Sacramental preparation of parents whose children are to be baptized or receive first Communion;
- All Pre-Cana sessions;
- All RCIA sessions;
- The deaf track and Mass at the annual Eucharistic Congress;
- When deaf relatives attend one of the sacraments of initiation, a wedding, a funeral or an ordination of a family member.
Interpreters often volunteer their time to sign at their parish’s Sunday Mass but are paid any time they are called upon to substitute at another parish. These services are offered free of charge to the deaf community, a policy that McCoy explained.
“First of all, we needed to be uniform in our approach. Secondly, we knew that there would be those who flat out couldn’t afford it.”
The office also provides Braille, large print or cassette tapes on demand usually for blind or low-vision readers, cantors and choir members, but also for those attending archdiocesan events, conferences or retreats.
Each year the office also holds two “Faith and Sharing” Masses—one of which is always attended by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory—for persons with disabilities, their families and the community. A potluck supper usually follows.
“It is our policy that neither the deaf person nor their family ever pays interpreters for anything concerning the sacraments or the celebrations of the church,” McCoy said. Being free of financial barriers to grow in faith falls in line with canon law, such as canon 217, which states: “Since they are called by baptism to lead a life in keeping with the teaching of the Gospel, the Christian faithful have the right to a Christian education by which they are to be instructed properly to strive for the maturity of the human person and at the same time to know and live the mystery of salvation.”
Training catechists at the parish level as well as providing resources to parishes is vital. McCoy is quick to point out that for there to be a “true deaf ministry” it must extend beyond just providing interpreters for Mass.
“(Catholics who are deaf or hearing-impaired) are being prepared to take leadership positions. People are not staying away but can participate more fully in their faith, which is their baptismal right.”
McCoy and Garner hope to create more opportunities for Catholics who are deaf to live their faith.
“The deaf community is a cultural community in the same context as the Hispanic or Vietnamese communities. We need to be committed to providing for the spiritual needs of all the members of the culturally diverse community we call ‘the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.’”
Unfortunately there remain areas in the archdiocese where the population of deaf Catholics is underserved.
“Our challenge is, of course, bringing deaf Catholics back to the church,” Garner wrote by e-mail. “Many who were brought up in the Catholic Church without interpretive services have left the church as adults.”
The lack of a religious foundation when young or not being adequately ministered to by the Catholic Church are reasons why some join other denominations.
The “pockets” without services to the deaf community must be filled, Garner continued. Presently, the northern area just outside the perimeter is served, both east and west. Few to no services exist within the city or the south side, and a few of these areas have deaf parishioners who are attending in silence, she added. Those who are aware of services to the north often travel great distances at least monthly to be fed spiritually.
“As an archdiocese we need to be willing to commit to training lay ministers in this field just as other denominations do,” Garner said.
Despite his long commute, Skiba has found a spiritual home away from home in the vibrant deaf ministry at the Church of the Transfiguration, describing those involved as “strong in faith,” in a ministry where the door is “always open for newcomers and guests who are visiting.”
He enjoys workshops where he learns more about his faith and the feelings of acceptance and understanding without judgment.
“When leaving you can’t help but feel the love that is present.”
For more information about the deaf ministry and other services for those with disabilities within the Atlanta Archdiocese contact the Ministry With Persons With Disabilities at (404) 888-7809 or visit http://home.sprynet.com/~deafministry.