In April 2016, the Rev. Juliet Thondhlana of St. Matthew United Methodist Church presided over a rather unusual wedding. The bride and groom were both Deaf.
“I was limited in what I could do in the pre-marriage counseling, as I did not know sign language,” said Thondhlana. “I could have done better if I was able to communicate with the couple. I learned my lesson then and became keen to learn how to sign,” she said.
Thondhlana arranged an interpreter to assist during counseling and on the wedding day.
Sadly, the newlyweds failed to fellowship in The United Methodist Church and moved to another denomination where they were able to communicate with other congregants conversant in sign language.
It is against this background that the Chitungwiza Marondera District decided to conduct sign language and Deaf awareness training in order to attract and retain Deaf members.
Joshua Mufunde, district worship chairperson, said the first level of training in April was aimed at church ushers and sermon interpreters and attracted 25 participants.
This month, 12 members from Marondera trained in sign language. They included two pastors: the Rev. Blessing Saunyama and the Rev. Pathias Hlahla. Marondera Inner City United Methodist Church junior church lay leader Darryl Zvionere, 11, was the youngest trainee.
“Some members have gone beyond initial training for people who are the first point of contacts for new church members. We are targeting to train at least six people per local church in order to totally embrace hearing-impaired members,” he said.
“Those intending to provide live interpretation during church services have to study up to Level 4. It costs $125 per course,” Mufunde said.
Hilltop United Methodist Church in Mutare has the most vibrant sign language ministry in the Zimbabwe East Conference. Other churches with sign language during services are St. John Chikanga and St. James Dangamvura, which also are in Mutare.
There are over 30 Deaf members worshipping at Hilltop, said Raymond Makuwaza, the Deaf ministry outreach program director.
“Hilltop Deaf ministry started in 2004 with six members and the community has grown. We have eight interpreters at our church,” he said.
“They just worship with the rest of the church and whenever there are programs which they can participate, they fit in with other members,” Makuwaza said.
“Some members of the congregation have acquired basic sign language since they have been in the church for a long time.”
Last year, the Hilltop Deaf ministry received a grant that funded the outreach program from July to December.
For the first time, Deaf members had the opportunity to attend the women’s convention at Clare camping ground, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Mutare.
Spiwe Mhere, a sign language interpreter, accompanied the Deaf members who were excited as one of their pastors was preaching at the event.
“It is important to accommodate the hearing impaired at all events. They also want to pray and worship,” she said.
Mhere was formally trained in sign language.
“I decided to learn because there were Deaf members who just attended our church services but did not participate in any of the activities due to the communication barrier,” she said.
Mhere accompanies the Deaf to all social occasions, including funerals, so they are able to follow the proceedings.
Belinda Muchisi, 18, was one of the Hilltop members who attended the women’s convention last year.
“This was my first time to be at such a large church gathering. … I was happy that I was able to follow the sermons with the help of our interpreters,” she said. There were about 6,500 people at the convention.
Chiravirwa Makaba, 37, has been a member of the Hilltop Deaf ministry since 2000.
“I was one of the first Deaf members of the church. There were no interpreters at the time,” she said.
She left The United Methodist Church for another denomination and only returned when the Deaf ministry was established. She is currently one of the leaders of the group.
Hilltop United Methodist Church pastor, the Rev. Godfrey Gaga, said he became interested in learning sign language when he began serving at the church in 2016.
“I have attended a short course and can sign a bit,” he said.
Gaga said Hilltop is adapting its worship services to embrace the Deaf community.
“We are going to have an independent service for the Deaf because the eyes cannot follow sign language for too long during our normal church service,” he said.
“On Sept. 8, the Deaf members had their own worship service with a Deaf preacher who was invited from Masvingo, a city about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from here,” Gaga said.
“The Deaf at Hilltop are also compiling their own Bible and other Christian literature containing visuals which they easily understand.”
Chikwanah is a communicator of the Zimbabwe East Conference.