Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman
Beneficent Congregational Church (Providence, RI)
Sermon Series: Faces of Jesus
6 October 2013
Text: Mk 7:31-37
Sacred Conversation on Equal Access
1. Todd: Good morning, everyone. Good morning Jimmy, Brad, Maureen. This morning we will be sharing a Sacred Conversation on Equal Access. We will be asking specifically how Beneficent Church can be more accessible to the deaf community. It’s an honor to be sharing this Sacred Conversation with Jimmy Kelly and his husband, Brad Marshall, who have worked for many years leading a deaf and hard of hearing ministry for the Catholic Church here in Rhode Island. They are members of Church of the Holy Paraclete. Next to me is Maureen McEntee. Maureen is a member of Beneficent Church and studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, D. C., which is the world’s leading bi-lingual English and ASL university. She has made it her life’s work to build bridges among the hearing and deaf communities. Maureen put us in touch with Jimmy and Brad, and it’s been great getting to know each other.
Just a word of explanation about this conversation: Maureen is going to be interpreting for me—English to ASL—and Brad is going to be interpreting for Jimmy—ASL to English. This is a new experience for me, and I’m looking forward to it!
Jimmy, I was wondering if you could share a few words of introduction about yourself. We’d love to hear your story.
I first went to school in Boston School for the Deaf in Randolph from age 5 to 16 and then entered Bishop Feehan High School as the first Deaf person to go there in 1963. The School at that time was taking a chance as hearing schools, specially high schools, were not interested in this group of people as we were still labeled as “Deaf & Dumb” which of course we are deaf but far from dumb as most people thought we were also mentally retarded. With many difficulties I did graduate from Bishop Feehan but I still knew very little sign language at that time as I was forced into oral training only. That is when I meet Sr. Gabriel Clune who opened the world for me by showing in sign language and introducing me to other deaf and I quickly learned true ASL (American Sign language). Through Sr. Gabriel I began to understand about God and Spirituality and the services at church began to understood by me. I join Sister and learned a lot enough to be brave enough to teach and run programs to assist other deaf understand God better. Later I went on to Ministry School and there through the Institute I studied the Old and New Testaments, Spirituality, Historical meaning of the Culture of Jesus times and took courses in pray development and the sacramental life of the Church and Church law. I was the first deaf person to do this in the New England are which made me just a little less than a full deacon.
From there I took over the complete program for Deaf services and education as the Executive Director for the Apostolate for the Deaf in the Diocese of Rhode Island which I held until 2005 when the office was closed. So I have been lucky with a rich background in teaching, developing and working on deaf spirituality and helping deaf and hearing understand the need for people to be involved with helping the deaf understand and find thier walk to God and grasp their spiritually that is special in themselves.
3. Todd: What is deaf culture?
4. Jimmy: Deaf culture is expressing life through a more concrete (hard) level. It is a visually and physically based communication not so much voice sounds with inflections (various sounds) as the rest of the world. Granted technology of late has help a lot but it is still base on close community ties and one to one bases were you are seen and are fully present to each other. The idea of deaf culture and it’s meaning is a full course taught in many universities. Here is a definition that might help:
Deaf culture describes the social beliefs, behaviors, art, writing traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are deaf and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label, the word deaf is often written with a capital D, and meant as “big D Deaf” in speech and sign. When used as a label for the loss of hearing condition, it is written with a lower print d.
Members of the Deaf community view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability.
Deaf culture is recognized under article 30, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “Persons with disabilities shall be entitled (receive), on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic (language) identity, including sign languages and deaf culture.”
5. Todd: My understanding is that our Scripture for today is controversial in the deaf community. Some think that it’s saying that deaf people are somehow “broken” and that they need to be “fixed.” They don’t like to be seen as broken. They want to be respected as whole and capable people. How do you understand this Scripture?
6. Jimmy: I believe in this reading that as first Jesus takes the Deaf man away separate from others, as Jesus understands the visual nature of being deaf and wanting to make it private between him and the person. Second the use of touching between Jesus and the man and motion of the deep breath, the chest actually moving, shows that God understand the physical verse the voicing between God and the deaf man. “Ephphatha” is a Greek word for open – for the Deaf man it coming to understand God and the Holy Spirit are open to him in his language – but to help the hearing people understand the message, Jesus physically change the Deaf man. This is how I see it not a fix of my deafness but an example of the many ways God is always try to communicate to each of us even if some times he actually has to change us to show people that God is real.
7. Todd: I love your reading of Scripture here. First, I really like that through Jesus God communicates physically with the man. That God’s communication isn’t limited to what hearing people understand as a “voice.” God can and does communicate to people in many ways. It is our job to continually “open” ourselves to connection with God and each other. I also like how you understand the change in the deaf man to be for the sake of the witnesses—so that they will know that God is real. God changes us for the sake of others in service of the gospel so that we can all celebrate God’s goodness together. What a wonderful reading! One last question: What can we do as a church to make our congregation more accessible to deaf people and those who have hearing difficulties?
8. Jimmy: To begin with just having a person sign once in awhile the Sunday services and help with the social after would be a very big step. Even if it is only once a month this happens. Maybe for those days it could be announce in the religious section of the newspaper to call attention to it, or a sign out front of the building. But what ever is done it needs to be consistent as most things in our community is by word of hand to each other and takes time.
9. Todd: By word of hand. What a wonderful expression. Thank you Jimmy for sharing this conversation with us. I’ve learned so much. It has been a real blessing. Thank you Brad and Maureen for your interpretation. This is just a start, but a really great start. My prayer is that God will change all of us so that hearing and deaf together will know that God is real.