Seeing the Voices, Speaking With Their Hands

Praying in American Sign Language brings the teachings of Jesus into the hands and hearts of the Deaf congregants of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in North Hollywood.

And all the people are seeing the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking; and the people see, and move, and stand afar off (Exodus 20:15)

On Epiphany Sunday, Donald L. Rosenkjar led a service for the Deaf* in American Sign Language (ASL) at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood. The church’s Sharing Hands ministry, developed by Rosenkjar, has been been serving Deaf congregants there for nearly 15 years.

I’ve had some tiny experience praying in ASL. A friend of mine—a member of my religious community when he lived in Los Angeles—used to daven with Temple Beth Solomon for the Deaf in Northridge. He brought back signs and prayers to us in the garden at B’nai Horin. The effect of praying with the body is immediately visceral and when you’re standing in the grass with the leaves and sky above, there is no separation between planet and person. 

I asked Rosenkjar before the service began to explain Epiphany. He signed as he spoke. “Three wise men see the star, follow the star, and discover Jesus in his manger.” The sign for Jesus depicts nails into the palms of the hands. Gadzooks! Literally! 

At my request he gave me a printed program of the order of service and a brief tutorial in some signs he would be using. Rosenkjar used a hearing aid and read my lips to understand me, putting him two languages ahead of me.

Trying to keep up was a lot like following an all-Hebrew service at an unfamiliar synagogue. I had to keep my eyes open for touchstones and try to connect the signs with the text. Try it with me as you watch short clips of the service in the video. I also read aloud for you, trying to interpret Don’s signs as best I could.

I was doing pretty well until my pages were out of order. I got totally lost during the readings by Khai Nguyen, Rosenkjar’s husband. The couple was married at St. Matthew’s 13 years ago.

“We have an intentional ministry to the gay community both Deaf and hearing,” The Reverend Susan Wolfe Devol (“They call me Pastor Sue”) wrote to me in an email. “The Deaf group is a mix of gay and straight, as is our hearing congregation.”

In fact, she later told me, St. Matthew’s was one of the first churches to be open to gay and lesbian people. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted as a denomination in 1985 to ordain gay and lesbian clergy and “is the largest denomination in the country that is gay friendly.”

Alternate Sunday services at St. Matt’s (as Pastor Sue called it) are interpreted for the Deaf, but every other Sunday the ASL service takes place upstairs while the regular service is going on in the sanctuary below.

Rosenkjar holds a masters degree in theology but is not an ordained minister. He has special permission from the bishop to conduct these services and to administer communion. He told me in the video interview how the mission originated and why it is so important for the Deaf congregants to have an all-ASL service. Anne Hansell who attended shared her feelings about it, too.

Shooting the video, reading the text, watching the signs was an exciting challenge. It was all about seeing the voices.

*A note on Deaf with a capital D: Deaf is used to describe people who consider themselves part of Deaf culture. Pastor Sue advised me to refer to this congregation with a capital D. See this link for one person’s perspective on the matter.

Sandra Coopersmith January 13, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Wow! Great story! My hands are busy applauding St. Matthew's for its spirit of inclusion and Linda Rubin for so eloquently sharing this experience with us.
Jennifer Smith Greene January 13, 2012 at 05:34 AM
Really, really interesting story, Linda! Thank you for giving us a picture of such a unique congregation!


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