HOUSTON — First came the prayers and the congregational singing. Then the worshippers at Woodhaven Baptist Church tensed with excitement. Something special was about to happen. Recorded music boomed through the Spring Branch chapel as four middle-aged women, identically attired in eye-popping outfits, stepped up to the altar to deliver a meticulously choreographed rendition of a lively gospel tune.
The women, though, uttered nary a sound. The performance was greeted by a standing ovation. It, too, was silent. The lyrics and the resultant applause all were conveyed in American Sign Language. At Woodhaven, Houston’s oldest church for the deaf, there is more than one way to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
Woodhaven, which typically draws as many as 100 worshippers to its Sunday services, 60 percent of them deaf, this year will mark its 90th anniversary. Tracing its history to a Bible study group created by Houston’s First Baptist Church, it has evolved into a multi-faceted ministry, operating a multi-service center for the deaf, offering religious services to deaf prison inmates and actively supporting a missionary outpost in Ukraine.
In Houston and Texas, Baptist leaders say, it is a key player in an effort the serve the deaf, only a tiny fraction of who have been recruited to Christ. The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services reports 3.5 percent of Texas’ 27 million residents suffer from severe hearing loss.
Nationally, Southern Baptist efforts to evangelize deaf people in the United States date at least to the 1930s, said Woodhaven senior pastor, the Rev. Arthur Craig. Still, he told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1iHUkqU), “In America, only about 2 percent of deaf people have a faith in God through Jesus. In Houston, you’d be hard-pressed to find 500 deaf people in church on Sunday mornings. There’s just a communication barrier; a cultural barrier.”
Ways to address such challenges will be the focus this weekend as leaders of the Texas Baptist Conference of the Deaf, an association of about 50 churches serving 5,000 worshippers, meet for their annual conference in Tyler.
Often such ministries start small, energized by a singularly dedicated person or group of people.
At Woodhaven, Craig said, the outreach to the deaf was facilitated by Lillian Beard, who was only 15 when she became American Sign Language interpreter for First Baptist’s deaf class in 1924. Beard, he said, learned to use hand signals to communicate with the hearing-impaired when, as an orphaned child, she was adopted by a deaf couple.
Beard began interpreting for her mother, then extended the work to church. “I love deaf people,” she said on the occasion of her 100th birthday. “It’s a privilege to minister to deaf people.”
Before her death at 101 in June 2010, Beard had become a church emissary, interpreting for the deaf in hospitals and jails and traveling abroad to encourage the starting of deaf ministries.
“She was active right up to the end,” Craig said. “She was an amazing lady. She wrote a book on signing music. She started many church and secular organizations. She was a mentor for many, many interpreters.”
First Baptist’s senior pastor, the Rev. Gregg Matte, credited Beard with helping the church grow into the religious and social institution it has become. Woodhaven functions as a semi-autonomous ministry of First Baptist.
“We took great joy in seeing this group grow into a vibrant church as it reached out to the deaf community in ways that a hearing community church family could not,” Matte said.
Craig, 66, has been since 1983 senior pastor at the deaf church. He is assisted by associate pastor the Rev. Jim Dermon and administrative pastor the Rev. Dan Mustain. Craig and Mustain can hear; Dermon is deaf.
Craig said he entered the deaf ministry as a result of his wife’s interest in learning sign language. An auto accident that injured her arm derailed her plans, but the seed had been planted in Craig, who already was considering a ministerial career.
“The wreck gave it time to work on me,” he said. “I went to a service one time and heard a man preaching about the deaf. He made the statement that deaf people without Jesus die and go to hell just like hearing people. That touched my heart. I realized that God was pointing me in that direction.”
After obtaining his divinity degree from Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Craig entered the deaf ministry.
Woodhaven’s Sunday service begins at 11 a.m. and is accessible to the hearing, the deaf and the deaf and blind. During congregational sign language singing, lyrics are projected on a large screen above the altar. For those who can neither hear nor see, special interpreters convey the message through a code involving touch. On a wall near the entrance is stenciled a passage from the biblical Book of Isaiah: “In that day, the deaf shall hear.”
Sunday’s service is just the beginning of the church’s Christian outreach.
“Here at the church we provide a full range of services,” said Craig, adding that many are provided through the multi-service center named in Beard’s honor. “We provide life skills classes, job placement, food and clothing. We have a support group for the hearing parents of deaf children. We have a coffee house. Many also have spiritual needs, and this is a gateway to the church.”
Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, church delegates toured Russia and the Ukraine to assess religious needs of the deaf. As a result, Craig said, the church began actively assisting mission efforts in Ukraine.
In Texas, Woodhaven has played a significant part in ministering to deaf state prison inmates.”
Craig and his Woodhaven associates have been active at the Estelle Unit near Huntsville for 27 years. Often as many as 120 of the unit’s approximately 180 deaf prisoners will attend sermons or Bible study classes. Eleven years ago, Woodhaven began a halfway house for recently released deaf inmates.
Still, Craig conceded, bringing inmates to Christ is a challenge.
“The success stories are few and far between,” he said, “but when we have one, that makes it all worthwhile.”