Hearing the word of God through deaf eyes
Although New Zealand Sign Language is now one of the country’s three official languages, Deaf people remain one of our most marginalised communities.
Deafness has been called the most isolating of all impairments. It means living without the stimuli that bring us language and keep us in the intellectual company of others. This is compounded by the attitudes of employers and others who do not understand the different vocalization or unique requirements of Deaf people.
To meet the spiritual and social needs of Auckland’s Deaf community Methodist Mission Northern supports the Auckland Deaf Christian Fellowship (ADCF). Sandra Gibbons conducts worship and provides pastoral care for the congregation.
Sandra is nearing completion of her training to become an ordained Methodist minister. She worked with ADCF as a layperson for a year and then realised she could better serve the congregation if she was ordained.
“I saw that it was terribly important for the Deaf people to receive the sacraments and be married and buried in their own language rather than through English interpreted to them,” Sandra says.
“Language is a very deep issue for the Deaf community. For them English is a second language. It is very similar to the situation Maori people have faced. Everyone has a right to be taught first in their own language. It is about identity and who you will become in the world.
“Often older Deaf people don’t know NZ Sign Language. They use signed English. Many Deaf people have problems with English literacy, which was caused by the way they were taught. Until the late early 1980s, deaf children in New Zealand were taught in schools where they were punished if they signed. They had to learn by reading the teacher’s lips.
“After school, most got menial jobs. Deaf people are very marginalized by the way they are prevented from working to their abilities.”
Sandra says deafness is not a just medical issue. Around the world, Deaf culture is very strong and very community based. Pride in Deaf culture and community is symbolized by the use of a capital ‘D’.
For Deaf people language is more than words, it is a visual display that involves the whole body. Deaf sign language is very beautiful. It is about the whole body. It is more than the hand signs, it is body language and expression.
For this reason Sandra strives to make her church services highly visual with participation by the worshippers. Symbols play an important role during worship services and she uses Powerpoint presentations.
“People’s eyes get tired if they have to read or follow signs for a long time. We try to keep people involved by having them move during the service. For example, we might light candles during prayers, or put hearts on a map of the world to indicate where we are thinking about during our prayers of intercession.
“Deaf people have been done to for most of their life. We try to do things with them. Many of the older Deaf people are insecure and it is hard to take on leadership roles in the services but they try hard and do some wonderful things,” Sandra says.
The ADCF is an ecumenical Church for Deaf, hearing impaired and late onset deaf people. It was set up in 1971 by a group of Deaf people, who wanted to know God but found the hearing churches did not meet their needs.
It meets on first and third Sundays of the month, at 2:15pm in the Aotea Chapel, 370 Queen Street, opposite the Town Hall. Sandra invites everyone to come and join the worship service.
Rev Edna Garner was a pioneer in getting sign language into New Zealand schools. For a review of Edna’s recently published book, Indelible Imprints, see page 12 of this publication.