In his sermon Sunday at Heritage Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Joo Hai Kang told about when his son was a little boy.
Kang, who is deaf, told the story with his hands. He used signs to demonstrate his son crying and begging for a new toy and he even got down on the floor and kicked his feet to show his son throwing a tantrum.
Using American Sign Language, Kang talked about how he responded to his son, first urging him to be patient but eventually buying the toy.
Similarly, he said, God responds to the persistent prayers of his human children. Kang wasn't encouraging his listeners to pray for toys, but to ask God's help in spreading the Gospel to those who cannot hear.
Later, Kang recounted the story of Jesus' first miracle, when he turned water into wine. He walked back and forth, pantomiming carrying huge jugs of water, then tasting the water and discovering that it had turned into exquisitely sweet wine.
Approximately 15 deaf people attending the service laughed and smiled at Kang's signs and body language, which conveyed a Christian message in a way they readily understood. Meanwhile, deaf interpreter Frances Beaurivage sat with a microphone translating Kang's sermon into spoken English.
During the rest of the service, Beaurivage did what she does regularly in worship she translated the prayers, words of hymns and announcements into sign language for the deaf worshippers.
Many attended the service specifically to hear Kang, who is one of relatively few deaf ministers in America. A native of Korea, he led a deaf church with 500 members in Seoul for many years but since 2001 has been pastor of a small deaf congregation in Jacksonville, Ill.
Getting to experience a sermon from a pastor who is deaf and meet him face-to-face is a great opportunity for deaf people in Lincoln, said Jan Haun, a deaf woman who attended the service.
Haun often attends Bible classes on Wednesday evenings at Sheridan Lutheran Church, where 10 to 15 people study together using ASL. She also sometimes visits the Sunday school class at Heritage Presbyterian, led by the Rev. Ray Meester, who is not deaf but is fluent in ASL because he is the son of deaf parents and has deaf uncles and aunts.
Only a few Lincoln churches offer interpreted services for the deaf, and even fewer have Sunday school, classes or social activities led by deaf people. "There's a shortage of deaf interpreters everywhere," said Beaurivage, who spends several hours each week preparing for her interpretation work at Heritage.
In an interview, with Beaurivage interpreting, Kang talked about his own childhood and early experiences as a deaf person in church.
When he was 2 years old and his mother discovered he was deaf, she "decided to seek God," Kang said. "She prayed, and then she heard the church bell ring. She decided to walk into that church, and that's how she became a Christian."
Kang said he often teased his parents that he was "God's missionary" to his family.
As a young child, he went to church every Sunday, but "was bored to death I couldn't hear the pastor's sermon or hear the music. I became restless and would wiggle about. My mom was always shushing me and pinching me to keep quiet," he said, making the appropriate gestures.
When he was 6, he entered a school for the deaf and his parents finally discovered a church that had an interpreter for those who couldn't hear. "I was thrilled because I could understand what was going on," Kang said. "I felt very much at home. I loved the Bible stories in sign language."
He excelled academically, but his teachers encouraged him to follow in his father's footsteps and become a tailor. Most deaf students were steered toward vocations that required little use of language, Kang said. But he studied English and told his mother he wanted to become a teacher.
When a counselor asked Kang what career he wanted to pursue, instead of "teacher" he signed the word "pastor."
At first Kang thought he had just made a mistake, but he began to feel that God had directed him to say "pastor."
"I was surprised because there had never been a deaf pastor in Korea," he said.
Kang talked with his parents and prayed about it and at last he became convinced that he had a true call to the ministry.
He enrolled in a Presbyterian seminary in Seoul, but had a difficult time because no interpreters were provided. He kept up with lectures by looking at his friends' notes.
"I felt like I was licking the outside of the watermelon, but not really tasting what's inside," he said.
He decided he needed a college for the deaf, so he went to Washington, D.C., to study at Gallaudet University, where all the classes were taught in sign language.
There were no theology classes, and the subject material was easy, but Kang had to learn ASL, which was completely different from that used in Korea.
After a year at Gallaudet, he went on to Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., an Assemblies of God institution that provided interpreters for the deaf. After getting a bachelor's degree there, he wanted to enroll in a Presbyterian seminary, but could find none that provided interpreters. He finally retuned to Washington, D.C., to study at Wesley Theological Seminary, a United Methodist institution that had a program for deaf students.
The lack of Bible and theology programs for the deaf is one reason so few deaf people go into the ministry, Kang said.
He got his master of divinity degree in 1982, then went back to Seoul, where he was ordained as the first deaf Presbyterian pastor in Korea. He served for seven years as associate pastor for the deaf congregation he had grown up in, then in 1990 returned to Gallaudet to get a master's degree in deaf education. He returned to Korea as senior pastor of the deaf church, which grew to more than 500 members.
