Church of the Deaf Perseveres In Face of a Changing Culture
Technological Advances Have Led to Drop in Congregants

By Andrew Ujifusa
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008

When the Rev. Barbara Allen begins to sing "Sweet Holy Spirit," many in the pews cannot hear her voice. But they follow along through the gentle rise and fall of her hands and eyes.

"The whole church can feel it," said Beth Hill-Holst of Bowie, one of 10 people who attended a recent Sunday service at St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church of the Deaf.

She signed her words to Ed Knight of Rockville, who is fully hearing but has been going to the church for 25 years.

"My dad was tone deaf, and it didn't stop him from singing," Knight responded aloud as he signed the joke to his fellow worshipers, who laughed or clapped in appreciation.

St. Barnabas', which uses space at St. John's Episcopal Church on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase, provides a spiritual haven for those who have partial or total hearing loss.

The church, founded in 1859, has increasingly sought new technologies to reach members of the deaf community, even as such advances have been detrimental to the close-knit character of the congregation.

"I prefer the old times when we had a full house," said Jim Lindsay of Rockville, who has attended St. Barnabas' for 40 years.

Rarely do more than 20 worshipers attend Sunday service, about half the church's historic highs.

Many years ago, deaf people who otherwise felt isolated could share the news of the week at St. Barnabas', Lindsay said. Advances such as closed-captioning on TV have cut into the communal drawing power of the church.

But St. Barnabas' youngest members, Gracie and David Meacham, who are 5 and 8, respectively, illustrate the effect the church can have. Both children have cochlear implants that improve their hearing, but they still travel an hour from Frederick to attend St. Barnabas' and see Allen, whom they call "grandmother." They also attend a children's group Sunday afternoons where they learn Bible stories.

"They enjoy being around other deaf people and people who can sign," said their mother, Katrina Meacham. "They need to have role models that are like them."

Growing up in Texas, Allen, who has full hearing, had a deaf cousin but otherwise had little exposure to deaf culture until she began studying sign language 35 years ago. She joined St. Barnabas' in 2002 and has tried to create a stronger sense of ownership and participation in her congregation.

"We are more flexible, we are more informal," she said.

During the Nov. 2 homily, Allen led the congregation in a lively discussion about the nature of saints and souls following Halloween and All Saints' Day.

"Often, I will ask questions of the group and have them answer," she said before services.

A lay Eucharistic minister, Tom Hattaway, who is deaf, signs in unison with Allen during several parts of the services, with hands of congregation members signing responses.

Allen said that her signing abilities will never be on par with those who have used sign language their entire lives. But she said that good sign language must involve lively facial expressions and distinctive body movements.

"Americans think sign language is just hand movements, but it is not," she said.

St. Barnabas' is trying to extend its outreach through streaming videos of services on its Web site, It is also trying to make sure that deaf senior citizens in nursing homes have more access to the church.

But each Sunday, Allen's focus is on her congregation. Concluding the discussion of All Saints' Day, she reminded worshipers of the power of their faith.

"You can be a saint. You don't have to hear. . . . All that's required is to love God and to serve God," she said.

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