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Deaf leaders in hearing churches

An elder and a deacon offer advice to help congregations empower the hearing impaired in their pews.

YAKIMA, Wash. — We’re grateful when our churches’ shepherds listen closely and hear the needs of their sheep. We appreciate deacons who keep their ears open for opportunities to use their gifts to serve.

But what if you were a church leader who couldn’t hear at all?

Steve Jensen and William “Dan” Danielson are deaf leaders in hearing churches.

Jensen has been an elder at the Highland Church of Christ in Bakersfield, Calif., since 1999. And he’s my dad. I grew up watching him overcome his hearing loss to serve as a deacon with churches in Washington and California and as a Christian school teacher and Joy Bus leader in Washington and Idaho.

Voices | Kevin JensenAfter becoming an elder, he used to say that he might be the only deaf elder in Churches of Christ worldwide. But now that he has heard of deaf elders at the Nsawam Road Church of Christ in Accra, Ghana, he restrains himself to the playful — but plausible — claim of being the only deaf elder in the U.S.

Danielson served as the deacon for deaf ministry at the Summit View Church of Christ here in Yakima — the congregation where I serve — from 2013 to 2016. He recently stepped down so he and his wife, Jamie, could relocate to another city to care for her elderly mother.

Danielson, like my dad, grew up in a hearing family and learned to speak English, a skill that is out of reach for many deaf. That ability helps both men communicate, but for “hearing” their brothers and sisters in the church, they have to rely primarily on American Sign Language and, if necessary, lip-reading.

I asked both of them what they feel is the greatest challenge facing them as deaf leaders in hearing churches. Their answer: communication. After all, how do you serve and shepherd people whose language you can’t hear?

But here’s the surprise: Their more pressing concern — maybe this is why their churches called them to lead — is how the church communicates with other deaf.

“Most hearing people have little understanding of the unique needs of the deaf. Deaf look normal but have an invisible ‘handicap.'”
Steve Jensen, Church of Christ elder
“Most hearing people have little understanding of the unique needs of the deaf,” Jensen said. “Deaf look normal but have an invisible ‘handicap.’ They cannot communicate in the dominant language, which happens to be English in our culture.”

Hearing people, he noted, “expect the deaf to be able to operate in their culture, their language, their church” — even their Bible classes and worship assemblies. But most deaf simply can’t.

Even with the best intentions, many churches struggle to reach the deaf in their communities, Danielson added.

“A lot of times, the hearing will have ideas to help the deaf. But their ideas usually don’t work,” he said, because they haven’t spent time communicating with the deaf. As a result, “we deaf get frustrated.”

And, Jensen noted, deaf people who find it difficult to communicate with their hearing church typically leave after a while, even though their hearing brothers and sisters showed them love.

What’s the solution? I suspect it’s what these two men received from their churches that kept them connected and nurtured them in Christ to positions of leadership.

Dan Danielson served in deaf ministry. (PHOTO PROVIDED)

Danielson talked about how his church always made sure they had an interpreter, sometimes hiring one from outside the congregation. The church also supplied the deaf with their own classroom for Bible study and welcomed the local deaf club to use its fellowship hall for events.

In short, the church became a part of the deaf community.

Jensen shared that, whenever his congregation was resistant to changes that would benefit the deaf, men in leadership rose up to support those changes. That support, he said, always was “just under the surface, all the time, and it will surface just when we need it to encourage us to keep on and not give up.”

And what about these two men personally? What keeps them going as leaders who need an interpreter when they meet with other leaders — and who are constantly stretched like ligaments connecting two cultures, the hearing and the deaf?

“I have a big heart to help people,” Danielson said. “I see that many deaf love Jesus, but they need to hear more about him. I’m hoping to lead more deaf to become good Christians.”

Similarly, Jensen said, he enjoys “the opportunity to serve God and my brothers and sisters in Christ, both deaf and hearing. I also enjoy leading another person to Christ so they have the opportunity to join us on our journey to heaven.”

Those, whatever your aural capability, are encouraging words to hear.

KEVIN JENSEN is minister for the Summit View Church of Christ in Yakima, Wash.

Filed under: National Views

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