Religious communities usually tell their congregants and visitors that they want them to feel welcomed when they come through their doors to attend a worship service.
However, many houses of worship are not equipped to fully connect with those of differing abilities.
Rev. Raymont Anderson is attempting to bridge such gaps, namely by communicating with people who are deaf as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
“People don’t realize that it’s an actual profession,” he said.
Anderson, who has been ordained as a Christian minister, an interfaith minister and a New Thought minister, was also ordained in 2017 as a minister with Religious Science, now known as the Centers for Spiritual Living (CSL).
A native of Pittsburgh, Anderson said he was inspired to learn ASL after watching the TV shows “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when he was 5 years old. He recalled watching Linda Bove, a deaf actress who was the librarian on “Sesame Street,” and was fascinated by how she communicated with the cast using her hands.
“‘What is she doing? What is that?'” Anderson said he remembers thinking while watching the show. “I need to learn this.”
On “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the character Mayor Maggie, played by Maggie Stewart, wasn’t deaf but was fluent in sign language. Anderson said he connected with her because she also is from Pittsburgh.
Several years later, Anderson had his first encounter with deaf people in middle school. He noticed that nobody interacted with the deaf students and they communicated with themselves.
“I was a shy kid — I also didn’t reach out but one day I will have deaf friends and one day I will not be afraid to talk to people like them,” he said. “I am going to have friends and community with folks.”
When Anderson went to college to pursue a degree as an art teacher, he decided to go back to his middle school as part of his student-teacher work. The art class he observed, ran by a former teacher of his, had deaf students, but Anderson noticed that the teacher wasn’t reaching out to help them learn the lesson and their interpreter was not in the classroom.
“How are they learning?” Anderson asked the teacher.
The teacher’s response was, “Well, if their interpreter felt this was important enough, they would be here. Since they don’t think it’s important enough, to hell with them.”
Shocked by the teacher’s response, Anderson decided that if he became a teacher, he would push his students, no matter their situation, to learn things they didn’t know before.
Right before Anderson graduated from college, he signed up for a sign language class. He was not doing well and met with the instructor for advice to improve but it didn’t help. For his midterm exam, one of the assignments was to present a song in ASL. He realized during the process of translating the song “The Gates of Heaven Opens for Me” that he had incorrectly been trying to learn ASL as English.
“English is a linear, two-dimensional form of communication. Sign language is three-dimensional and is spacial,” he said. “It’s based on concepts, not words.”
After his epiphany, he markedly improved, bringing his impressed instructor to tears.
“‘What did you do? Did you, like, find the ASL from Rosetta Stone?'” Anderson recalled his instructor marveling.
After Anderson graduated, he taught in the Pittsburgh public school system while continuing to take classes in ASL. In 2003, a friend reached out to him and offered a job with a performing arts company as an interpreter based in D.C. and was a guest performing artist with them for two years.
Anderson recently accepted the role of senior minister at CSL Greater Baltimore after serving as associate minister at CSL DC.
“It started while interpreting in Christian churches in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Being an interpreter in a religious setting gave me greater understanding once I ended up on the other side of the pulpit as the minister [and] gave me the insight of knowing if we’re going to have an inclusive community.”
Anderson said it is ideal to have a team of interpreters working in shifts of about 15-20 minutes each, based on their level of stamina. In a religious setting, the interpreters will switch off rather during a transition in service and opt to switch.
The majority of Anderson’s experiences with faith communities accommodating deaf congregants and interpreters have been positive. However, he said he’s faced challenges with having interpreters in religious settings, mainly stemming from a general lack of understanding of what it takes to have ASL presence or start or restructure a deaf ministry.
“You’re one of those finger-talkers,” he said about how his work was described. Another person called him “one of those sign-language people.” He informs them that interpreter is the appropriate word to use.
Anderson said other challenges clergy and lay leaders often face include not knowing how to properly screen interpreters, where to sit deaf congregants to give them visibility of the interpreter during service, or whether the deaf person reads.
Additionally, ushers and others will sometimes talk louder to deaf people, mistakenly thinking that it will help them understand what they are saying. Then there is the issue of whether to pay for an interpreter.
Anderson said he knows of two CSL communities that has a regular interpreter during their Sunday services.
“You have shunned them,” he said. “You already started to discriminate.”
Anderson encourages people to become aware and mindful of ways to communicate with the deaf. He recommended using a sheet of paper to write what you need to say to share a message.
“As hearing people, we take a lot of things for granted,” he said.