Kang loved ministering to the large deaf congregation, but five years ago his son, Shin Won Kang, wanted to attend high school in the United States, and couldn't get a visa to come alone.
A friend of Kang's in the states told him that the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church was looking for a deaf pastor. The conference hired Kang under a five-year contract to start a deaf church in Jacksonville, Ill., which also is home to the Illinois School for the Deaf.
He now leads a deaf congregation of fewer than 20 members in Jacksonville, a city of about 20,000, and also travels to several others cities in Illinois to lead classes.
Kang said he and his wife, Eun Hee, who is also deaf, are homesick for Korea but feel called to minister to deaf people in America. Shin and his sister Kimberly, both of whom are hearing, are students at Illinois State University.
Churches of all denominations should be aware of the needs of deaf people and create opportunities for them to worship and participate in church life, Kang said. "If the church can afford to have a deaf leader, that's the best choice," he said.
Because they think and speak in sign language, deaf people actually make up a different culture than the hearing population, he said. A pastor or lay leader who understands and is part of that culture can do the best job of preaching and building relationships with deaf parishioners, he said.
Last Saturday Kang gave a sermon in sign at a meeting of the Homestead Presbytery, representing Presbyterian congregations throughout southeast Nebraska.
Meester, who was recovering from heart bypass surgery and could not attend the weekend events, said the presbytery has no plans for expanding deaf ministries at this time because the deaf population is so low.
There are approximately 300 deaf people in Lancaster County, so it would not make sense for every church to provide interpreters, Meester said.
He has a special interest because of his own experience growing up with deaf parents. "I have a much better understanding of what it's like to be deaf in a hearing world, even though I can hear," he said.
George and Eleanor Propp, a deaf couple who are active at Heritage, said they chose that church specifically because they knew Meester as part of the deaf community.
Some deaf people say they would like one congregation led by a deaf pastor. But others say they'd rather have a choice of what church to attend.
Only a few Lincoln churches besides Heritage provide interpreters for the deaf on a regular basis, and even fewer have classes or other activities specifically for the deaf.
Sheridan Lutheran Church probably has the most extensive offerings for the deaf. They are directed by Kathy Ahrendt, a trained deaf interpreter. Besides interpreted worship and Bible study, there are social activities and events throughout the year hosted by deaf members and their families.
Ahrendt believes deaf people should have choices.
"Deaf people need to go where the spirit leads them and where they can be spiritually fed," she said. "No church can offer everything to everybody."
Sheridan also offers sign language classes, which attract people who have deaf friends and relatives as well as church-goers who want to communicate with the deaf worshippers, Ahrendt said.
Another church that is expanding its programming for the deaf is New Covenant Community Church, which has interpreted services on Sundays and will begin offering sign languages classes next month. "We've already had 30 people sign up for the classes," said Karron Johnson, who coordinates the program there.
Capitol City Christian Church also offers interpreted worship and a Sunday school class, but Thomas Beyer, that church's director of communications, said he believes interpreters alone are not enough.
"What most people go to church for is interaction," not just seeing the service translated into sign, he said. "They need a pastor who can communicate with them directly."
Churches providing sign language interpreters
The following Lincoln churches are listed by the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as providing sign language interpreters at worship:
Capitol City Christian Church, 7800 Holdrege St.: interpreter at 11 a.m. service each Sunday; deaf Sunday school class, 9:30 a.m. Call 467-4458.
College View Seventh-day Adventist Church, 4015 S. 49th St.: occasional interpreted services; call 486-2880.
Heritage Presbyterian Church, 880 S. 35th St.: interpreter at 10:30 a.m. service each Sunday. Deaf Bible study class, 9:15 a.m. each Sunday. Call 477-3401; TTY (teletypewriter) 477-3429.
Indian Hills Community Church, 1000 S. 84th St.: interpreter at 10 a.m. service each Sunday. Call 483-4541.
New Covenant Community Church, 6000 S. 84th St.: interpreter at 9:30 a.m. service each Sunday. Sign class 7-8:30 p.m. Mondays beginning in March, open to the community. SHHH (Self Help for the Hard of Hearing) will meet at the church at 7 p.m. the third Thursday of every month beginning in April. Call 484-5033.
Piedmont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church, 4801 A St.: occasional interpreted services. Call 489-1344.
Sheridan Lutheran Church, 3818 Sheridan Blvd.: interpreter at 9:45 a.m. service each Sunday. Sign choir, made up of both deaf and hearing members, performs frequently at worship. Deaf Bible study class, 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday. Beginning sign language classes offered each fall, open to the community. Call 423-4769.
Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or at email@example.com.