Lori Fuller is the newly ordained pastor of Palms Deaf Church, a new ministry in Palm Coast, Fla., for people who are deaf. Fuller is the third woman who is deaf to be ordained in the Lutheran church worldwide.
“Through my years of working with Deaf communities, I saw that they were seeking more in their life,” Fuller said. “There was no ELCA ministry in Florida for the Deaf [community], and the time was right to start Palms Deaf Church.”
Living Lutheran interviewed Fuller to learn more about her ministry and how Palms Deaf Church will serve as a place of connection for people who are deaf.
Living Lutheran: Tell us about your call to ministry.
Fuller: I was ordained last February after graduating with a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in June 2021. My program included sign language interpreting services. I became a pastor after spending 10 years working for the state of Florida as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, helping people find and maintain jobs.
I didn’t grow up in the church. When I met my husband, Curt, who is hearing and signs, in Wisconsin 23 years ago, he led me to Hands of Christ Deaf Ministry, an ELCA Deaf congregation in Appleton, Wis. At that time, I was interested in ministry, but life happened, and I chose another career. God was patient with me, and I finally said “yes” to the calling in 2019.
How did your calling evolve?
I have to thank Curt for introducing me to Deaf ministry as a young adult. I learned who God is. While working in Florida, I realized that people needed help not only with vocations but spiritually too. My calling started becoming very clear. Two of our three adopted children were deaf, and I want them to know God and have experiences like I did with Deaf ministry.
Tell us a little about your motivations for creating shared experiences for people who are deaf through this new ministry.
I grew up in Wisconsin as an only child of hearing parents. They learned that I was deaf when I was 3, but I suspect I was born deaf. It was challenging growing up deaf, mostly because of lack of communication access. I used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, but no one in my family knew how to sign.
I worked twice as hard to understand what was going on around me. I learned to lip-read at the family dinner table in between taking bites. With lip reading, you usually understand 30% of what is being said, so it’s easy to feel left out.
Although I attended a school with a deaf/hard-of-hearing program, I still needed an interpreter to help me communicate with others. It wasn’t until I was a college student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school for the Deaf, that I felt what it was like to be truly included. I later earned a master’s degree at St. Thomas University in Miami [Gardens], in a hybrid program specializing in Deaf ministry.
How will this new congregation operate?
It is housed at St. Mark by the Sea Lutheran Church in Palm Coast, as a separate ministry. We launched earlier this year and are in the planning stages. We hope to be operational by late fall. We’re excited to see all the possibilities for how God will use our church to know, experience and live the presence of God together. Eventually we’ll travel to key areas throughout the state. We’ll also visit congregations to share the Deaf community’s needs and raise awareness for how hearing people can interact and build trust with the Deaf.
What are your goals for this ministry?
My goal is for Palms Deaf Church to provide a safe place for the Deaf community to meet, know, experience and live in the presence of God together. Inclusion is very important to me. Palms Deaf Church will be a ministry where people can be themselves without frustrations, code-switching and other communication challenges.
I believe in walking with people on their journey, showing where God may be in their lives and helping them use the gifts God gives them to serve others. I support the Deaf community and encourage people in living out God’s call. My ministry will educate the hearing community about Deaf culture and the needs of the Deaf—and about who God is and what God is up to in our community.
Why is this ministry needed?
Studies show that 95% of deaf people are unchurched, mostly because of lack of access to an ASL church or spiritual care. Unlike hearing people, who can walk into any neighborhood church, we experience barriers. We have to research churches that offer interpreting services or have a deaf pastor who uses ASL. If we can even find a church, it’s usually far away. Imagine how difficult and frustrating this is.
Deaf people struggle daily with communication access to doctor appointments, banks, grocery stores and more. By the time we navigate all the necessary things in life, we don’t have the time or energy to track down a place to fill our spiritual needs.
Palms Deaf Church will work to limit frustrations and provide a safe space for deaf people to heal and bridge cultures as a community. We won’t just be a church that offers interpreter services for Sunday worship. We’re a church that will be inclusive of the Deaf in the full life of the congregation.