Deaf church focuses on community, communicating
AMARILLO, Texas — Worshipping at Paramount Baptist Deaf Church is not a silent affair. Deaf people who can speak joyfully shout during the baptism of one of their friends.
A member of the church’s hearing minority sits in the front pews with a microphone, interpreting into spoken English the prayers and messages signed by Pastor Darrell Bonjour, who delivers his weekly sermon from an abnormally raised stage that allows all of his congregation to see him.
Prayer is held with eyes open.
Conversations are signed in the pews.
Speakers and subwoofers anchored to the ceiling and the stage play music loudly enough for deaf people to feel vibration.
Hearing congregants and guests take advantage of the small basket of earplugs by the entrance of the sanctuary for those who might be sensitive to the volume.
“This is where we make hearing people deaf,” Bonjour said as he laughed about the loud music that appears to be accompanied by a synchronized performance of American Sign Language.
PBDC began as a simple interpreted ministry at its mother church, Paramount Baptist Church. Bonjour would drive church vans around Amarillo, picking up deaf people and bringing them to services. The first day was Easter Sunday of 1980. Three deaf people were in attendance.
Today, more than 100 attend what is now a stand-alone church.
As the ministry grew in popularity and it was realized that deaf worshippers had different needs than the hearing, deaf congregants began holding their own church services, Bonjour said.
They outgrew a mobile home on PBDC’s property. Then, they outgrew a renovated chapel on the property — even after holding multiple services each weekend.
In February 1999, the congregation moved into their own building on Holiday Drive in Amarillo.
The deaf children Bonjour drove to church in the ’80s and ’90s have become the leadership of today’s PBDC and now drive vans to pick up the next generation of deaf people seeking their own community.
PBDC’s congregation is not all deaf. It’s not all Baptist. It’s not all ASL signers.
As much as 70 percent of the congregation is deaf. The rest are hearing spouses, family members or signers who simply fell in love with the community.
Some are Baptist. Others are Catholic. Still others are Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist or worshippers who identify with other denominations.
“The deafness draws them together,” said Bonjour.
Even within the deaf community at PBDC, there is a larger melting pot. There are ASL-only signers, deaf people with cochlear implants, deaf people who can speak as well as those who are hard of hearing.
Bonjour said the church’s diversity is due to its isolation and location.
In larger areas such as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the deaf community might have the opportunity and the population to self-segregate into specific groups and denominations.
That’s not a possibility in Amarillo, and it seems to work for the church’s community.
Bonjour said the community at PBDC is one of love.
“(Our church is) a bridge to work together through differences,” said Bonjour.
Melanie Lyons, a member of the church’s hearing minority, joined the church as a summer missionary and then transitioned into being a member of the staff. She has served as a ministry associate for 16 years.
“The first sign that I learned was family, and it was like lightning hit,” Lyons said with glassy eyes. “I can’t even describe it. It was like this is it. This is where you’re going to be, so buckle in because this is going to be your family.”
Why a deaf church?
Deaf people can bring interpreters with them to any church, and some churches in Amarillo even offer interpreters, but there is a draw in basing a church off of deafness, allowing the deaf to worship with and have fellowship with one another.
“There’s some deaf that enjoy hearing churches with interpreters. For me, it’s better to be where I can get that communication more direct and where I can be around people I can communicate with,” said Brancent Lyons, Melanie’s husband.
ASL cannot be translated into English, and English cannot be translated into ASL. It’s interpreted, not translated, which is why Mark Sturkie is considered the church’s interpreter, not a translator.
“There’s deaf culture; it’s a different culture,” said Sturkie, comparing his 20-year ministry with the church to being a missionary in another country.
“They don’t speak English. They speak ASL, and the way you set things up is different, and even the things you refer to are different, the way you explain things is different,” said Sturkie.
Normal metaphors and analogies in the English language do not work for the deaf community, while facial expression and animation is a key part of communicating through sign.
The communication differences and needs or wants of the deaf are not top-of-mind for most hearing people. There isn’t a general realization that a gap exists, and that gap represents a commonality around which a strong community, such as the one at PBDC, can be created.
Bonjour said the deaf people have taken complete ownership of the church. They mow the lawns. They keep up the building. They lead Sunday school for deaf children. They have a special-needs ministry. They serve hearing churches and, in 2015 alone, they baptized 14 people and ordained their first deacon.
According to Brancent Lyons, who Bonjour has watched grow up in the PBDC and become one of its leaders, this also shows Amarillo the abilities of deaf people, not their disabilities.
“The negative things that deaf people experience are fighting for their rights, having interpreters being provided for, calling a doctor and the doctor won’t take them because the doctor is required by law to pay for the interpreter,” said Bonjour.
Brancent Lyons said this discrimination sometimes follows deaf people into the workplace. Until recently, he was one of three deaf men who worked for Hastings Entertainment retail chain. While he said Hastings was open and accepting of deaf people, not all companies are.
“See what I do, give me a chance,” he said. “Give (deaf people) a chance to see our skills, to learn that we are qualified. We can prove to the community that we are very capable. It would help Amarillo as a whole and the different companies to have more diversity.”
Bonjour and Sturkie said they both see Amarillo coming to that realization through PBDC.
“(The church) is our own,” said Jorge Meraz, who grew up in the church.
“We are independent here. We make decisions for the church. We’re responsible for things that occur in the church.”