Wednesday, July 5, 2017

We go to a Church within a Church

what word of mouth looks like at Fresno Deaf Church
Fresno Deaf Church, Fresno, California

“Word of mouth.”

It’s really a great quote, one of my favorites this year. I’d asked Pastor Keith Catron how people are drawn to the Deaf ministry of the Bridge Church, and he told us, “word of mouth.” Though actually he signed his answer in ASL (American Sign Language), and Tiffany interpreted it into spoken English. But I guess if he’d said people were drawn to the ministry by “word of hand” that would sound pretty strange as well.

We’ve been to lots of worship services in other languages -- Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish. Sometimes there have been translators and sometimes not. When we’ve had translation we’ve sometimes had someone sitting next to us but more often we’ve had headphones with the interpreter speaking in our ears.

Things were simpler this week. As happens most weeks, an interpreter sits in the front row at Fresno Deaf Church with a microphone and speaks, so anyone who doesn’t know ASL can feel included in the worship service.  

The Sunday afternoon Deaf ministry worship services are held in the Cafe on the Bridge campus. On Sunday mornings, the room is used as an alternate worship space, with the sermon from the main sanctuary projected on a screen during the 9:30 and 11:00 am worship services.

Mindy noticed before the service began that the people tended not to sit right next to each other when they were chatting because they needed room to use their hands and to see the signs. There was a mix of older folks and young, along with some little children who apparently weren’t deaf and some others who were. People were enjoying talking together, and starting the service right on time didn’t seem like a priority.

The service began with announcements. The first was about the ASL translation in the 11 AM sanctuary services of the Bridge on the first and third Sundays (there aren’t enough translators to cover every week). There was also an announcement for Bible studies during the week. There was a time for prayer requests and prayer.

A Youtube video of Hillsong Worship singing “What a Beautiful Name” was projected on the screen for praise time, with an ASL interpreter, Cathy, signing in front of the Cafe as members of the congregation signed along. Another woman came forward to sign “Jesus Set Me Free.” Some people clapped along with the music.

One dynamic that is different in this church from any other church we’ve visited is that children can be loud and no one cares. We also heard someone snoring on Sunday, but it didn’t bother anyone. (I’ve sometimes heard preachers say about people sleeping in church that it is good they have a place to rest. But they usually draw the line at snoring.)

When Pastor Keith came forward for the message, he urged people to sign along with him, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.” He then talked about faith, and the need for people to exercise their faith like a muscle. He asked the congregation what makes faith strong and some responded with signs for “prayer” and “service.”

It was communion Sunday. The ushers dismissed people row by row to get the bread and the cup, then everyone returned to their seats to eat and drink together. There was another song. Then Ronald, the worship leader, asked who had a birthday in July. There was cake available to celebrate the July birthdays.

Pastor Keith had agreed to meet with us after the service but we were able to meet a number of other people first. We spent a little time talking with Tiffany, who was going to interpret for our time with Pastor Keith.

Nobody in Tiffany’s immediate family growing up had a hearing disability, though her cousin was deaf. Though she wasn’t particularly close to her cousin, she got the idea in her head she wanted to learn sign language, and while she was in high school she began bugging her parents to find someone to teach her sign. Eventually her father found someone who led a class at their church. She learned all he had to teach in a few weeks. Tiffany went on to college and graduate school and continued to learn.

Through Tiffany, Pastor Keith told us his story. He grew up in a deaf family. His parents are deaf, and he was born deaf. As a freshman at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, he met his wife, Lisa. After three years there, they went on to North Central Bible College in St Paul, Minnesota, where he prepared for Deaf Culture Pastoral Studies.

He worked in ministry in Florida for about two years, then was called to Fresno to serve at what was then Fresno First Evangelical Free Church (now the Bridge), where he’s been for the past twenty six years.

The Deaf ministry at the church began before he arrived. Cathy (who still serves as an interpreter), began a Sunday School class for the Deaf, which grew.  The church decided to call a pastor for the ministry and called Keith.

There was a hope with some that the Deaf congregation would grow to a point that they would be self sustaining, but since the great majority those in the congregation can’t get full time employment for a variety of reasons, independence has never been a possibility for the congregation. When the Bridge had financial challenges in the last few years, Pastor Keith went from full to part time ministry. He has since found other part time employment (teaching college-level ASL at a local college while pursuing further education in that area himself) that allows him to continue ministering at the Bridge.

I asked if there were other ministries for the Deaf in the Valley. Though there are some congregations that provide interpretation during worship services, Pastor Keith is the only Deaf (ASL signing) pastor in the area, and the Bridge has the only church ministry specifically for the deaf that he’s aware of.

I asked how much the deaf congregation interacted with the general congregation of the Bridge. The answer was not much. Since the Deaf Ministry meets at 1:00 pm, and the Bridge’s other services are 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00 am, there is little opportunity for interaction. The Deaf ministry hopes that will change in the future, with a change to a morning service time. This would allow children to go to Sunday School, and allow people of the various congregations to interact.

Pastor Keith said his desire is to more deaf people come to know Jesus and to see spiritual growth.  “That’s my desire,” Pastor Keith said. I believe that’s God’s desire as well: God’s Word going forth through language, spoken and signed.

Service Length: 58 minutes
Sermon Length: 22 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Pastor Keith picked us out as visitors (and we had been in email contact with him over the past few weeks, so he expected us) and welcomed us. Tiffany and Cathy both greeted us and made sure we could understand what was happening in the worship service. In some ways, the language barrier was more difficult to overcome than it’s been in churches where few people speak fluent English; we know only a couple signs. Still, we were made welcome
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 36
Probable Ushers’ Count: 40
Snacks: Coffee, lemonade, and chocolate cake
Musicians: none
Songs: “What a Beautiful Name”
“Jesus Set me Free”
Distance to Church: 500 feet
Open WiFi: yes
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:

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