Silent study

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they offer the county’s first all-sign-language church service.

They all stood at once and sang joyous psalms with great fervor. Yet nary a sound was heard, save for the faint whir of ceiling fans.

The sermon centered on whether hell is a fiery torment. But for its entire 45-minute duration, not a syllable of fire or brimstone rang out across the 11 rows of pews. The gentle rustle of turning Bible pages was far noisier.

During a study session, the people were called upon, rose and delivered answers to questions. A church mouse’s dainty steps would have been thunderous amid the discussion.

The entire two-hour service on a Saturday morning last month seemed an odd ode to silence. But for members of the Ventura Sign Language Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was emotional, uplifting and educational. They sang, talked and hashed over philosophical issues in their way.

Any number of churches in Ventura County offer similar services to their members, typically in which speakers’ words are translated by others into sign language. But the unique twist here is that the service is done completely in American Sign Language and geared totally for deaf and hearing-impaired people (as well as family members and friends there to help). So not a word is spoken — at least not in the more conventional sense.

Organizers from the local Jehovah’s Witnesses believe it is the first of its kind in the county. It is the seventh such congregation put together by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in California.

The all-sign-language services began in July; previously, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had offered the other type of sign-language services with a translator.

The congregation meets every Saturday morning at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Loma Vista Road.

“We just saw a need in the area,” said Caleb Woolard, a church elder who gave the sermon. “There wasn’t such a denomination in Ventura County. … The deaf people just love it. We’re up and rolling now.”

The nascent congregation, Woolard said, draws from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and numbers about 40, including the hearing impaired and family and friends. About a dozen members are deaf. On this day, they had deaf or hearing-impaired visitors from San Bernardino and as far away as Texas.

Signing on

To the uninitiated, the service was an unusual sight. Two wall-mounted TV screens flanked either side of the pulpit; they would play a large role in the effort.

The service began with the congregation rising from the pews as a woman appeared up on the screens. Following her lead, everyone in the room began doing American Sign Language simultaneously. Hands, arms and other body parts flailed in a concerted medley of symbols and movements that is second nature to them.

Soon, it was clear they were singing a psalm.

“All of our psalms are on DVD,” said Caleb’s wife, Abby, who served as an interpreter for a sign language-impaired reporter this day.

The mix of prerecorded DVD cues segments and live taping of the service was coordinated via a video machine in the back of the hall. When Caleb Woolard came up to deliver the sermon “Is Hell Really a Fiery Torment?” in sign language, his image also went on the screens. Words and numbers also flashed up as backup for his biblical references that skipped around from John 4:19 to Romans 5:12 to Revelations 20:10 and others.

At times, Woolard and Steve McTavish, who led the study discussion, appeared to be actors in a dramatic play or pantomimists with a flair for body histrionics. Their sign language was rife with animated gestures. When Woolard imitated a scared dog during a story he was telling, the congregation gushed in the universal language of laughter.

All of that, too, had a purpose.

“It’s more than just the signs,” Abby Woolard explained in the back row. “Our body movements and facial expressions add intensity to what we want to say.”

American Sign Language is a complex visual-spatial language. By many accounts, American Sign Language is the fourth most-used language in the United States and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, could rank as high as third.

It shares no grammatical similarities to English, the Web site notes, and thus is not a symbolic representation of the English language.

While hand gestures are a central component of American Sign Language, facial features such as eyebrow motion and lip-mouth movements are also crucial.

Joy in any language

Even the ovations are different. At the end of Caleb Woolard’s sermon, congregation members extended their arms and wiggled their fingers and thumbs in the air gleefully.

“That’s the way the people clap,” Abby Woolard noted.

Still nary a peep. As time wore on, the absence of sound took on an almost regal air, the way it does amid the absolute stillness of a redwood grove in the wild.

“You came on a quiet day,” Abby Woolard said with a broad smile near the end. “Normally, we have more families, children crying …”

Congregation members had nothing but voluminous applause for the special denomination and the all-sign- language services idea.

“I feel so wonderful, because I am deaf and there are a lot of deaf and hard-of-hearing people out there,” Ricardo Raya, 29, of Ventura said through Abby Woolard.

“We can be united here and be friends.”

Willie Taite, 63, makes the trip from Santa Barbara weekly.

“I came here to Kingdom Hall and learned how to interact with people and how to help other people,” he was interpreted as saying.

Wilfrid Hodgson previously attended Jehovah’s Witnesses services in Montalvo. But late last year, the 74-year-old Ventura resident woke up one morning and found he was deaf in his left ear, which he attributes to old age.

Hodgson also is hard of hearing in his right ear and believes he will eventually go deaf in that one as well, so he’s started coming over to the Loma Vista congregation and is taking up American Sign Language.

“I look at this as another opportunity, another door to open,” he said.

Little Timothy Wiggins, an 8-year-old Oxnard boy decked out in natty church-best duds, was brave enough to stand up and answer one of the questions during the study session.

Asked later what he said during the discussion, Timothy turned shy, buried his face in his hands and rested his forehead on the back of a pew.

“Oh, no pressure,” he said through an interpreter when he finally raised his head. “I kind of remember what I said.”

He finally decided that it had something to do with why people go around preaching.

Timothy, who attends nearby Loma Vista School, was born deaf, said his father, Daniel Wiggins. Dad also said his two other sons, 11-year-old Matthew and 5-year-old Elijah, both of whom can hear, are learning American Sign Language as a gesture to their brother.

“It’s really good for the family,” Daniel Wiggins, 36, said.

Raya and other deaf members said their earlier religious service experiences were limited.

Their eagerness to learn and interact here cut right through any tiresome political tussles over whose particular brand of religion might be better.

Buc Ha, a 27-year-old Vietnamese woman who was visiting from San Bernardino, used to attend a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles that didn’t offer any interpretation services, adding, “They couldn’t even communicate with me.”

That’s changed since she started learning American Sign Language about eight years ago and ultimately found a congregation that uses it.

“Oh wow, it really touched my heart,” she said in her own way, of the Ventura service.

“I understood it really well in American Sign Language. No problems now.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Ventura County Star (free subscription), USA
Brett Johnson

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 5, 2004.
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