Deaf Friendly Worship: Huntsville UMC Hosts SCJ Congress

Date Posted: 6/13/2019

By Lindsay Peyton En Español
Huntsville FUMC is preparing to host the South Central Jurisdiction United Methodist Congress of the Deaf. Members of the multi-state region will head to Huntsville in July to learn about ministry for the deaf and hard of hearing, which has been a high priority for the church for the past nine years.
The purpose of the upcoming congress is to raise awareness about Deaf ministries and learn how we as a church can make the deaf and hard of hearing feel welcome at church. According to research, only 2 percent of Deaf people attend church. Even in The United Methodist Church, which has a denomination-wide Deaf ministries committee, only a tiny minority of congregations are intentional about welcoming the Deaf to worship and other activities. 
Plans for the three-day conference include a keynote from Tim Smith, a deaf evangelist and pastor. Participants will also gather for workshops, group learning, meals and worship.
“It’s a good way to communicate what’s happening,” Sandy Braken said. “It’s a way to come and see what we can do for the Methodist deaf.”

Helping the deaf and hard of hearing feel welcome in the church has been close to her heart since she met Leslie Michaelson. They became fast friends at another church. Braken was inspired to learn American Sign Language (ASL) after learning that Michaelson was hard of hearing.
Together, the women founded the deaf and hard of hearing ministry at FUMC, which provides signing for Sunday morning worship services. 
The Rev. Ellen Willett recalls when Michaelson first approached her with the idea. “Because Leslie is deaf and hard of hearing, she opened all kinds of doors for us,” Willett said. “When God lays something on her heart, she runs with it. So that’s where we started, just with signing during service.”
She explained that traditionally ministry is spoken. “It’s hymns, services, preaching; it’s just all oral,” she said.
After adding signing to the sermons, the church started offering ASL classes during its Wednesday Night Live Programs. The course, free and open to the public, offers vocabulary skills and insight into deaf culture.

Then, the ministry developed into the FUMC Signing Choir, which perform songs, hymns and carols in sign language. All ages are welcome. No signing experience is necessary.
Willett explained that Braken and Michaelson wanted to expand the ministry to the community. So the church funded both women to train as members of the area’s search and rescue crew.
The community has become aware of the church’s offerings, Willett said. If someone is deaf or hard of hearing at a shelter, they will call FUMC for help. When deaf individuals were in the prison, guards signed up for the church’s ASL classes.
“It was such a benefit for them,” Willett said. “And what a benefit for those who are incarcerated to have someone who understands them.”
At the upcoming conference, Willett said that churches from all around will see what Huntsville FUMC provides. Signing at weekly services also helps raise awareness of the deaf community locally, she added.
Michaelson has been key to making it all happen. “If you’ve got a Leslie Michaelson in your court, you’re a winner,” Willett said. “Leslie is a great planner. She has a service heart that pours out to the community.”
Bracken agreed. “Leslie is truly the heart and soul of this ministry,” she said. “We want the deaf community to have access to God’s love. It’s really just for that spiritual connection and understanding of what God’s love can do with you, how he can walk with you.”
During the services, Bracken will often sign the sermons, and Michaelson covers the songs. “It’s blossomed from there,” Bracken said. “We’re so blessed to have it in our community and our church.”
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