A movie crew from the Board of Discipleship came to Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore recently.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Peggy Johnson, was a little nervous before the filming. Hers was one of only three churches that would bring the holy mysteries of Communion to life in the film. The congregation, Johnson realized, with more than 150 deaf and some blind people, were not a by-the-book, liturgical kind of group.
In American Sign Language, the “word” for Communion involves placing your fingers in the in sign for the letter “f” and making a cross in front of your mouth. Communion is eating faith – taking Christ into your body to sustain you.
American Sign Language often does that. It takes theological thought and manifests it in very physical ways. The sign for “Holy Spirit,” for example, involves what looks like pulling smoke from one’s heart. The sign for Jesus invokes the nails placed Christ’s hands as he hung upon the cross.
Among the deaf community, faith comes to life in language. It’s one of their gifts to the hearing church. But it’s not the only one. At Christ UMC of the Deaf, worship is experienced is a glorious, messy, attention-grabbing celebration. Many of us would be wise to pay attention.
As part of a Lenten sermon series on animals from the Bible, the Rev. Leo Yates preached on doves. He took a dove puppet down into the pews to let those who were blind get a sense of he spoke about.
To illustrate the story of Jesus of Jesus overturning the table full of doves, which were sold as sacrifices, Yates knocked over a large basket full of stuffed, beanie-baby doves. Then, just to make sure people were paying attention, he threw the doves into the congregation. People dove to catch them and his message took flight in their imaginations.
Deaf worship is all about experience, explained Carol Stevens, who works as a missionary at the Deaf Shalom Zone in Baltimore.
That one service involved people representing 34 countries, all ages and economic groups and a vast array of living situations. Because of their deafness, many face obstacles during the week would stagger hearing people. But their deafness also defines them as part of a rich culture and community.
Sunday morning, for many at Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf, is more than an opportunity to go to church. It’s a time to live church together with one another, and somehow, God gets well-stirred into the mix.
That was the holy mystery that the General Board of Discipleship caught on film.
During the worship service, the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the denomination, observed it.
I’ve never met a more connected, deeper community in a congregation anywhere. This congregation is literally saving people’s lives — transforming them, providing a venue for deep celebration in worship and real-life fairly constant connections (in all kinds of ways) not only to their pastors but to each other,” he wrote in his blog, “emergingumc.”
“Christ Church of the Deaf has not contrived its communitas. It simply lives it. Powerfully. Together and individually,” Burton-Edwards wrote.
Communitas is not a word one hears very often. It’s Latin and has its core in the concept of the essence or core of what it means to be together as people. It conjures up a shared and diverse souls living in a moment, with and for one another.
I felt that at Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf when the congregations dove for doves and gathered around the Communion table.
I also felt it with the beating of the bass drum as the choir process, signing “Jesus, we are here.” They are, and, in their faith, they invite you to be present as well.