An interfaith, interdenominational committee of Washingtonians is about to launch a new effort that they hope will shatter the barriers that have up to now stood between deaf persons and a career as a religious leader.
After nearly 18 months of effort, the 20-member committee has reached an agreement with the interreligious Washington Theological Consortium to accept qualified deaf persons as candidates for theological education.
Under the chairmanship of Molly Nash, herself a student at Wesley Theological Seminary, the committee is trying to raise the $20,000 they estimate will be needed to make the project enough of a reality to attract foundation funding.
Nash said she became aware of the massive problems faced by the deaf in seeking theological training when she met a deaf woman trying to take classes at Wesley.
Unable to follow the pace and unfamiliar terminology of the lectures and classroom discussion by lip-reading, the woman had to rely on the notes of classmates for the content of the lectures. It wasn't enough; the woman had to drop out.
"I'm a student myself," said Nash, "and I know that when I miss a lecture and have to borrow someone's notes, I only get 30 percent of it."
Nash took the problem to friends connected with the Gallaudet College for the Deaf, and the idea for the committee was born.
The committee includes Protestants, Catholics and Jews; both deaf persons and those with normal hearing.
According to Laura-Jean Gilbert, a Gallaudet staff member who helped Nash organize the committee, the committee has focused on two issues: "the need for deaf ministers, priests and rabbis to work with and serve deaf and hearing-impaired persons, and the need to sensitize religious groups on both the national and local levels to the special needs of deaf persons."
Gilbert said that in the entire country, there is only one congenitally deaf person trained for and ordained to the Catholic priesthood, for instance, and only a tiny scattering throughout other religious groups.
"Because in the past the church has not addressed the needs of the deaf, they are by and large an unchurched group," Nash pointed out.
The committee plans to hire a program coordinator, who will work to sensitize religious groups to the needs of deaf persons and to recruit deaf candidates for theological training.
The target for the first year's pilot program is a minimum of three students, for whom the group will arrange the necessary support services, such as professional interpreters.
The committee will also work with the seminaries related to the Washington Theological Consortium in such areas as briefing faculty on how to teach classes, including hearing-impaired students.
According to Nash, the committee will not encourage deaf students to undertake the program "unless they can be assured of a good chance of employment" after they finish.
But with the sensitivity that is growing in both religious and secular circles to the needs of the hearing-handicapped, she speculated, this will not be a problem.