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Deaf actor finds his place in the church

NCR Staff

Abstract ideas of catechetical content challenge all people not familiar with them, not just deaf people,” said Patrick Graybill, Catholic deacon -- and an actor with teaching in his blood.

Graybill, who was born deaf, was talking about the discoveries that can come as new deaf/hearing impaired pastoral ministries scholars apply their knowledge in the world of evangelization and catechesis.

There’s no knowing where such developments can lead.

Same has been true with Graybill, now 61, for 10 years an actor with the National Theater for the Deaf who, internationally and nationally, “enjoyed being exposed to the world, meeting deaf people everywhere.” But the stage wasn’t quite where he wanted to be.

That became obvious again during the eighth touring year when Graybill, a native of Overland Park, Kan., made an eight-day silent Jesuit retreat. The earlier tug to minister in the Catholic church still pulled at the former seminarian.

In 1982 Graybill studied for the permanent diaconate at Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. He is a deacon at Rochester’s Emmanuel Church for the Deaf and teaches Themes and Symbols in Literature in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Department of Cultural and Creative Studies. “For fun,” he still translates plays from English into American Sign Language.

Currently, Graybill is also one of the curriculum advisers and team-teachers at St. Thomas University in Miami. The university offers an imaginative new master’s of arts in pastoral ministry with the deaf, run in conjunction with the Miami archdiocese’s Schott Center for the Deaf and Disabled.

That’s where NCR reached Graybill for a telephone interview -- speaking through interpreter Mary Chute-Un. Graybill, who grew up in a family with hearing parents, three deaf sisters and one deaf brother, attended the residential Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe. He learned to sign from his two older sisters who went to the same school.

At Gallaudet University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in deaf education, he wanted to be a teacher like his mother. “I’d also been really inspired by several deaf teachers at the Kansas School,” he said.

After graduation he taught at the Kendall School for the Deaf on the Gallaudet campus, but became disillusioned. “The school really was focused on English as a first language” instead of American Sign Language, he said, “and they had the idea that deaf teachers were better off teaching deaf students who were slower.

“That wasn’t my idea at all,” said Graybill. “I wanted to use ASL to teach literature, theater, English to deaf students. But I was never given that opportunity.” (For a further explanation of the difference between signing English and using American Sign Language, please see preceding story.)

The big change for the U.S. deaf community, he said, came 30 years ago when ASL was recognized as a legitimate language. “Deaf people felt empowered.” A second breakthrough came in the 1980s when Gallaudet students demanded -- and got -- a deaf president at the university for the deaf.

After teaching at Kendall, Graybill entered the seminary. “The barriers in the seminary were hearing people who did not understand the deaf culture,” he said. “They had their ideas of what to do with us without ever bothering to check with us what we wished ourselves.”

“Not bothering to check with us” has been a recurring problem throughout the church’s contacts with the deaf community, he said. Nonetheless, studying alone in his bedroom most of the time because the classrooms did not have interpreters, he maintained a “good B” average. After two years, “exhausted and burned out,” he left. And went on tour.

“Barriers continue to the present day,” said Graybill. “The stigma does continue. For example, deaf people are resistant to the medical perception of deafness. The medical establishment finds different ways to fix us, while we ourselves are happy with ourselves, our deafness, and enjoy our sign language.”

As a boy, young Patrick Graybill attended the pre-Vatican II Mass. It was a mystery in more ways than one, for the priest had his back to the people. His mother taught Patrick to read early so he could follow along through the missal. “But I wanted greater access to the church.”

Later, he met priests who could sign and was impressed. Indeed, as a 10-year-old he and his sister taught Kansas City, Kan., diocesan priest Fr. William Finnerty how to sign. Finnerty was for many years the director of diocesan social services.

Vatican II liturgical changes, with the priest facing the people, did not make much difference to a deaf congregation. “Maybe we could lip read a little,” Graybill explained, “perhaps catch 30 to 50 percent. But there’s a lot of guesswork involved. I would prefer priests who can sign.”

One of his skills, he said, is translating. The National Catholic Office for the Deaf held its annual “Pastoral Week” in Austin, Texas, Jan. 13-17. Graybill often attends to give keynote talks and workshops.

“Two years ago I taught how to translate the Mass into sign language,” he said.

The Vatican has not given approval to ASL as a liturgical language.

Does that bother Graybill? “Yes and no,” he replied. “Although we express in sign language, we still refer to the English grammar. I would prefer that Rome leave us room to experiment, allowing deaf people to take an active part in the translation. It’s too early for a fixed translation,” he said.

His mind is on other things, such as St. Thomas University master’s program. “The target audience is the deaf who have bachelor degrees,” he said, “admittedly a small group. Not long ago the dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf spoke of the time when the deaf couldn’t teach because they didn’t have advanced degrees. They couldn’t teach the next generation.

“Same with deaf ministry,” Graybill said. “Some need to get a master’s, some need Ph.Ds. We will be educating for leadership.

“By encouraging more deaf people to become spiritual leaders,” he said, “we don’t have to rely so much on hearing people all the time. We deaf are skilled enough and intelligent enough to be spiritual leaders in the Catholic church ourselves.”

As for the new generation of leaders St. Thomas will help prepare, “my hallmark for them is that they will know where they stand as God’s servants without worrying if they are doing right in the presence of hearing authorities.”

As the interview ended, still the actor/artist, Graybill agreed to sign for the NCR front-page headline.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001