Greenbelt Interfaith News
    Greenbelt News

    November 1997

    St. George's Holds a Bilingual Service with a Difference
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    The interpreter, it was clear, was having a hard time keeping pace with the woman leading the prayers. Although fluent in her native language, she was faced with the challenge of translating the prayers at the same speed that they were given. This proving impossible, one-half of the congregation lagged behind the other as the prayers were given. It was, all in all, a typical worship service for the deaf.

    Or perhaps not so typical. For the interpreter, in this case, was speaking English, and the woman leading the prayers was speaking in sign language.

    October 12 marked the first Sunday of a new experiment at St. George's Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale: an attempt to hold regular deaf-hearing services that are truly bilingual. This is not the first time that St. George's has worked together with St. Barnabas' Mission of the Deaf; St. Barnabas' has held afternoon services at St. George's in past years, and the two congregations have held joint Christmas Eve services. But in the words of St. George's vicar, the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, "This is a unique experiment, having a service where there are hearing persons, but they're not the ones in charge."

    The service alternated between prayers and readings led by members of St. Barnabas' and those led by members of St. George's. For St. George's, Father Hopkins says, this is an "exciting" but "scary" experiment. "You don't know how much it will change [our] community," he says, but adds that "there's been a great willingness" on the part of the members of his congregation to try this.

    The Rev. Kate Chipps, interim vicar of St. Barnabas', expresses similar sentiments. Although she likes the basic idea behind the joint service – "Hey, you don't always need interpreters for the deaf; you can have interpreters for the hearing" – she admits that a bilingual service like this is not her ideal service. "From my perspective, it's easier when everything's in sign language, because everything flows better," she says. "An interpreted service is more like having an audience – deaf people don't take part as much."

    Ms. Chipps began working with the deaf in 1985 and now works part-time for St. Barnabas'. In her early years, she said, she signed "like an octopus with dyslexia." She remembers one early service when she tried to say, "The peace of the Lord be always with you," and instead signed, "The hamburger of the Lord be always with you."

    St. Barnabas', which was founded in 1949 by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, has been going through hard times recently; until Ms. Chipps joined the mission, the congregation had been without a priest since last summer. Now the mission is trying to find a permanent vicar, but "there just aren't people available," says Ms. Chipps. "The pool of people who have knowledge and experience of deaf culture is limited."

    In the meantime, Ms. Chipps is doing her best at the job, leaning where necessary on the congregation members for help with her sign language. "This sermon is about stewardship—" she said during the October 12 service, then stopped and looked enquiringly toward the interpreters. "Stewardship— Responsibility? Okay." She signed the word, then added with emphasis, "I don't finger spell." She received an appreciative round of laughter from the congregation, particularly from her deaf congregants.

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    © 1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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