- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

When Christine Selfe attended church as a child, she couldn't hear most of what the preacher said.

Despite this, there were a few things that Miss Selfe, who is deaf, enjoyed about church. "I did like watching the minister bang on the pulpit," she said. "I couldn't hear well enough, but I grew up with a fascination with the Bible."

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Today Miss Selfe, 40, attends St. John's Church for the Deaf in Birmingham, one of the few churches in America, and the only one in the Episcopal Church, built specifically for the needs of deaf people.

For many members of St. John's, a deaf congregation is a place where they feel included and at home.

"This is a remarkable resource because deaf people know they can come here and be accepted," said the Rev. Jay Croft, who has been the rector at St. John's since 1996 and also serves as archdeacon for deaf work in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. "Many people come from other denominations for meetings, fellowship and for help and information… . Newcomers are welcomed because of the common bond of deafness."

To be interviewed, Mr. Croft typed answers to questions on a computer in an office at St. John's.

Church services usually draw between 30 and 50 people, some of whom are graduates of the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega, Ala. Services are conducted entirely in American Sign Language.

The back wall of the church sanctuary is plain. Light filters through a cross cut into the wall.

If the walls contained a lot of pictures, the images would be distracting for deaf people, who need to be able to see hand movements to understand what is being said, Mr. Croft said.

One recent Sunday, his sermon was based on the first book of Corinthians in the New Testament. Although the door made a loud bang when people entered the sanctuary, the noise didn't distract from Mr. Croft's words.

Before parishioners took their seats, they signed names to a prayer list located on a table at the entrance to the sanctuary. The list makes it easier for Mr. Croft to sign the names of people who are being remembered during prayers.

Like his parishioners, Mr. Croft is also deaf, the result of a bout with spinal meningitis at age 5.

"I did enjoy church when I was a boy and wore a hearing aid," he said. "I did not understand the words mostly, but I enjoyed the music."

Sometimes, though, Mr. Croft, 59, felt excluded during church. "I felt very left out and a fifth wheel," he said.

Growing up, Mr. Croft attended Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Mass., until he was 13, when he was sent to a mainstream school. Sign language was forbidden at Clarke, which believes in teaching deaf children to talk and hear through auditory/oral programs. As a result, he did not learn sign language until he was in his 20s and attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

"I had considered myself a hearing person who couldn't hear," Mr. Croft said. "In New York City I began meeting deaf people who were happy and successful, even though I was taught that sign language is the worst thing you can do."

In New York, Mr. Croft began attending St. Ann's Church for the Deaf, the first church for deaf people in the United States. Established by an Episcopal minister in 1852, St. Ann's is considered the "mother church" of all congregations of deaf people in the United States, and believed to be the first organized church of deaf people in any denomination.

He was impressed with the work the Episcopal Church had done to establish deaf congregations and ordain deaf people, and in 1969 he was ordained into the denomination.

"Over the years, about 40 deaf men had been ordained," Mr. Croft said. "No other church had a record like this."

He also knew that he could serve a congregation as pastor, something he wasn't sure of when he decided to attend seminary. "When I felt called, I knew I could not serve a congregation of hearing people," Mr. Croft said.

In 1876, the Episcopal Church became the first denomination to ordain a deaf person when it ordained the Rev. Henry Winter Syle.

Today, Mr. Croft said, many deaf children are "mainstreamed," meaning that they attend public schools with hearing children rather than schools for deaf children.

"This will impact all churches of deaf people," he said, adding that there are no statistics that show whether younger deaf people are more likely to join a hearing church than older deaf people.

Nationally, Mr. Croft said, about half of all Americans attend some form of worship on a weekly basis, while the percentage for deaf Americans is about 10 percent.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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