There comes a time in the infancy of a church plant when the pastor must decide on the church’s core mission and vision. Church planting experts agree that once the pastor makes these decisions, he should stay the course no matter how many well-intentioned suggestions to divert resources in another direction come his way. Deviating from the core mission can cause a church plant to lose focus and perhaps ultimately fail.
Peter Doerfler had a strong sense of call to plant Redemption Hill Church in the South Hills region of Pittsburgh and wanted it to be a church for people from all walks of life. But God called him to a ministry that was not on Doerfler’s radar, nor was it on his heart, yet the need was in his fledgling congregation.
The Lord’s providence put Doerfler in the path of those with unique needs and those uniquely suited to help. And Redemption Hill has become a church for the hearing and the deaf.
The Church’s Unforeseen Need
In the fall of 2018, Redemption Hill Church opened for public worship after a year of core group Bible study. Among the first families to start attending public worship were Matthew and Megan Chopek and their five children.
When the Chopeks started attending Redemption Hill, both Megan and Matt met the medical criteria for being hard of hearing. At the time, Megan worked at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf; she is both fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and skilled at reading lips. Matthew knew a little ASL, but compensated for his hearing loss with hearing aids.
By June 2019, Matt’s hearing had deteriorated so much that he underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant, but the implant did more harm than good. “It was overwhelming,” Matt said through an interpreter. “I could hear the grass underneath my feet. Everything was just too much.”
Given the choice between a world where everything was too loud or a world where he communicated visually, Matt chose visual communication. Though cut off from the ability to hear, he was not alone. Communicating with Megan helped him learn more ASL, and Megan helped facilitate with their children until they knew enough to communicate with their father. And there was also Anne Baxendell.
“You might not have thought you were going to get called to Deaf ministry, but they are part of your community so you are called to it.”
When Anne and her husband, Emmett, discovered that Pittsburgh Presbytery was planting a church in their community, they were overjoyed. For years, they had hoped for a PCA church in their neighborhood, and the group of people worshipping at the Gill Hall Volunteer Fire Company building was an answer to prayer. Anne and Emmett were also the answer to many prayers. Anne is fluent in ASL and works for a video relay service that provides ASL interpretation for phone and video calls.
With one Deaf man, one hard-of-hearing woman, and an ASL interpreter in the congregation, Doerfler began to wonder if God was calling his church to deaf ministry. Despite his hesitations, Doerfler knew the church had to make every possible effort to properly care for Matt.
“We knew we needed to [provide ASL interpretation] to preserve the relationship with Matt,” he said.
A New Trajectory
Looking for help with deaf ministry, Doerfler reached out to Ashley Belknap, coordinator for MNA’s disability ministry, Engaging Disability with the Gospel. The two arranged a meeting during the 2019 General Assembly, and Doerfler explained to Belknap the situation at Redemption Hill.
Belknap recalls listening to Doerfler grapple with how to proceed when he didn’t feel called to this ministry, but the Chopeks were in his church and he wanted to care for them.
“You might not have thought you were going to get called to Deaf ministry, but they are part of your community so you are called to it,” she told him.
Belknap helped Doerfler and Redemption Hill begin the process of becoming a church that welcomes the Deaf, offering not programs, but the kind of discipleship that allows people in the Deaf and Hearing cultures to grow in faith.
She met regularly via Zoom with Doerfler and Redemption Hill’s Deaf ministry team to help them figure out what Redemption Hill needed to do next and to follow up after the church had taken those steps. She also helped them cast a vision for a Deaf ministry that went beyond interpreting on Sunday morning to include life-on-life discipleship.
An early moment on the journey was when Doerfler told his tiny congregation that he believed the church was called to Deaf ministry and asked them to join this mission by learning ASL. “We knew not everyone would sign up for ASL, but we were worried no one would sign up,” he said. Twelve people volunteered to learn ASL; Doerfler was encouraged.
A Pivotal Connection
Unlike Doerfler, Roddey Caughman and his wife, Becky, had a passion for Deaf ministry that they had cultivated for decades. In the 1990s, they had spent two years ministering among the Deaf in Argentina and hoped to find more Deaf ministry opportunities after Roddey graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte in 2009. But the opportunities did not materialize.
