It was another busy and blessed Sunday morning in 2000 as Samuel and Brenda Marsh helped their children prepare for worship. The Marsh family had recently moved to Houston to care for Brenda’s father during his last months of life. Samuel, who had previously pastored churches in Kentucky and California, found work as a chemistry lab technician, but they were still looking for a church where they could worship and serve. Samuel and Brenda piled their eight children into the van and drove across town to visit Southwest Presbyterian Church (PCA).
It’s not easy for Samuel and Brenda to visit churches. If you think it’s not easy to do anything with eight children, you’ve never met Samuel and Brenda’s well-behaved brood.
Samuel and Brenda are deaf. They never know what to expect when they walk into a non-deaf church. That morning in 2000, they knew there were deaf churches in Houston—for Baptists and Lutherans. In the greater Houston area, however, there were no Reformed deaf churches.
A quarter of a century has passed since David Wakeland first asked God to give him the opportunity to minister to deaf people. In the early 1970s, David formed a friendship with a deaf co-worker. That relationship gave David a glimpse of an unreached people group with a distinct language and culture. But no deaf person had ever come to Pastor Wakeland’s church in Alabama. After moving to Houston in 1992, Wakeland continued to pray for deaf people to join his congregation, but it had been years since he had repeated that prayer. He wasn’t looking for an answer that day. It was just another busy and blessed Sunday morning.
That Sunday in 2000, when the Marsh family visited Southwest PCA, God began to answer the prayer that David Wakeland was no longer praying. David saw the Marshes signing as they entered his church building. When he greeted them with the few signs he remembered, God also began to answer Samuel and Brenda’s prayers for a church home.
Soon, Pastor Wakeland approached his session for funds to hire an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for worship services. By 2003, more deaf people were attending Southwest. And during that time, Toby Welch—who had previously pastored a deaf church in California—moved to Houston to join Southwest’s leadership team.
By God’s might and mercy, three other Reformed deaf churches were thriving in other parts of the country. When several of those deaf pastors attempted to network with the PCA, they received little encouragement. Samuel and Toby considered joining these pastors in forming a deaf denomination. One Sunday morning, however, Samuel was struck by the unity and diversity of the deaf and hearing worshipers at Southwest. Tears came to his eyes as he realized how much he loved all the people of his church family. Samuel decided to stay in the PCA.
Deaf Christians at Southwest PCA, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit,” valued fellowship with their hearing brothers and sisters. They also wanted to experience what hearing people enjoy: direct (uninterpreted) worship and preaching. To achieve both of these goals, the deaf group began meeting separately for Sunday school, Wednesday evening worship, and two Sunday morning worship services each month, while still joining the hearing church for Sunday morning worship every other week.
In 2004, Southwest PCA commissioned Samuel and Toby to oversee the church’s deaf ministry. Samuel taught membership classes for deaf people; Toby taught ASL classes to bridge the communication barrier between deaf and hearing members. The elders at Southwest encouraged them to seek ordination in the PCA. On October 28, 2005, the Houston Metro Presbytery received Toby Welch as its first ordained deaf teaching elder. And on November 13, Samuel Marsh became the PCA’s first deaf ruling elder.
Since then, Toby and Samuel have led Deaf Presbyterian Church (PCA) as a mission under Southwest Presbyterian, in an arrangement that celebrates the cultural diversity and embraces the Christian unity that, when paired, magnify God’s glory.
Several years ago—despite the pressures of raising children, working full-time, and leading a church—Samuel responded to the request of some spiritually-starved believers and began flying to Salt Lake City to lead a monthly Bible study. (Because a company in Salt Lake City hires many deaf people, the deaf population there has exploded.) Brenda Marsh reports, “Salt Lake City has four deaf Mormon tabernacles, and one of them has more than 400 deaf members. There is, however, no deaf church to proclaim Christ.”
When speaking with a deaf person through an interpreter, look at and speak to the deaf person (rather than looking at the interpreter and saying, “Tell him … ”). Speak at your normal rate. Because interpreters wait until the speaker’s meaning is clear, you may speak several words or a whole sentence before the interpreter begins signing. Wait until the interpreter is finished, then allow the deaf person time to respond. Be patient; the longer the interpreter waits before beginning to speak or sign, the more smoothly communication generally flows.
Discuss the same issues you would broach with anyone else, from sports teams to sermon topics. Your lives will be enriched as you communicate across linguistic and cultural comfort zones and find kingdom camaraderie.
Now, the band of believers that Samuel has been teaching longs to form a church. After two years of traveling to Salt Lake City each month, Samuel and Brenda Marsh have been approved by Mission to North America as the PCA’s first deaf church planters.
In the current financial climate, fundraising for this role is difficult. Because the percentage of deaf Christians is far lower than that of hearing Christians, the Marshes have fewer contacts for fundraising. And because of discrimination, deaf people have often been underemployed. After a year of unsuccessful fundraising, the Marshes wonder if God is closing the door to this prospective church plant. For now, they remain in Houston. Samuel continues traveling to Salt Lake City monthly to encourage the churchless believers.
Yet, God is still working mightily. Many attend the annual conference at Deaf Presbyterian Church, and about half of the attendees are hearing people who rely on interpreting to understand the messages. They testify, “We come because we cannot find teaching of this caliber elsewhere.”
Now hearing Christians are seeking interpreters so they can learn from gifted and godly PCA deaf teachers. Now David Wakeland is not ministering to deaf people; he is ministering with deaf people.
To learn more, contact Samuel Marsh through a video interpreting service by calling (866) 588-9405 or emailing him at UtahDeafMission@yahoo.com.