As music plays at the Fresno Deaf Church on a recent Sunday, most people sitting in the pews sign along. The only audible voice in the room is the one on the recording, singing a soulful, “I Can Only Imagine,” but sound isn’t needed to make the devotion of the worship evident.
They are expressing themselves in their own language – American Sign Language – a complex mix of intricate hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures.
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Some can faintly hear the melody. Others, not at all. There aren’t signs for around a quarter of the English words in “I Can Only Imagine,” says the Rev. Keith Catron, but much of the song’s meaning comes through.
“When you think about, ‘imagine,’ ” Catron says with sign language, translated by interpreter Kathy Doerksen for this story, “that concept is difficult to convey in ASL (American Sign Language).”
This communication disjunction between the non-hearing and hearing is a common challenge for deaf people, but at Fresno Deaf Church, the deaf are mostly free of that burden. Communication is fluid and effortless as pastor and parishioners converse in their first language – sign language – at the church run by the deaf for the deaf. It’s the only one of its kind between Modesto and Bakersfield except for a Seventh-day Adventist deaf church in Fresno, Catron says.
“If you compare us with a hearing church,” says Matthew Mickle, a Fresno Deaf Church member and volunteer, “it doesn’t mean the people who are deaf are lacking the ability to hear God’s word. Whether you’re deaf or whether you’re hearing, it’s both the same.”
The important thing is that you learn God’s word. It’s the same with any language.
Matthew Mickle, a Fresno Deaf Church member and volunteer
Catron has severe tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, but he can hear a little. The pastor, who also teaches sign language at Fresno State, chooses not to speak because he’s fully immersed in deaf culture and considers himself “culturally deaf.” He was born to deaf parents, and his wife and two sons are deaf.
His decision to start leading the Fresno Deaf Church in the late 1980s is rooted in experiences from childhood, when he attended a Lutheran church for the deaf run by a pastor who could hear. Catron’s father wasn’t able to understand many of the services because the pastor’s signing wasn’t fluent.
“So that stuck in my mind,” Catron says. “I remembered my father, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to solve that.’ So I became a pastor as a result.”
Many deaf people cannot read or write and learn the Bible solely through sign language.
Many deaf people don’t read and write.
The Rev. Keith Catron, pastor of Fresno Deaf Church
Catron estimates around half of his church’s 35 to 40 members only communicate through sign language. Michelle Bronson, executive director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center in Fresno and a member of Fresno Deaf Church, says the average deaf person reads at a fourth-grade level.
During last Sunday’s service, Catron focuses on the Book of Nehemiah as part of a series he’s teaching that started with Adam and Eve. He hopes the message encourages people to pray often like Nehemiah and to talk freely with God “without worrying if God is going to get angry.”
“I want people who are deaf to get a taste of what His love is like,” Catron says, “and to know Jesus and to develop a relationship with Jesus. That’s my passion. That’s my joy.”
Mickle says a service delivered in sign language is much different than an interpreter translating English into sign language, which happens at a number of churches in the Valley.
“It’s the same thing as the Spanish church that’s here on campus,” Mickle explains. “People who are Mexican or Spanish or who use Spanish as their first language like to go and hear the message in their language. It doesn’t mean that we are rejecting the hearing world.”
Bronson says around 9 percent of people have some kind of hearing difficulty. The deaf and hard of hearing face a number of challenges, she says, including employers afraid to hire them, and parents hesitant to teach them sign language out of a misguided belief it will make it harder for them to learn to speak or read. Deaf students in the area also have few peers their own age, in part because children are spread between three programs in Fresno and Clovis where many learn alongside children of different grade levels, Bronson says.
At least at Fresno Deaf Church, these challenges can be laid aside.
“We value our time with each other,” says Talitha Chumley, a church member and volunteer. “We value our interaction and being able to talk to someone else who has the same language, who has a common life experience. We don’t have those opportunities often, and when we get those opportunities, we take advantage of it, so it’s highly valued. It’s a rare opportunity for deaf people to learn from someone who is also deaf, and we understand in the same way.”
I really enjoy deaf culture – how we act, how we talk, how we interact.
The Rev. Keith Catron, pastor of Fresno Deaf Church
Bronson describes Catron as wonderful, warm, gentle, wise and respectful – a man who sees the best in people and makes the Bible “come to life.”
Catron hopes more people reach out to the deaf, many of whom he says often feel isolated and cannot drive, and bring them to the deaf church.
Sometimes Catron wishes he could hear, but most of the time, he doesn’t.
“I really enjoy deaf culture,” he says, “how we act, how we talk, how we interact. It’s beautiful, and I value that.”