Listen to the Word: Deafness and Participation in Spiritual Community
Managing Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012.–LMS
Growing up I attended many religious services. As an adult I attend church services less often, but it still stands out to me that sound is an essential part of the traditional Christian religious service. Participation depends upon listening, responding, and singing. If the service (or mass, as I knew it growing up in the Catholic faith) reminds us we are a community of people with common religious beliefs, our participation in the rituals is a manifestation—a ratification if you will—of our belonging to that community. (Last month David B. Greenberg talked in our podcast series about how sound—specifically listening to religious services while on the road—allows Christian truck drivers to feel like they are a part of a community of faith.) In addition to singing and responding, there are several sound metaphors that imbue the experience of being a churchgoer: the references to the Word of God, discussions of how God will listen to our prayers, the insistence that we need to listen to what God was trying to tell us, even a parent’s admonishment that one sit still and be quiet while the preacher talks…in sum, to be a practicing Christian requires a lot of listening.
However, in Deaf culture (defined by music researcher Alice Ann Darrow in her article “The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Implications for Music Educators” as “composed primarily of congenitally deaf adults who communicate through sign language rather than speech” but is not limited to them) this takes another shape. When I visited the Deaf International Community Church, located in Olathe, Kansas, I realized that deafness complicates what it means to listen, especially in terms of religious services.
The Deaf International Community Church (DICC) has been holding services in Olathe since 2010, according to journalist Dawn Bormann from Olathe News. They emerged from a deaf ministry at a local Baptist church, but are nondenominational. At the moment the DICC holds services at the Center of Grace, a rented space. The services are open to the deaf, the hearing impaired, and those who hear; however, the services are geared toward the deaf community.
As I walked into the Center of Grace in late January, I was surprised to be welcomed by sound. I heard and saw people talking and signing—sometimes at once. Music played loudly from within the temple, and parishioners milled about. I was not sure if I should walk in and not talk to anyone or if I should just act casual. I suddenly felt very subconscious about my sense of hearing. I found an empty pew toward the back—after all, I would be taking notes and didn’t want to interrupt—and sat there, observing my surroundings. Shortly after, Pastor Debbie Buchholz, one of the spiritual leaders of the DICC, walked over to me and introduced herself, putting me at ease.
When the service started, the same woman who had just spoken to me stood in front of the congregation, signing her words. In front of the crowd a voice interpreter spoke for Pastor Debbie. The effect was unexpected: the hands gave life to words, to sounds, to language while the disembodied (from my angle) female voice translated into sound what Pastor Debbie signed to the crowd. It took me a while to get used to the new sound of the pastor. I had only spoken briefly to Pastor Debbie, yet it seemed surreal to hear another voice speaking for her.
I meditated upon the fact that language is conceived in terms of the arbitrary relationship between signs and sounds. A letter sounds a certain way. Put letters together and you put sounds together. Letters (and their sounds) make words (a compilation of sounds) that designate an object. In this sense, sound is closely connected to making sense of the world. Even though we can create sounds with objects, our bodies are constantly creating sounds as well. The sounds of words come from our lungs out through our mouths and to our ears as they designate people, places, things, and ideas.
At the DICC service, sound—something that we conceive of as naturally emanating from bodies—was disconnected from language. In the Deaf culture language is transformed into hand gestures. Swinging a finger, shaking a hand, pushing down a palm, these small gestures stand in for sound— or stand apart from sound. Even though for me, growing up Catholic, participation came in the guise of listening to the priest, singing along with the congregation, and repeating the prayers, here participation came through hands. They sang with their hands, they prayed through their hands. Being in the DICC service reminded me of how natural and normal we take sound to be. In that space, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my voice, and of sound’s relationship to language.
This brings me to PhD student and Sound Studies scholar Steph Ceraso’s HASTAC blog post on listening with your whole body. In her post she uses an interview with percussionist Evelyn Glennie as a way to reflect upon listening practices and the ability to listen with more than one’s ears. Evelyn Glennie, according to Ceraso, engages in a restrictive sound diet where she sometimes, voluntarily, eliminates sound from her environment in order to become more aware to sound. Ceraso’s words on multimodal listening resonate with me, and put my visit to the DICC in perspective. The DICC service showed how deafness can make sound studies scholars reflect upon the role of sound in our society—and more importantly, how we listen and communicate.
Also, Ceraso’s ideas about multimodal listening make me think about what other ways the deaf congregation at the church listens. If listening is a form of spiritual/religious participation, multimodal listening accounts for how the parishioners participate in the service. The body, including the eyes, become a gateway into absorbing the message (the Word of God) and in that way demonstrate alternate ways of listening.
For this spiritual community, the need to worship in their own language brings them together, but so does the Deaf culture. During the service they prayed together for an end to discrimination against deaf people and hoped that God would help those newly born in deafness. As I prayed with them, I realized that the congregation comes to DICC not just for religious guidance but also for affirmation of their humanity and their culture. The space of the church is a place to recharge spiritually but also become socially empowered.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.