As many as 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to attend the first day of an American Sign Language Bible convention today in Norco, a sign of expanding efforts by religious denominations to reach out to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
An increasing number of congregations offer worship services that are either fully in sign language or are interpreted for deaf people. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, which began ASL interpretations of spoken services in the 1940s, has been one of the leaders in deaf outreach in recent decades. Deaf churches have been around since the late 1800s. Four Inland Jehovah’s Witness kingdom halls — similar to churches — offer meetings entirely in ASL or have sign-language interpretation of spoken meetings.
Many members of the San Bernardino Jehovah’s Witness deaf ministry grew up as Catholics or members of other faiths, said Michael Gallagher, an elder with the ministry who is almost fully deaf.
Gallagher’s parents required him to attend Catholic Mass even though he did not understand it. When Gallagher, 56, of Colton, first started attending Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings in 1975, there were ASL interpretations only of spoken meetings. In 1989, the first entirely ASL Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation was set up in New York. Today there are more than 100.
Gallagher said interpreters cannot always capture the full meaning or spirit of what speakers are saying.
“Some of the brothers would speak really fast and the interpreter would miss some of the information,” he said through an interpreter. “It caused a lot of stress on us and the interpreters. Being in a full sign-language congregation, we feel more involved.”
The San Bernardino kingdom hall is outfitted with two video screens and a wall upon which ASL communicators’ signs are projected.
Wendy Barnes sings in American Sign Language at a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in ASL in San Bernardino.
Bible on DVDs
Jehovah’s Witnesses are creating an ASL version of the Bible on DVD so viewers can watch a verse-by-verse ASL reading; several books of the Bible already are available. A Mormon ASL Bible and Book of Mormon were released several years ago.
Some deaf people have little or no understanding of written English, so Bibles and religious readings can be unintelligible. ASL has different syntax than English.