Speaking Their Language
ASL interpreters share the gospel with those who can’t hear it for themselves
As congregants funnel in to the sanctuary for the 11 a.m. service, they may hear a “Good morning,” chatter about the message, laughter, or even the sounds of the worship band starting. Others hear nothing. Silence. Their language is not, for the most part, being spoken. They enter the sanctuary and make their way to the front at the left side, where American Sign Language interpreters are ready to bring the worship music and message to life for the deaf and hard-of-hearing congregants who attend the 11 a.m. Sunday service at Northland.
As the praise-and-worship band plays and sings, an interpreter signs the songs. But it’s not about just signing word for word or letter by letter. ASL interpreters must relay the words by concepts and give attention to the timing of ASL motions as well as facial expressions, as these are necessary to give the most accurate translations in the language. When the music transitions into the sermon, another interpreter takes over to break language barriers and bring the entire sermon to the deaf and hard of hearing.
“I enjoy being a tool that’s prayerfully used to spread the gospel,” says Christina Trout, one of our ASL interpreters for worship and sermons. “It’s amazing to be able to be utilized with the gift that He’s given.”
She adds: “I love watching a deaf person being engaged. They’re seeing the lyrics not just word for word; they’re seeing it presented to them whole. It’s a whole body experience. Because it’s so expressive, sometimes words seem too small.” About 80 percent of ASL communication consists of facial expressions and body language, while 20 percent is the words, according to Christina, a predominantly self-taught, nationally certified ASL interpreter. Christina lived near a large deaf population up north, so she began signing at the early age of around 3.
“I don’t remember not having signing ability,” she shares. She learned just how important the language is – and how it feels to rely on it – after not being able to talk for two weeks due to suffering TIAs (ministrokes). “I fell in love with sign language.”
But what was really a “life-changer” for her is the fact that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just before turning 21.
“If God allowed me to go through this, then there’s someone out there going through what I am who relies on an interpreter.”
One impactful moment for her was watching a congregant moved by the sermon and songs when she was newly interpreting. “Watching that aha moment enlightens the body and soul. You see it hit…and I’m a part of this moment,” she shares.
Another deaf interpreter at Northland, LJ Williams, mostly interprets the songs, which he can rehearse in advance, as he himself is deaf. That doesn’t stop him from dabbling in interpreting sermons, though. On those days, one of the hearing interpreters feeds him the message in English, and he interprets it into ASL. As the Deaf Ministry team leader, LJ also teaches the beginner and advanced ASL classes at Northland and leads the Signing Choir. “The purpose [of the class] is to bridge the communication and culture gap between the hearing and deaf worlds,” he shares. “In the class, students learn ASL vocabulary structure and grammar as well as deaf culture norms used within the deaf community. “The Signing Choir,” he says, “consists of members of all hearing levels – deaf, hard of hearing and hearing – and the goal is to give space for the deaf and hearing to worship together through ASL as well as make Christian/Gospel music accessible to those who are deaf and hard of hearing who may not have access to allow them to connect with worship.”
This ministry has proved to strengthen LJ’s faith. “As a deaf person who doesn’t always have full access to communication, the places I serve at Northland have provided me with the opportunity to grow in my faith and [have] a closer walk with God. … For others who have shared with me, whether they are a part of the ministries or not, being able to come to Northland events where access is provided makes a huge impact. “Those that are in ministry have said they are able to serve and bless others just like other church members without language barriers,” he adds. “I think the biggest impact is in the awareness of hearing members. A lot have taken the ASL class or are in the Sign Ministry, and that in and of itself begins to create more accessibility for the deaf community.”
The decades of experience of the interpreting team at Northland helps with that accessibility. Northland is one of a few churches in the area to offer this level of deaf interpretation, says Christina, a professional interpreter since 2003. “Services for the deaf tend to be marginalized,” she says.
“The deaf are essentially unchurched because the socialization isn’t there, and [interpreters] are unskilled. You wouldn’t want a surgeon operating on you just learning what to do from a book or YouTube.”
Christina says sometimes even hearing congregants gain different and deeper understandings from watching the interpreters. Kristin Costanzo, one of Northland’s interpreters for the worship team, also teaches a sign language class for young adults, signs for FaithAbility (a monthly gathering for adults with intellectual disabilities and their family members and friends) and Buddy Break (a respite program), and is involved in the Signing Choir. Kristin says when she was a baby and wasn’t speaking yet, as she has Down syndrome, she used sign language. While her school signed word for word, she wanted to learn “real ASL.” She began attending Northland about five years ago.
“It makes me feel good being in the presence of God and being able to communicate through sign language,” she shares. “What I find is nice with Kristin,” her mom, Barbara Costanzo, says, “is she’s fluent – she can communicate with people who use sign language. It’s fun to watch.” “It’s a passion,” Althea Maloy, another Northland interpreter, says of her serving in this ministry. “God’s really given me such a blessing so I can love what I do every day.” She wonders, “Who’s God gonna put in my path today? It’s such a powerful, beautiful thing. “It’s a gift that God’s given me, I believe, and I love to share the love of Christ through such a beautiful skill that He’s given me, that I can give back to Him and share my love for Him by sharing His love with people who would not have access to what the Bible means otherwise,” says Althea, who has been doing deaf interpretation for 30 years at churches, colleges and other schools, and as a freelancer. Growing up, Althea had a girl who needed an interpreter in three of her classes. “She encouraged me to become an interpreter, … and we have been friends ever since.”She is encouraged when she learns of the impact her interpretation is having. It’s not uncommon for her to hear, “That’s what that verse means! I’ve heard that verse a million times, but I’ve never heard it that way.” She adds, “If you don’t really understand how to pull those concepts out, … you would lose so much information.”
In addition to these areas where deaf interpretation is available, Northland offers deaf interpretation for Bible studies, support groups, Boost (a monthly activity night for families with disabilities) and special events. The weekly service is also live on the Northland website.
“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
– Romans 10:17 (NKJV)