This sign is taking your middle finger from your right hand then placing it in the middle of your left palm and then reserve. This symbolizes the nails put in Jesus’ hands. The child signed back, “Who?”
I am part of a diocesan ministry team supporting people living with disabilities throughout their lifespan, people living with mental health challenges, and persons who are Deaf. Often we receive calls from parish directors of religious education (DRE’s) requesting assistance with children with learning needs. One day a call come from a new DRE wondering if we knew a catechist who could teach in American Sign Language. Well, there is always more to the story of someone’s faith journey. After many phone calls and in person meetings we began to know the story. The child (14 years old at the time) had received an emergency Baptism in the hospital since it appeared she might not live. Eventually she was diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome, a genetic condition meaning she was Deaf, had low vision (almost blind), and would experience learning difficulties. When it came time for her to enter the religious education program at her local parish, the DRE at the time informed the family there was no “program” for their daughter. Hurt and angry, the entire family left the Church for many years. Slowly each member of the family returned somewhat. Eventually the mother took a job as a teacher in the parish school. Her mother tried again. Could my daughter receive the Sacraments? The new DRE responded “Yes, I do not know how but we will walk together to find out.” This yes led to the phone call and could we find a catechist who knew ASL in the area?
My colleague, who is Deaf and coordinates ministry to Deaf Catholics, first wanted to assess the child’s sign language skills. A report from the child’s school, given by the mother, indicated she knew about 14 signs. Was this true? We decided to go together and I would bring adapted religious education materials to share with the DRE. The traffic was awful when we left to meet the child, DRE, and mother. We were actually delayed almost one hour. Would they wait? They did. After a few introductions, my co-worker sat near the child. My co-worker pointed to a cross in the classroom and made the sign for Jesus. This sign is taking your middle finger from your right hand then placing it in the middle of your left palm and then reserve. This symbolizes the nails put in Jesus’ hands. The child signed back, “Who?” Again the sign for Jesus. After a few times, the child indicated yes and signed back Jesus. No one had ever taught her the sign for Jesus. Those around her did not know. Perhaps for years, she was taken to Church for Mass (no sign language interpreter was available at the Mass) and sat there wondering what is going on: Who is this man on these pieces of wood? I see people moving around but what is happening?
Then my co-worker pointed to a statue of Mary. “This is Jesus’s mother”. The child quickly signed back “Yes, Jesus’ mother.” My co-worker, in addition to another catechist, taught this child 1:1 for one year. This child knew more than 14 signs by the way. The school underestimated her abilities. It took at times several repetitions for the lessons but she learned. Her lessons lasted about 25 minutes but it worked for her. She received the Sacraments and completed her initiation into the Church. The entire family returned to the Church. To me this child was a true agent of evangelization.
I will never forget the “yes” of the DRE. This DRE’s willingness and openness to the Spirit led to a child learning who is Jesus in a deep way. I never really thought of people in our own Church not knowing who Jesus is. It was a moment of grace for me to see this understanding for someone for the first time. This child also taught me that we need to work together. It took many moving parts for this moment but we all played a role.
Let us all continue to be open the Spirit and being led into new ways of evangelization!
Image used is Father Min Seo Park, Chaplain St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Washington. He is signing Jesus.