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Educating for deaf ministry and leadership

NCR Staff

Not long before Christmas, at St. Thomas University, a small, Catholic liberal arts college in Miami, a special curriculum team for a new master of arts in pastoral studies with the deaf was introducing the world of deafness to 2,200 assembled students. As young students will, the St. Thomas undergrads innocently asked politically incorrect questions they couldn’t ask anywhere else.

“Weren’t your children sad when they found out you were deaf?” a student asked team member the Rev. Beth Lockhart, a deaf Lutheran minister and mother of three.

Lockhart gently explained, through an interpreter, that as her children grew up with American Sign Language -- ASL -- as their first language they had no reason to be sad.

The young students learned that American deaf have at least two languages. The main ones are Signed English and ASL. The languages are as different as legal documents and everyday speech.

In Signed English, each word is translated as closely as possible, as in signing the readings during Mass.

ASL is the separate language of the deaf culture, a distinct language with its own syntax. It is as fluid as poetry or exchanges between friends, and as personal as the individual speaking it. ASL conveys everything all languages convey, as in the joys and sorrows at a Sunday Mass in a church for the deaf where the children happily sign petitions for prayers for family having birthdays, and adults more earnestly sign petitions for friends or family facing serious problems. Mass in a church for the deaf has a particular reverence. The celebrant and people look up, heavenward, as they sign God. Hearing people tend to look ahead, or look down, as if to see God on the altar or in the pages of their missals.

This month the first five hearing-impaired and deaf students and their two hearing counterparts are in Florida to begin this unique four-year course. As one curriculum adviser, Deacon Patrick Graybill, signs on the cover of this special ministries section, “the deaf are taking on new ministries.” The course is partially residential and mainly online, done from home with local preceptors. The students will be in residence for three weeks in each academic year.

As befits its potential clientele, the master’s program is ecumenical in intent. Of the first seven students, six are Catholic and one is Baptist.

The program’s story began six years ago, when St. Thomas’ Mercedes Iannone substituted for a friend who was unable to give a talk at the National Catholic Office for the Deaf annual pastoral week. Iannone had never previously encountered the deaf culture. Iannone’s topic was women in the church. She talked about their frequent feeling of exclusion from deep involvement in the Catholic church. Later, deaf people told her they, too, felt excluded from any real say in the church.

Conference over, Iannone, university pastoral studies program coordinator, went on with her work. But she did not forget the experience. She gave it even more thought when two hearing students who worked with the deaf, Ian and Nery Rodriguez, went through the master’s level program. They work out of the Miami archdiocese’s Schott Center for ministries to the disabled in nearby Cooper City.

Then, three years ago, Iannone again spoke at the National Catholic Office for the Deaf pastoral week. After that exposure, and discussions with the woman who then directed the office, Nora Letourneau, Iannone decided what she and St. Thomas could do to help empower the deaf: educate.

“I got this idea,” Iannone told NCR, “and went to talk to the National Council of Churches deaf ministry office in Philadelphia with Lutheran pastor Beth Lockhard. A master’s program couldn’t work if it wasn’t ecumenical. The pool of qualified deaf students would be too small. The national council liked the idea.”

As Iannone’s plan was developed, it took on three aims. First, increase the number of highly qualified deaf pastoral ministers. Next, enable deaf people, who do not have easy access to advanced degree programs, to use their master’s degrees as gateways to both teaching and doctorates. And accomplish all that through a St. Thomas program that would begin with hearing and deaf/hearing-impaired team teaching until deaf instructors could take over.

Two years ago the Jessie Ball du Pont Foundation awarded St. Thomas a $138,000 start-up grant. The result is the Schott facility-based Center for Education in Deaf Ministry, under project director Ian Robertson.

St. Thomas University, just a few minutes away, provides academic oversight. “We’re educating for leadership,” said adviser Graybill, who will team-teach Old Testament studies with the Rev. Doreen MacFarlane, a United Church of Christ minister. Iannone will team-teach Method in Ministry with Rochester, N.Y., diocesan priest Ray Fleming, who is deaf. Next time around, said Iannone, “Ray will be able to teach it.”

Serving on the curriculum committee with Lockhard and Graybill (whom Iannone describes as “the guru of deaf Catholics”) are Sister of St. Joseph Maureen Langton, who leads lay ministry training in Chicago; Dominican Sr. Patricia Francis; Letourneau, who directs deaf programs for the Washington archdiocese; and Maryann Barth of the language arts department of St. Rita’s School for the Deaf in Cincinnati. Barth is also adjunct professor of deaf culture and ASL at the University of Cincinnati and at Xavier University.

Applying for the program
Prerequisites for admission to St. Thomas University’s master of arts program in Pastoral Ministries with the Deaf are a bachelor’s degree, pastoral experience, American Sign Language proficiency and basic computer skills. For the three-week in-residence periods during the program, students live at the off-campus Schott Center just minutes from the St. Thomas campus. Tuition is $835 per course (about $3,600 for the four years), plus $275 each time for the five-days room and meals. “Generous scholarships and financial aid are available,” according to the brochure. “Even up to 100 percent,” adds pastoral ministries program coordinator Mercedes Iannone.

In addition to the university’s standard master of arts in pastoral ministry core components, the newly incorporated courses focusing on deaf ministry are Evangelization and Religious Education with the Deaf Community, Deaf Culture, Pastoral Ministry with the Deaf, and Spirituality and Prayer.

Contact: Ian Robertson, Center for Education in Deaf Ministry, Schott Communities, 6591 S.W. 124th Ave., Cooper City FL 33330. TDD: 800-979-3323, voicemail: (954) 434-3306. Fax: (954) 434-3307 E-mail: jrgschott@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001