Jehovah?s Witnesses focus on needs of deaf | Salisbury, NC - Salisbury Post The lack of sound in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Assembly Hall auditorium last Friday was a little eerie. Although the space — which seats 2,300 — was full of people, no one was talking, including the presenter on stage, Sonny McDowell. His hands were flying, however, and his face was animated. He was speaking American Sign Language (ASL). He was among many presenters during a three-day district convention for the deaf, one of six such gatherings in the country sponsored by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The peak attendance for the convention was 1,281. The theme: ”Remain close to Jehovah.“ If you’ve ever driven down Old Concord Road, you’ve surely noticed the mammoth Jehovah’s Witness Assembly Hall. Many people, though, have never had occasion to step inside. Built entirely by volunteers, the building was finished in 1993. While it does house three local congregations, the facility is primarily a regional education center. The grounds are all-volunteer maintained, says Jerry Ilgenfritz, who, along with his wife, Sharon, has served as the facility’s caretaker for the past 10 years. The presentations were completely signed — there was no audio component. The convention’s focus was on the deaf and meeting their spiritual needs. ”To see everything presented in their language is awesome for them,“ said Michael Pippa. ”If all they were given is closed caption, it wouldn’t mean anything.“ When the main presentation is spoken and there is an ASL translator off to the side, the deaf tend to ”feel a little isolated,“ Pippa said, adding that it’s important for the deaf to hear the message directly in their own language, without an interpretor. Many audience members could hear, Pippa explained, and were there to support family and others in the faith. Some Jehovah’s Witness missionaries focus on finding and sharing their religion with the deaf, Pippa said. When a speaker finished, there was no applause, at least not the hand-clapping version. Instead, audience members raised their hands in the air and shook them — almost as though they were wet and they were trying to air dry them. To a deaf presenter, seeing an auditorium full of shaking hands must be a very gratifying experience. Dozens of video monitors throughout the building allowed convention-goers and organizers to always have access to the presentation. A command center behind the stage kept the program going like clockwork. Some in the audience were not only deaf but blind or visually impaired as well, which presented an extra challenge to convention organizers. It was easily overcome, however, with the help of the many volunteers willing and able to do what is called ”tactile signing.“ The interpreter watches the presentation on a monitor, or in person, and then repeats the signs while the deaf person holds the interpreter’s hands. Ernest Tracy of Gastonia, who can’t hear or see, was receiving the message via tactile interpretor. Tactile interpretors take fairly frequent breaks, with two often working together and switching off. That’s because watching someone sign and then having to convey ASL tactilely is very draining, Pippa said. Along with his wife, Brenda, who can hear, Ernest Tracy is part of a deaf Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Charlotte that has about 75-80 members. During a session break, Brenda Tracy interpreted for her husband. ”It’s been wonderful,“ he said. ”I’ve learned a lot. It’s never the same. I always learn new scriptures and how to apply them.“ He particularly liked James 4:8, he said — draw close to God, and he will draw close to you. Janice Adams, her seeing eye dog Roddie at her feet, sat in the front row of the auditorium. An interpretor next to her did tactile signing with her. She and her husband, Bill Adams, are missionaries in Honduras, with a permanent home is in Alexandria, Va. Later, she explained through her husband, who translated for her, that she benefits greatly from the conventions for the deaf. ”It helps me be a better minister, a better person,“ she said. ”I always enjoy meeting old friends and always make new friends,“ she said. ”That’s one real blessing from this organization.“ In Honduras, she and her husband, who can hear, speak the Honduran form of sign language. It’s similar to American Sign, with about 40 percent of the vocabulary the same, she says. It’s important to her to use Honduran sign language when she is there as a sign of respect, s he said. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been proactive in focusing on deaf members and reaching out to prospective members who are deaf or hearing impaired. Much of the organization’s literature has been translated into ASL and is available on DVD, Pippa said. Witnesses also take the DVDs door to door so that they can share them with the deaf. ”That can be mind-blowing for some of the deaf who are not used to this kind of interest,“ Pippa said. Those who would like to download the Bible in ASL can do so from The Jehovah’s Witnesses website. DVDs of the Bible in ASL are given free of charge to those who want them. During the presentations, when the speaker cited scripture, the verse in ASL, cued up on a DVD player, popped up on screen. The Bible translators are entertaining even if you don’t understand ASL. The motions are rhythmic in a hip-hop sort of way, with facial expressions that might seem exaggerated to those not used to the language. Pippa took me backstage and introduced me to one of the convention organizers, Sonny McDowell, who supports all the deaf Jehovah’s Witness congregations from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, about 17 congregations in all with a total of 1,100 members. He’s been involved in that sort of outreach for about nine years. He got started when several people in Florida asked him if he could help start a congregation for the deaf there. He then met a couple from Cuba who were deaf. ”I taught them the Bible, and they taught me the language (American Sign),“ he said. It took him about two years before he was comfortable with signing. He was then able to help form a deaf congregation in Jacksonville. Things evolved from there, and he was asked if he would travel to help the deaf. Like other Witnesses, McDowell is a volunteer who receives no payment for his services. ”I took a vow of poverty,“ McDowell said. He stays in people’s homes when he’s traveling. ”It always works out,“ he says. ”We have what we need.“ Pippa, who lives in Savannah, Ga.,was also motivated to learn ASL through his association with the Witnesses. His wife, Jenny, learned first, he said. About 25 years ago she was helping a couple learn the Bible and began to learn a little ASL. Then, one year, he says, she helped a deaf person study until she was ready to be baptised, and that experience made her more committed to learning the language. She then began praying that he would learn as well, Pippa said. He wasn’t so sure, but after attending a meeting of the deaf in Raleigh, he began to come around. ”I was so impressed by the spirit and camaraderie,“ he says. So he began to learn ASL — a process that was very frustrating to him for about a year and a half, he says. Then, it all began to click, he says. Jenny’s expertise with ASL has led to paying interpreter jobs at several Savannah colleges. That isn’t uncommon, Michael says. ”A lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses have become interpreters,“ he says. ‘I left the world’ On Saturday, seven people were baptized at mid-day, after listening to presenter Kim Nichols. Pippa quietly translated the presentation into English for me. A lot of it seemed to be an extended metaphor about driving — about how the Christian needs to look forward, and concentrate, and not be distracted. Speaking to those who were waiting to be baptized, Nichols told them how they would remember June 26, 2010: ”I left the world.“ The wall panel to the right of the stage was then rolled back, exposing the baptismal font. Two men ready to assist stood in the waist-deep water. The males went first, including a 10-year-old boy, the youngest to be baptized. Then, the women. I felt a little strange about taking pictures, but Pippa assured me it wouldn’t be a problem, that the act of baptism was symbolic, that it wasn’t a solemn ceremony as it is in some religions. Although a bit of signing went back and forth between the assistants and person being baptised, the communication was merely about the dunking process — about the need to pinch one’s nose and so forth. There was no ritualistic language. Assistants on the side wielded mops and made sure that no one slipped on a wet floor. There was a celebratory air to the proceedings, with plenty of pictures being taken and that hand-shaking applause. This weekend, a similar convention is being held at the assembly but for French-speakers. From May to September, there will be 357 such conventions in 90 cities throughout the United States, conducted in languages from Chinese to Arabic to Tagalog. For more information about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, go to www.watchtower. org.