“Signs” of Life in Lay Ministries
The ministry of the laity in The United Methodist Church is moving front and center at the 2012 General Conference — especially when the lights and cameras zoom in on any one of the four women interpreting the proceedings in American Sign Language (ASL).
Mary E. Harris of Conway United Methodist Church in Orlando, Angela Liston of Morrison United Methodist Church in Leesburg, Fla., Michelle Menefee of First United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, and Betty Ostrom of Pine Castle United Methodist Church in Orlando are laywomen composing the team of ASL interpreters for the 2012 General Conference.
Ms. Harris, Ms. Liston and Ms. Menefee caught some sun and talked about their lay calling to a ministry of communication through sign outside the convention center during a lunch break.
“I would say for everyone of us, it’s a calling from God,” said Ms. Harris, coordinator of the signers for this General Conference. “I was deeply involved in United Methodist Women, and they were so into mission, I wanted to be out in mission too. It was because of United Methodist Women that I became a signer.”
Ms. Liston started her signing life about 16 years ago before her daughter Sarah was born. She became interested in signing and registered for classes but couldn’t seem to get to any of them.
“Every time I had a class in sign, there was a major storm, a fire, something!” she said. “Jokingly, I started saying, ‘Maybe God is trying to tell me I shouldn’t do this.’ That’s when a retired pastor friend said, ‘Maybe someone else is trying to prevent you from doing this!’”
Ms. Menefee’s call to signing came the way many calls to ministry do: through life.
“I have extended family members who are deaf so I did ‘kitchen sign’ at family reunions for years, signing that I just picked up,” she said. “I was a stay-at-home mom but after my children became school-age, a friend in special education encouraged me to volunteer in the school. I kept saying, ‘I can’t do this,’ but one thing led to another, doors opened, and I did.”
Ms. Menefee is a signer by profession now and also by Christian vocation.
“This is what pays the bills, but what I do in church on Sunday is my ministry,” she said. “This General Conference you have a team of United Methodist women who interpret in sign in their local church on Sunday and in their annual conference. I count my years of service by bishop!
The women laughed in agreement, but quickly became serious when explaining why their local and conference experience is so important at General Conference.
“We understand the terminology,” Ms. Menefee said. “The definition of deacon in the United Methodist Church is different from the Presbyterian Church.”
“We understand that a charge conference is not an electrical current,” Ms. Harris added.
“And The Book of Discipline is not a punishment,” Ms. Menefee said.
(Yes, that happened. At one meeting she attended, a signer unfamiliar with the denomination’s book of law interpreted it as the “book of punishment,” causing the deaf member of the audience to give Ms. Menefee strange looks before bursting into laughter.)
“The work of this body, General Conference, is too important to be left to people who don’t understand the terminology,” Ms. Menefee said.
Coordinating the signers includes assigning them to committees as needed, rotating them during plenaries and making sure the lights stay on them as the work in the plenary hall. “When you take the lights off of us, you’ve shut off our microphone,” Ms. Harris said.
Signing has given the women a glimpse inside the deaf community. Although medical science and advanced hearing aids are making it more possible for people with hearing impairments to hear, the common difference in ability itself will continue to hold the people together, they believe. Hearing aids help but must be removed when swimming, and they can be deprogrammed coming down the slide on a playground, the women explained. And, they said, many deaf people would refuse medical “treatment” to hear.
“They are a community,” Ms. Menefee said.
The women encourage young people to learn sign as a second language. “It is the third most widely used language in the country: English, Spanish and American Sign,” Ms. Listen said.
American Sign Language interpreters have also created a community of friendship and support among themselves — particularly in The United Methodist Church.
“We all are here because this is a passion for us,” Ms. Menefee said. “God’s gifted us. For me it would be heresy for me not to do this.”
Yvette Moore is editor of response, the magazine of United Methodist Women.