When the Rev. Elke Betz-Schmidt was 5, she stopped hearing music. Then she stopped hearing everything.
Today, Betz-Schmidt, an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church for the Deaf in Baltimore, says she hears with her heart -- and her soul. She heard the voice of God calling her to ordained ministry, and she’s listening now for how the church will minister to the deaf community.
A member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, Betz-Schmidt is attending General Conference as an advocate for a proposal that would provide $350,000 for denominational deaf ministries over the next four years (Petition 40727-IC).
There are 28 million deaf people in the United States. Less than 1 percent of them identify themselves as Christians, and even fewer attend church. The reasons for this vary, but at the root of the problem is that the deaf represent a distinct culture, with their own language and ways of relating in, and to, the world, Betz-Schmidt said.
United Methodists are not expending more resources to minister to the deaf community, she said, and that troubles her. No one, she believes, should be excluded from the family of God.
She worries that the delegates will embrace the spirit of ministering to the deaf, but fail to back up their good intentions with meaningful funding. "Do we really want to tell people we can’t afford them?" Betz-Schmidt asked.
She’s heard stories from the past two General Conferences, when the deaf delegates had difficulty convincing the General Conference to pay the several thousand dollars for interpreting and to allow the interpreter to sit in the bar of the conference.
She applauds places like Wesley Seminary in Washington, which paid for four-and-a-half years of interpreter services so that she could receive her master of divinity degree. If she’s ordained, Betz-Schmidt will become the fifth deaf United Methodist pastor.
Working in ministry with the deaf community, she has learned that church is never just a Sunday morning phenomenon. Because of language difficulties, assisting people with simple difficulties often leads her into a maze of complications. "What takes five minutes, can turn into hours," she said.
She has also discovered that her preaching and teaching have to be done in a more hands-on, active manner. American Sign Language, she explains, does not lend itself to abstract thinking or hypothetical questions, and so the Gospel must be presented in a simple, experiential and visually interesting manner.
Too much talk in church turns deaf people away in droves, she said.
Because Betz-Schmidt was post-lingually deafened, she speaks well and is able to read lips easily. In fact, some people are unaware she is deaf.
However, her deafness does define her, she said. She remembers being at a funeral for a hospice patient with whom she had spent a lot of time. The pastor asked the congregation to imagine the deceased woman in heaven, where she was talking to Jesus, because God had given her the ability to hear.
Betz-Schmidt detests the fact that anyone would hesitate to know that Jesus, in heaven and anywhere else, speaks fluent American Sign Language.
She now wants the church to provide $350,000 for awareness events, grants and publications related to ministries with the deaf. She wants the deaf and hearing communities to recognize each other’s gifts and share them.
"Until that happens," she said, "the body of Christ will not be complete."
Lauber is a staff writer for the United Methodist Church’s Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.