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Reaching Out Since 1868: The Welcoming Spirit of First Baptist's Deaf Community

Posted by Mason Thornton on


Deaf members singing in First Baptist Deaf Church

As a junior at the University of Tennessee, I did not attend First Baptist. Truly, I had no church home, and because I had no place of community or true belonging, I was really struggling. At that time, I began taking American Sign Language courses because of a sparked interest in both the language and culture. These courses required attending a certain number of “Deaf events” in order to gain a greater cultural perspective. Because of a friend who already attended First Baptist, I knew of the Deaf service led completely in sign language. I decided that would be a great place to go for my assignment. This was my first encounter with First Baptist Deaf Church.

An Inaccurate Perception

According to the International Mission Board (IMB), there are approximately 35 million people in the world who use some form of sign language as their first language. However, the IMB also states only ~1.5% of the world’s Deaf have the opportunity to be educated in sign language formally. This is because in many societies and cultures, including here the United States, Deaf people are sometimes overlooked, viewed as lesser than, or perceived as having a disability. This is not at all true. Yet, because of these perceptions, an unacceptable number of our brothers and sisters may never find a place in their own community. This also means a greater part of those millions may never see the name “Jesus” signed to them.

Perhaps the predominant reason Deaf in our society go unseen is the simple fact that their communication and our own are different. Hearing people communicate primarily through auditory processes (i.e. speaking orally and hearing with our ears). The result is set of specific sounds put together in a specific way to create our spoken languages. Our brain couples that input with body language and determines meaning. The Deaf communicate in a different manner - through a kinesthetic and visual process. The shape one makes with his or her hand, how it is moved, where it is located, which way the palm is facing, and facials expressions are all contributing factors to what meaning is conveyed. Because of the perceived disparity between the two communication systems, the Deaf are often left unengaged in our hearing-centric society.

Deaf History

Regardless of this disparity, churches and ministries have the opportunity to become bright beacons of accessibility and equity. Historically, the Deaf were not fully accepted in Hebrew society, Often, they weren’t allowed full engagement in places of worship. Mark’s account of Jesus’s miracles is the first witness of a Deaf person being personally engaged in Scripture (Mark 7:31). Following this occurrence, the mission of many churches has been to ensure Deaf people can access worship and have a place to call home. Lucky for First Baptist, our church has been enriched and diversified by the presence of our Deaf congregation.        

That presence at First Baptist began in 1868 with just four Deaf, African American maids who came to our church, boldly asking to become members. Using pen and paper to communicate, church members asked them a few preliminary questions, and they were accepted as members with open arms. Six years later, in 1874, 12 students from the Tennessee School for the Deaf (TSD) came to our church seeking a home away from home and a place to worship. A man by the name of Thomas L. Moses and the Moses family, in general, played a large role in bringing TSD students to First Baptist because of their deep ties with both the church and the school. Their interest in connecting with Knoxville’s Deaf sparked the church’s participation and led to a flourishing ministry. The following years were filled with amazing leaders and pastors (both Deaf and hearing). This created an accessible space for a Deaf community whose contribution has impacted our church and the Kingdom at large. I myself experienced this when I visited the Deaf congregation for class.

A Warm Welcome

Upon arriving, I’ve never felt a greater welcome than that from the Deaf congregation. I was asked to stand and introduce myself (something that generally doesn’t happen in a hearing church service). I timidly signed my name and attempted to sign why I had chosen to come visit. Regardless of the fact that I was just another hearing person, regardless of the fact that I had come for a school assignment, regardless of the fact that I could barely sign my name and basic personal information at that time, every single person I met that day was genuinely glad to meet me, and they were genuinely excited to have me come and experience worship with them. I was even invited to lunch with everyone after the service!         

So, the next week, I decided to come back. And then I returned again. And again. And again. At one point, I (a hearing person) was almost exclusively attending Deaf worship services, and I loved every minute of it. At first, I thought I was just doing so to get more experience and practice in signing, but as it turns out, the true reason was I had found a loving community with them, even though I was different from them. That welcome, that acceptance, was the truest image of Christ I had in my life at that time. I would still say to this day that my experience with the Deaf congregation at First Baptist is a huge part of the reason I chose to stay at First Baptist. Those who are so often seen as people who need to be “reached out to” reached out to me.

Reaching Out

That first Sunday, walking into a room full of people who communicated and related in a totally different way than I was capable, was a terrifying experience. Perhaps, that is how those first four women felt when they walked into First Baptist in 1868. Though I can never fully understand their experience, maybe I got just a taste. Despite the possibility of being viewed as outcasts in a community of people different from them, they chose to boldly walk through those doors and ask for a place to belong. What beauty and growth came from that decision. Maybe, if we boldly reach out to those different from us – if we all chose to “listen” in a different way – more beauty and flourishing growth will sprout in our community.


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