In a world of hearing, the Rev. Cyril Axelrod serves the deaf, and in a world of whites, he serves the blacks.
So when he addresses his South African parishioners he uses British and Afrikaans sign language for whites, Irish sign language and Paget-Gorman (a Morse-code type of manual symbolism) for blacks.
"It's confusing," he says, laughing modestly as his fingers and lips form words he cannot hear but with some effort can speak. "Each time I go from one church to another," he says through a sign interpreter, "I have to change languages."
One of only seven totally deaf priests in the world, according to the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, Axelrod, 40, has been in Washington during the last two weeks, visiting Gallaudet College and Catholic University, where he attended school 15 years ago.
At Gallaudet, the only four-year liberal arts college for the deaf, he was among several hundred alumni who returned for its 31st Triennial Reunion. There, he accepted the Edward Minor Gallaudet Award for "international or national leaders, deaf or hearing, who are working to promote the well-being of deaf people of the world."
Axelrod has taken the skills he learned at Gallaudet and taught them where opportunities for the deaf are more limited than here. His mission as a Redemptorist priest is to live and work among the black deaf, teaching them and serving as their spiritual guide. The Redemptorists, a small Catholic order of priests founded 250 years ago in Italy, are dedicated to, in Axelrod's words, "the most abandoned people in the world."
Axelrod, who was born deaf to European parents in Johannesburg, has devoted the last 11 years to those without hearing, but especially those who are black.
He was ordained in 1970, becoming the first deaf priest in South Africa; the third in the world. Since then--often in defiance of offical apartheid policy--he has established schools and vocational training centers for deaf blacks, advocated their rights to education and jobs, and is trying to persuade the South African Council for the Deaf to adopt one universal sign language--based on American finger spelling.
It's hard enough, says Axelrod, for blacks to find work in South Africa. For deaf blacks it's nearly impossible to earn a living. So one of his first projects after his ordination was establishing a center for the deaf in the black township of Hammanskraal, near Pretoria, which provides adult education and vocational training.
Axelrod says he repeatedly wrote to the government for recognition and subsidy, but never received a response. Generally, official objection to his work is "passive," he says, "but I can feel it."
At the South African Embassy here, no one, according to information counselor Pieter Swanepoel, was familiar enough with Axelrod's name or work to comment. But Swanepoel said education for blacks in Hammanskraal is not the responsibility of the South African government because it lies in the "independent" black homeland of Bophuthatswana. "There are provisions in our budget being made for such people," he said, "but all along it has been our policy that if church groups become involved, that's fine."
In addition to his work at Hammanskraal, Axelord has also provided facilities for black children, who don't have access to the special schools for the white handicapped children.
In 1978, while traveling with a black, deaf nun through Soweto (a black satellite township outside of Johannesburg) and going from home to home, he discovered 170 black deaf children between 3 and 15 years old who could not read, write or sign. After making some inquiries, Axelrod was offered one classroom by a Soweto school.
"He's the sort of guy who goes out and looks for people," says one of Axelrod's colleagues, the Rev. Larry T. Kaufmann, who is currently studying at Catholic University. "He's always asking questions about what people need . That's his nature."
Gradually, with the help of private donations he solicited himself, the program grew and the school offered him more space. Axelrod says he continually invited government officials to visit the school, with no response. In 1981, the South African government gave him three classrooms and three teachers. And just before leaving Johannesburg for his trip to Gallaudet, Axelrod learned that the government has agreed to give him a piece of land to build a new school for 300 deaf children.
Another colleague who is studying here, the Rev. Andrew Burns, says Axelrod's "relationship with the deaf community is much more than social work--he lives among them and communicates on a much deeper, spiritual level."
Asked about his source of inspiration, Axelrod says with a radiant smile, "All I have inside is for other people." In fact, Kaufmann, who was able to fill in gaps in his colleague's signed and, at times, strained narrative, suggests that Axelrod derives inspiration from his deafness and, to a degree, believes it is a sign from God.
Two years ago, Axelrod learned he has retinitis pigmentosis and is going blind. Kaufmann, who was with Axelrod when he heard the prognosis, says his reaction was: "God has used my deafness in his ministry. Maybe he will use my blindness as well."
Axelrod says he always knew he wanted to be a clergyman and can't imagine performing his work without being one. When he attended a Catholic school for the deaf as a child, he says he could "feel the warmth of religion."
"I wanted to give my life to the deaf so I became a priest," says Axelrod, who converted from Judaism.
As a seminary student, Kaufmann says, Axelrod often would speak to other students of the philosophy that guides him to this day: " 'Learn to accept yourself and others.' "
And now, on the wall of his room near Hammanskraal is a poster that reads: "Kindness is the only language the deaf hear and the blind see."