As a child, Angela Koterwski would recite her bedtime prayers by mimicking her mother. It was the only time she would pray. While she shadowed her mother’s gestures, the little girl didn’t fully comprehend what she was saying, or why.
She was the only deaf member of her family.
“It was the thing to do,” Koterwski said. “My parents took me to church, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t know God. I didn’t even have a general idea.”
It wasn’t until 2001 when Koterwski and her husband, Mark, who is also deaf, began their lifelong quest to know God. Both were in their 30s. They began attending Peace Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., which has four interpreters to minister to the deaf community and also has a deaf Bible study.
“I craved God’s message,” Mark said. “I got so absorbed. We were able to get caught up—not 100 percent. I have a lot more to learn. I didn’t know you could have a relationship with God.”
An estimated 95 percent of deaf people don’t attend worship simply because they don’t understand the hymns or the Bible, said Mark, who is a deaf interpreter and an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher skilled with translating.
Peace is one of about a dozen active worship sites for the deaf in the ELCA, said Beth Lockard, pastor of Christ the King Deaf Church, West Chester, Pa.; director for ELCA deaf ministries; and one of three deaf Lutheran women ordained in the world. She said it’s a challenge for churches to find and maintain qualified interpreters for worship and even harder to find pastors fluent in ASL to serve existing ministries.
The ELCA has both deaf Lutheran churches and congregations with interpreted ministries. Each ministry is unique and fits the congregation and funding available. The ministries embrace ASL and the American deaf culture.
In funding and recognizing these ministries, the ELCA has shown that it respects the visual language and culture of the deaf community, Lockard said. ASL is seen by many as the third most-used language in the United States, behind English and Spanish.
Though the ELCA helps pay for and acknowledges deaf ministries, this community still suffers from a long history of being alienated from the church, Lockard said. There was a time when deaf people were told they were cursed and would hear when they ascended into heaven.
Lockard hopes the future will include lay and seminary training for deaf leaders, and said ELCA deaf ministries is beginning to work with pastors from ELCA partner denominations.
For the deaf community, having access to interpreters means attending a church that welcomes all God’s children. And for hearing family members, it shows that the church wants to include their whole family together in worship, she said.
“We are all created in God’s image—we are not children of a lesser God,” she said. “We all have gifts to bring to God’s table.”
Points of interpretation
Good interpreters will interpret the concepts rather than word for word (transliteration), Lockard said. “This is done especially during the sermon, Scripture readings and prayers,” she said. “But there are parts of liturgy that are considered ‘frozen text,’ such as the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed, that are often signed more literally.”
The ELCA needs to continue to make deaf ministry a priority, said Anita Smallin, who helped organize a conference last year for ASL interpreters. “Most folks who are deaf are not churched,” she said. “I have learned about stories where a faith healer wasn’t able to ‘cure’ a deaf person and their families lost faith. I have heard of folks being asked to leave churches because an interpreter was too expensive or distracting.”
Smallin, director of youth and family ministries at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, Md., said having an interpreter at worship is one less barrier for a deaf person to enter the life of a church.
The ELCA’s preference is for a qualified or certified interpreter in the community to mentor a church interpreter or take special training to learn the particular signs and liturgy.
Liisa Mendoza, a college professor who teaches ASL and interpreting full time, voluntarily interprets at Hope Lutheran Church in Palm Desert, Calif. “Like Luther—who translated the Bible into German—I believe that people should be able to navigate their relationship to God in their native language,” she said. “Deaf people should be able to participate in the service as fully as hearing people.”
The entire church benefits from including people of diverse cultures and languages, Mendoza said.