If you’re deaf and want to attend a worship service, you’re likely to encounter some difficulties.
If you’re blind, it’s not much easier. Few religious texts are widely available in Braille.
Most mainline religious groups don’t cater expressly to the deaf or blind. They ensure their buildings are compliant with the American Disabilities Act, and they often make available sound amplification devices for the hard-of-hearing. But few churches, synagogues and mosques employ someone proficient in sign language.
One denomination, though, is determined to reach as many people worldwide as possible, and has devoted significant time and resources to developing programs and materials for the deaf and blind.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have translated the Bible into approximately 160 languages, including American Sign Language, or ASL (as well as other sign languages used elsewhere in the world). The ASL translation is a series of videos. A Braille translation of the Bible also is available.
The effort began in 2005 when Jehovah’s Witnesses proficient in ASL began converting the church’s New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures into sign language. They began with the book of Matthew. Five years later, all of the New Testament had been recorded.
And it’s not only the Bible that receives such treatment; several other texts produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses and others also have been translated into more than 700 languages.
The religious order takes its outreach to the deaf so seriously that it holds two weekly meetings in Charleston (7 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. Saturdays at Kingdom Hall, 1550 Meeting St.), and it organizes 11 ASL conventions across the country.
One such convention will be held at the Assembly Hall in Orangeburg (visible from Interstate 26) Aug. 10-12.
“We’re expecting around 1,000 from five different states,” said Lee Morris Jr., a Witness who operates Charleston Interpreting Services. His company, which is not affiliated with the church, offers a variety of services to any customer with no religious strings attached, but he also helps his denomination develop its multilingual texts.
The convention attracts worshippers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and parts of Alabama and Tennessee, he said.
Because Jehovah's Witnesses strive to reach people across the globe, their translation services are highly prioritized.
“People’s relationship with the Creator is best accomplished when (they use) the language of their heart, the language of their birth, the one in which they can truly grasp things more easily,” said Patrick Lynch, a media services official based in Atlanta.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has no special programming for the deaf or blind, other than the hospitality they extend to all worshippers, according to Director of Communications Holly Votaw.
Reform Judaism in the U.S., like other religious organizations, celebrates inclusive legislation and other federal policies that serve the disabled, but individual synagogues for the most part do not offer special programming for the deaf or blind, according to Rabbi Greg Kanter of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston.
Many do have listening devices they can offer the hard-of-hearing, though hearing aids now in use often permit volume adjustments that adequately assist their users, Kanter noted. Few religious institutions have Braille Bibles on hand.
But perhaps more houses of worship should do more to cater to the deaf by offering sign language during services and providing customized programming to the disabled, he said.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: If you offer it, they’ll come,” Kanter said.
The Rev. Justin C. Cribb, who is deaf, grew up in the Baptist church (his father was a pastor) and recognized a calling to ministry when he was 10, he wrote in an email.
At first, he worshipped like everyone else.
“While growing up, I enjoyed sharing God’s love through music,” he wrote. “Though I don’t sing very well with my voice, I can with my hands. I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to share music with hearing and deaf people through the years.”
Eventually, he realized he should be ministering to the deaf.
“You see, the Bible says, 'Whosoever shall call upon the Lord shall be saved,' but first they have to believe,” Cribb wrote. “And how will they believe if they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher who can sign? I humbly accepted the call and was ordained on September 18, 2011. I served as the deaf pastor of the Deaf Story Church at Hoffmeyer Road Baptist Church in Florence, SC until December 2016, and now I am currently a deaf pastor of LowCountry Deaf Church with Harbour Lake Baptist Church in Goose Creek.”
It’s important for any worshipper to experience God in his native language, Cribb wrote in his email.
“I’ve had a joy to seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ because they could learn of God’s love for them in ASL, the language they understand.”
For Cribb, outreach to the deaf is both an opportunity and an obligation.
He noted that the deaf too often are overlooked by mainstream institutions, including the church, and cited the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, which states: “Most of the 35 million deaf people around the world have never seen Jesus's name signed in their language. Often ignored and oppressed, the deaf are some of the least evangelized people on Earth.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t agree more.
“Sign language use is relatively small, but it’s important to convey spiritual language to all,” Lee Morris said.