Hands of worship: A conversation with a pastor for the deaf
Worshippers rhythmically sign songs to each other. A flurry of hand motions spells out which Bible verses are to be read. The pastor moves his hands dramatically, with impassioned facial expressions to accompany the movements. The only sounds you hear are the occasional cough, maybe knuckle cracking, or the sound of one hand hitting the other in the sign for “Amen.”
This is a typical Sunday at Bible Baptist Church in Jefferson City, where services are for the deaf. I sat down with Pastor Randy Dignan to find out more.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you become a pastor, and how did you get involved in deaf ministry?
I became a pastor in May of 1998 at the age of 22 year sold, and obviously since I knew I was going to be a pastor, and I had deaf family, there was not even a consideration or an option. I knew becoming a pastor with deaf family members meant I was going to have a deaf ministry.
Tell me more about your family.
I have a deaf mother, a deaf father, a deaf baby sister, I have one hearing brother. I have both sets of grandparents on both sides of the family that are deaf, and one set of great grand parents. There was so much deafness growing up we even had a deaf dog. So lots of deafness in the family.
Your church has a specific ministry for deaf people — why is this ministry important?
Not many churches have deaf ministries, and obviously it’s hard, you have to have equipment and by equipment I mean the people who can sign. There was a survey done in the 90s that always stirred my heart, they said theres one hearing preacher to 400 hearing preacher, but only one to 9,000 for deaf people. So if we want to talk about mission and ministry within our country of the USA, the deaf people have a great need and they like to go to church.
How many people do you have come to the services?
On a real good Sunday we’ll have about 50 deaf people here. You know, gas prices, when they went up a few years ago, it did affect our crowd a little bit, but we do have a good — most churches that have deaf ministries only average eight to ten.
Do you think people come to your church, because you offer deaf services? Or, is this a congregation of Baptists who happen to be deaf? Or is it a mix?
That’s a great question. I think when it comes to hearing people, people have so much more variety they can chose from. Deaf people aren’t as picky about whether it’s Baptist or whatever, they want to go to a church that has a deaf ministry. But added to the mix, deaf people are really, really thrilled when the pastor himself can sign. And then the assistant pastor can sign, cus now they don’t have to talk through an interpreter. They can come to me directly.
What are some unique characteristics of deaf services?
Probably the first thing people notice about a deaf services is the music is different. There’s no instruments — they can’t hear instruments so they don’t have any. Some deaf ministries have loud music going so they can feel the vibrations.
The other thing most people notice is it’s very casual and laid back. In most churches the pastor gets up and the congregation sits there and does everything theyre told — deaf people will actually interupt services sometimes. Ask questions, make a comment, you know, it’s a lot more laid back. Those are the two major differences you would notice.
What are some of the challenges?
Sometimes it’s challenging to try and locate deaf people. If you wanted to build a hearing church you could pick a city and just start knocking on doors and meet people. Deaf people are harder to find — they’re harder to track down. What helps is if you find one deaf person, a lot of times, that deaf person knows where other deaf people are. That’s probably one of the main challenges.
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values.