While they looked for opportunities in Deaf foreign ministry, the Caughmans both took jobs working as ASL interpreters for South Carolina public schools and later for a large, multi-site video relay service. They hosted a Deaf Bible study in their home and assisted a church with its Deaf ministry. They also built a relationship with Reformed Evangelistic Fellowship and explored other foreign ministry callings, but the situations never materialized the way they had hoped.
“We felt like God was calling us to do something else, but we couldn’t put our finger on it,” Roddey said.
Feeling he was running out of options, Caughman reached out to Jim Hatch, MNA’s church planting development director, and asked if, by chance, Hatch knew of a church plant that wanted to start a Deaf ministry.
Hatch couldn’t think of any churches that met such specific criteria, but asked Caughman to send him an email detailing what the Caughmans were looking for. Since he was traveling through Mississippi, Hatch met his colleague Ashley Belknap and her husband for lunch.
During their lunch meeting, Hatch asked Belknap if she happened to know of a church plant that wanted to start a Deaf ministry.
“As a matter of fact, I did know just the church,” she says. “I had spoken to Peter Doerfler on the phone that morning, just to check in on him and recent steps of progress, so I knew immediately we needed to try.”
The Doerflers and Caughmans first met via video chat and connected immediately. Becky Caughman said she and Roddey instantly fell in love with the congregation and the city of Pittsburgh. “It was like a hand-in-glove fit.”
Visitors notice that Redemption Hill takes seriously its commitment to the Deaf community.
Doerfler said he could not have dreamed of finding anyone with the Caughmans’ gifts and experiences. “I know the denomination and where to look, but I couldn’t have found Roddey if I wanted to,” Doerfler said. “But the fact that the Lord called him and put it on his heart, this was from the Lord.”
A Flourishing Community
Even a global pandemic could not stand in the way of Redemption Hill’s newfound vision for becoming a church for the Deaf and the Hearing. With the Caughmans joining the Redemption Hill team, the church had the resources to begin its Deaf ministry in earnest.
Zoom has allowed the Redemption Hill ministry to move forward, even when the congregation could not meet together. The Caughmans moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2020 and began an ASL Bible study that has met in person and via Zoom. Megan Chopek said Roddey and Becky’s presence helped give her a sense of support and understanding as they provided ASL interpretation.
Matt works at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and faithfully invites people from the school to visit Redemption Hill. Megan said visitors notice that Redemption Hill takes seriously its commitment to the Deaf community.
“They can tell that the church has a real heart for them,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several people have expressed an interest in following Christ, and the Bible study attracts a steady stream of visitors to worship on Sunday.
New families, both Hearing and Deaf, have come to Redemption Hill, and every aspect of church life now is interpreted into ASL. While leading the Deaf ministry at Redemption Hill, Roddey is also studying for his licensure exam in the PCA. The church has held two ASL I classes for church members, and last fall they offered ASL II, led by Megan.
As the ministry to the Deaf grows, Doerfler and the Caughmans dream of ways it might expand. They talk about holding occasional services that are preached in ASL and translated for the hearing. The church has investigated getting involved with Deaf Teen Quest, a ministry of Youth for Christ. They talk about how they can advocate for the Deaf in the Pittsburgh area and push back against the discrimination that the Deaf experience, all in the name of Christ.
A constant challenge is figuring out ways for the church’s Deaf and Hearing members to meet and get to know each other. The ASL classes help, but Doerfler is looking for other measures, too, like keeping small whiteboards in the fellowship areas so people can write messages to each other.
Through this journey, the church has realized that it should see its Deaf ministry as ministering to a people group with its own culture rather than people with a disability. When Doerfler sensed God calling him to church planting, he wanted a church that would reach people from all walks of life.
“It never dawned on me that all walks of life would mean the Deaf culture because I had no exposure to it. God was preparing us as a body, but then steered us to it. You plan your ways, but the Lord directs the steps,” Doerfler said.
Redemption Hill Church does not look like the church Peter Doerfler set out to plant, but it’s the church God gave him to tend.