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Baltimore church preserving faith stories of black deaf history

 




Feb. 16, 2004


A UMNS Report By Mary Cahill*

In 1895 in Baltimore, the Rev. Daniel Moylan founded the oldest operational church for the deaf in the Methodist connection. Today, that story continues - on videotape.

A leadership team led by the Rev. Peggy A. Johnson of Fulton-Siemers/Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, is videotaping the faith stories of the older members of her congregation as a project on deaf black history.

"There are many people in the church who cannot read or write," said Johnson. "Many read at a third grade level. A very small number read well. Very few of the members speak with their voices, one or two."

Most use solely sign language, Johnson explained. "English just isn't their medium, but videotape is. They can see the signs and they love to tell their stories."

Driving to a taping session, Johnson noted that in her congregation, the young people are particularly uninformed about the older members' heritage and faith. She plans to use the videotape to help the youth gain an appreciation of the trials and struggles their elders have been through and how their faith in God sustained them.

"Where is their history?" Johnson asked. "No one has ever written it down. There is only one book in print on black deaf history." (Black and Deaf in America by Ernest Hairston and Linwood Smith.)

"We are way behind in capturing the history of this community," Johnson said. "By having the church write the story would mean we would be taking the lead in the human rights issues that this presents ... rather than following behind, as we often do."

Johnson's car pulled up in the driveway of a ranch-style group eldercare home in Columbia, Md. Inside, Bessie Hall, 96, waited, dressed in an elegant three-piece black suit and a smile that outshined the bugle beads on her blouse.

With camera rolling and lights beaming, team member Al Couthen, who was twice president of National Black/Deaf Advocates, allowed his hands to begin the swift and graceful dance that is American Sign Language.

"How did you start coming to the church?" he signed. Hall's hands began the story as her niece interpreted aloud for the hearing members of the crew.

"I was schooled by my [hearing] parents until I was 17," she signed. "Then I went to school at Overlea, a black school for the deaf. I was shy and awkward, but my husband, Thomas, got me to go to church and I learned to sign better.

"I joined the church in 1930, when Rev. Moylan was pastor. I enjoyed singing and signing in church. At first I was very nervous, but I began to sign more and more, and then I traveled with the choir. My husband, Thomas, was custodian at the church. He fixed things and painted."

Hall's story continued to unfold.

"Long time ago, black deaf people sat on one side of the church and the whites sat on the opposite. When Louis Foxwell (the pastor succeeding Rev. Moylan at Christ Church of the Deaf) came, we sat everybody all together."

Hall's story is one of about 20 planned interviews. The completed video will premiere locally in January 2005, at the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Whatcoat Mission for Colored Deaf, and denomination-wide at the 2005 celebration of Deaf African-American Heritage.

The video will have a voice-over narration for the hearing audience and a printed transcript. Because most deaf people live below the poverty line, the videotape will be distributed to Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf members and United Methodists across the connection at a minimal cost. The United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries will receive copies as well.

There was a sense of urgency in Johnson's words as she described this project.

"Our objective is to capture, while we still have them with us, the valuable faith histories of our African-American deaf seniors. Their words are encouragement and true discipleship for this younger generation of deaf people who seek to find faith and meaning in their life.

"Deaf people are a culture," she said. "Sometimes they have been an oppressed culture. The Body of Christ, to be whole, needs to include this community."

*Mary Cahill is a writer for the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

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