1-19-14 Far from the Tree: Deaf Culture

This month and next, I am doing a sermon series based on Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree in which he talks about what he calls “horizontal identity,” people who have reason to identify less with most people in their family from a previous generation and more with people outside their family who share a particular characteristic, like deafness, being a dwarf, or having Downs Syndrome. Today we are going to focus on the identity of being deaf. I appreciate having Lisa Hellberg, Barbara Myerovitch, and Michelle Conner in our congregation to help us understand the issues we are discussing this morning – and I especially appreciate Deb Schanbacher for joining us this morning. Our assigned reading this morning is from the first chapter of the gospel of John. As you read or listen to this text I invite you to notice how much emphasis the text puts on signs, on seeing what God has in mind for the people of God.

John 1:29-42  The next day, catching sight of Jesus approaching, John exclaimed, Look, there’s God’s sacrificial lamb, who takes away the world’s sin! This is the one I was talking about when I said, “The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me, for this One existed before I did. I didn’t recognize him, but it was so that he would be revealed to Israel that I came baptizing with water.” John also gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and she came to rest on him. I didn’t recognize him, but the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘When you see the spirit descend and rest on someone, that is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Now I have seen for myself and have testified that this is the Only Begotten of God. The next day, John was by the Jordan again with two of his disciples. Seeing Jesus walk by, John said, “Look!  There’s the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what John said and followed Jesus. When Jesus turned around and noticed them following, he asked them,”What are you looking for?” They replied, “Rabbi—- which means Teacher”—where are you staying?” “Come and see,” Jesus answered. so they went to see where he was staying, and they spent the rest of the day with him.  It was about four in the afternoon. One of the  two who had followed Jesus after hearing John was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. The first thing Andrew did was to find Simon Peter and say, “We’ve found the Messiah!”—which means ”The Anointed One.” Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who looked hard at him and said, “You are Simon ben-Jonah;  I will call you ‘Rock”—that is Peter.”

January 19, 2014

Far from the Tree: Deaf Culture

When I graduated from fourth grade, the teacher gave me an award – the award for Most Improved Student. I was terribly insulted. I wanted to say, “Why don’t you give this award to Skip? He was a real mess at the beginning of the year!”
Ever since then I’ve been a little sensitive to people commenting when I get better at something. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the compliment. I just don’t appreciate the comparison. I was always trying my hardest. In fact it took me many years to realize that fourth grade was also the year that I first wore glasses. I started to be able to see leaves on a tree for the first time that I could remember and words on a  chalk board. Being able to see could have been a significant reason for being the most improved student.
I like to think that the experience of struggling with being skinny and blind back then taught me to empathize with a variety of struggles people face. Sometimes I could still use some improvement of course. But don’t give me any awards, ok?

On Martin Luther King jr.’s birthday weekend, it seems appropriate to me to begin to talk a bit about disability rights as a civil rights issue. Disability rights is not the main focus of this sermon series, but they are an underlying theme. When we think about how we treat people who fall “far from the tree,” how we think about people who have somewhat different identities than their parents, one theme is naturally a justice theme, how to treat all people fairly and justly, how to include people in our communities.
In 1994 demonstrations in front of the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, New York City’s foremost institution of Deaf culture, protested the hiring of a new CEO, who was not deaf. Students from the school carried signs saying “The Board can hear but they are deaf to us,” and wore “Deaf Pride” T-shirts.
The protests ended with a deaf person being appointed CEO the same way a deaf person had become president of Gallaudet University 6 years earlier. The triumph and validation the students felt, they said, would have been worth a year of missed classes.

The church in general cannot brag about being a very welcoming place for deaf people. For many, many years, scripture such as Paul’s declaration in Romans that “faith comes by hearing” was misinterpreted to mean that those who could not hear were incapable of faith. Rome would allow no one to inherit property or title if he or she could not give confession. The Protestant Church focused on scripture portraying Jesus healing deaf people and had trouble accepting and making room for deaf people as they are.
As I said last week, there is a thin line between whether we think about people as having an illness or having an identity. When people think about deafness as an illness which needs to be fixed, we think differently than when we think about deafness as an identity. What is a disability for one person is simply an identity for another.
Parents today who have a deaf child have to negotiate some tricky decisions. Many automatically assume that the best thing is for their children to be able to hear and so they almost automatically assume that cochlear implants that would help their children to hear are a good thing. This assumption is not universally shared in the deaf community, to say the least.
Folks who are deaf value Deaf culture so much that they are afraid it might get lost with too much emphasis on hearing. The beauty and nuance of speaking with one’s hands, of being able to understand other people silently across a room, of being relatively open and honest about what one is saying or thinking, and of valuing eye contact and movement and expressiveness. These are just a few of the things that people in Deaf culture value about it and fear would go away if all deafness is considered a disability and “healed.”
One deaf person quoted in Far from the Tree says that signing is like speech set to dance. Though she had also learned to speak, she said she preferred to sign. “If I sign ‘milk’ I feel more milky than if I say the word.” she said.
Another vignette from the book that stood out for me was the story of a woman who got very involved in the Deaf community when she found out her child was deaf. She was impressed when her son turned five and signed to her “Are you deaf?” She answered that she was not. He asked “Am I deaf?” and she said he was, then he signed, “I wish you were deaf.” She said she thought that was a healthy response. Not ‘I wish I were hearing,” but “I wish you were deaf.”
I do not have time today to talk about a lot of the issues facing the Deaf community and the complicated issues about parenting a deaf child. By concentrating on the value of the Deaf community, I fear I’m not acknowledging the difficulties and obstacles that deaf folks and families of deaf people face, especially in relation to being included and integrated into larger communities.
I hope that this brief discussion today can open a door to further and deeper discussions – especially since we have such a valuable resource of brilliant people in our midst who work with deaf folks, and a bishop who speaks American Sign Language and is passionately committed to including deaf people in our worship and in our church.
Let me make two more points to close here today. First I want to acknowledge that the most common complaint I get from the pews about our worship is from people who can’t hear me or other people during Joys and Concerns, or the sermon, or during prayer. I would like to ask us as a community to address this problem with some kind of system of an assistive hearing system of some kind. They are not expensive. As we strive to make our sanctuary more accessible we can explore options and think about what would be best in this area as well.
The last point I want to make today is about the scripture. You notice that our reading for today is a lot about signs and sight. The Gospel of John is sometimes called the book of signs because it is so much about the signs that Jesus is the Son of God. It is full of light and dark symbolism and other signs of who Jesus is.
In today’s passage at the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist already makes it very clear who Jesus is, pointing out his special relationship to God the Creator from the beginning of time and the Holy Spirit who appears at his baptism. Jesus begins immediately to call his disciples, asking them what they are looking for. They ask him in turn where he is staying. And he says “Come and see.”
“Come and see” for yourself the love and grace God gives to every person in their uniqueness and in their connection with God’s community. Come and see the Way of life and liberation through the One who frees us all and gives life to us all.” Come and see the one who doesn’t ask for us to be improved or most improved, but who loves us as we are. Come and see and you too can be part of a great movement of growing in love for life.

3127 I Have a Dream