I remember once visiting an Eastern Orthodox parish in Phoenix, Arizona and during the Divine Liturgy I realized the woman sitting in the row ahead of me was deaf. Not hard of hearing, but stone deaf. I caught her attention and starting signing in ASL (American Sign Language) to her. It turned out she had gone to the same Deaf school as my parents and was a classmate of theirs. I asked her if she wanted me to interpret some of the Liturgy to her? She told me no. She had been going to this parish for over 30 years and never had an interpreter before–nor had anyone ever offered one.
I marveled at her simple faith for I wonder if I could have persevered with so little understanding of what was happening at the services. One could argue, perhaps successfully, that her faith was stronger than many of the hearing people and that her understanding of the mystery encountered during the Liturgy was more profound.
Still, I felt bad that she had never had an interpreter all these years. I thought of my own parents who also are deaf. They were not, at that time, at a stage where I felt they would respond to an invitation to come to Liturgy. But, if they did, how would they be received? Thus began the realization that here in North America there really is very little ministry to the deaf in Orthodox parishes — even in large metropolitan cities with larger deaf populations.
Now, this is not the case in Russia. Here for example, is a Russian news report of Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady in Moscow- a parish that serves both the deaf and the blind. The report is in Russian, but don’t let that bother you. At about 21 seconds into the video the report shows the parish and part of a liturgical service:
Services are chanted in Slavonic and simultaneously translated into Russian Sign Language. The people in the parish do the responses in sign language as well.
This parish was also featured in another news report. Besides ministering to Deaf, they also make an effort to make the blind more welcome:
A conventional Orthodox service can leave blind and deaf people feeling lost. But one church in Moscow has changed all that by catering for its congregation’s special needs.
Most of the congregation at the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple are deaf or blind, and it is only thanks to the pioneering efforts of the church that they are able to come and express their faith.
The church was founded by Archdeacon Pavel Troshenkin and over the last eighteen years the team of priests has continued his work. They have worked with the deaf community to evolve the sign language that they currently use in worship.
The services are for everyone – and the ability to go there and worship and be able to mix with people from outside the blind and deaf community is part of what makes this church so important for those who attend.
“In our family, children are hard of hearing. Taking my children to a usual church was impossible. They simply wouldn’t understand. The first time we came here, my husband and I knew instantly that this was our church,” says parishioner Elena Mifeyenkova.
The church was chosen for these special services because there are no columns, so the priest can be seen from any point during the sermon. Confession is held in sign language in a screened-off section, and whereas in most churches the icons of the religion are purely visual, in this church the blind are able to touch them.
“In a usual church, icons are only available visually. This is the first church that makes relief icons accessible to blind parishioners,” says President of the European Deaf Blind Union Sergey Sirotkin. “I asked people why this could not be done before, but got no answer. I was told icons were only intended for visual perception, and that spiritual interaction was only possible through eyesight. I think, though, that this is wrong,” he believes.
People who come to the Tikhvin Icon of Our Lady Temple to express their faith say they are happy to have such a special place of worship, but until there are other churches like this, they will remain some of the few who can. [Go to the website for the news report to see another video of this parish — this report is in English.]
Orthodox services are interpreted into Greek Sign Language, as this example of the Trisagion (“Holy God”) from a Liturgy in Greece:
As I said earlier, very little work has been done with the Deaf in mind in Orthodox parishes here in North America. But, such is possible as the examples from Russia and Greece show. I pray the day for deaf ministry amongst Orthodox here in North America is not far away.