By KATHRYN R. BYRNE, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 21, 2007
Using examples that were simple, as well as humorous, practical and deeply profound, Deacon Patrick Graybill delighted both the deaf and the hearing participants of the 2007 Eucharistic Congress deaf track with his encouragement to bring prayer and spirituality into their daily lives.
“Spirituality isn’t just for Sundays,” he proclaimed in his native language, American Sign Language. “It’s real. It’s 24/7. God is in the grocery store. God is here. God is everywhere!”
The deaf deacon’s experience as a workshop presenter for the International Catholic Deaf Association, his prior theatrical work with the National Theatre of the Deaf and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, as well as his obvious enjoyment of storytelling, all served him well as he animatedly shared examples from his own life about his personal attempts to bring spirituality into everyday living.
“When I was 16 or 17, I was told that I was going bald. I said, ‘No!’ But when I got another mirror to look at the back of my head, there it was—a small bald spot!” He proceeded to grow his hair out enough to hide his impending baldness, and always covered it. “Elvis was popular at the time. He had a big head of hair. But I had a small bald spot. Where was God in this?”
Years later, while in the seminary, he one day asked himself, “‘Is God upset that I am becoming bald?’ I looked in the mirror, and then cut my hair. I was so relieved. There was no more need to cover my baldness.”
Keying in on a struggle that most people experience—the fear of change—Deacon Graybill stated that, “Change will happen. We can’t stop it. We can’t go back. We gain weight. We can’t stay physically strong. I am now two inches shorter than I used to be, and I have brown spots on my skin. Forty years ago, my mother had the same spots.”
He went on to share that, “Next month I will turn 68. My mother died at 95. But I’m still young at heart, I think.”
The fact that he walks four hours a week is certainly proof of this. The deacon stated that the reason for change in people’s lives is because “God doesn’t keep us in our comfort zone. He wants us to grow.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory walked into the room while Deacon Graybill was in mid-sentence. All eyes turned to him as he walked to the stage and encouraged the deaf track participants by saying through an interpreter, “I am delighted you are here. It fills my heart with great joy to have so many of you here. I hope you will feel the joy and warmth of this church.”
The deaf track participants applauded his words in the way typical of the deaf language—by raising both arms and waving their hands.
As the archbishop left, Deacon Graybill appreciatively commented on his unexpected appearance. “See? Change happens,” he exclaimed with a smile. “That was a wonderful example.”
Visual aids on an overhead projector helped to focus those gathered on the key points. For example, participants learned that, “Genuine spirituality (a real faith journey) will not take us away from our real experience.” The deacon explained that the real experiences of feelings are important, and that it is important that people share and discuss their feelings with those with whom they work and live. He passed out a handout to encourage discussion on various feelings.
“When someone says, ‘How do you feel?’ we need to train ourselves not to automatically answer, ‘Fine,’” he signed. “Listening to our feelings is important. Sometimes feelings are comfortable, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. But they aren’t bad.”
To make clear that feelings can work for or against one’s self, he used the word “fear” as an acronym, explaining that people have the choice of using the experience to “forget everything and run” or to “face everything and rise.”
Deacon Graybill explained that it is easy to escape with the first choice, which causes people to give up, eat too much, stay too busy or resort to alcohol. However, if people can maintain their awe of God’s power and mind, they can turn to the second choice, which involves prayer, facing God, and honestly sharing with others.
He asked others in the group to share how feelings had played a role in their daily lives. Several deaf participants, including Paul and Frania Sonner and David Klinger, all of Transfiguration Church in Marietta, shared examples from their work or their church. Deacon Graybill commended them for “facing everything and rising” in the midst of their situations and encouraged them to continue to seek open dialogue.
After several examples were given, Frania suggested that she would like some of the interpreters to share about their struggles. “Hearing people don’t have problems,” quipped Lisa Palak, a member of Good Shepherd Church in Cumming and one of the voice interpreters. Her comment drew a chuckle from the crowd. She and David Turner, who works with the deaf full time, made it possible for non-signers to understand the message of the deaf track through their continuous voice interpretation throughout the day.
To exemplify the need for dependence on God, Deacon Graybill drew extensively from two Scripture stories, the Exodus and the Annunciation. “How many years did Moses walk across the desert? Forty! He had to depend on God for food and water. But what happened when food and water were scarce?”
He brought home the point that many often look to false gods, just as the Israelites did in the desert. “Look at your thumb,” he instructed. All then stared at their thumbs. “What do you use it for?” In answer he exclaimed, with animated pantomime, “We use it to change channels! That is our thumb exercise.” All laughed, recognizing how easily they place their dependence on TV and other things rather than on God.
“We see the Annunciation story as a sweet story. A young woman was told by the angel that she would have a baby. But in that culture, she would be treated as if she had had an affair; they would stone her to death. And how did Joseph feel when he found out she was pregnant?” The deacon explained that Mary did not care what others thought about her. She had been chosen, and that was enough. “We can’t even wait to open Christmas presents.” Yet Mary was willing to wait for the fulfillment of God’s plan in her life. “What faith!”
Deacon Graybill continuously mandated the importance of spirituality and prayer in our personal lives. “(While I was growing up) my religion teacher taught me about Adam, Eve, Noah and others. I was taught to pray, pray, pray and be sorry, be sorry, be sorry. I was taught about sin. I was taught about guilt. But did your religion teacher teach you about spirituality?”
“When buying a car,” he continued, “we consider everything—the insurance cost, the horsepower, the color, the wheels, the satellite system. But do we decide with God? Do we consult with him? We think we can handle everything ourselves. But maybe God would have us buy a cheaper car and help those less fortunate than ourselves.” He often made clear that “spirituality includes an inner awareness of what God is doing in our lives. In fact, we are making a daily choice.”
He enjoyed sharing his “crab theory.” When crabs are in a basket, they are all clamoring to get out. One climbs up, and another pulls it down to get to the top. There is a constant exchange of which one is on top. He then explained that this is the way it is with any group, including the deaf. Gossip pulls others down. Feelings are destroyed, and resentment sets in. It affects how people live their lives.
His final and favorite story was about three friends. Their names all begin with “F”: They are fact, faith and feelings. Fact helps people make it across, while faith watches as they make it across. If their faith is dependent on feelings, they lose balance in their lives. Faith must be based on fact, not on feelings. Fact and faith help them with their feelings.
As an example, it is fact that God made humanity for love. He breathed life into Adam. God’s followers may not always have the feeling of his love; faith, then, depends on the fact, not on transitory feelings.
Much effort was made by Deb Garner and Ed McCoy of the Archdiocesan Ministry with Persons with Disabilities to accommodate services for the deaf attendees of the Eucharistic Congress. Father Rich Luberti, who has worked extensively with deaf ministry, was flown in from Michigan to allow for the sacrament of reconciliation to be available for the deaf participants of the congress in their native language. And where two chairs in a corner might be fine for confession for those who can hear, this setup would not allow any privacy for those who communicate in ASL. Thus, a partitioned curtain was set up in the room for privacy.
During the closing Mass of the Eucharistic Congress, there were interpreters facing both directions, several for Deacon Graybill who sat on the stage with the rest of the clergy, and others for the deaf members of the congregation. Many of the deaf track participants sat together and made a wonderful statement of faith, as they sang and prayed together with the beautiful language of their hands.
Those attending the deaf track came away enriched with a renewed awareness of God’s work in their personal lives. Deacon Graybill’s stories and encouragement were a delightful blessing for all who participated.
Kathryn Byrne has served as a signer at the Eucharistic Congress and in other archdiocesan and parish ministries. She is a member of St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville.