For the past several years, I have had the privilege of working closely with Dick Mahaffy, a profoundly Deaf man who is studying for the priesthood at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Dick and his life partner, Doug Woodworth, who is also Deaf, are members of the Fellowship of Saint John. This year Dick and I have done two independent studies together: during the fall semester, we studied “Deaf Theology,” and in the spring, “The Pastoral Care of Deaf People.” As is so often the case, I’ve received as much as I’ve given in this relationship, and learned as much as I’ve taught.
Dick has never had the ability to hear sounds. Like many other Deaf people, he grew up in a hearing environment where he often felt isolated and unsure of what was going on around him. He felt – and still feels – left out of conversations dominated by hearing people. Because he has never heard spoken language, he finds reading and writing at a graduate school level a challenge. His accomplishments, in spite of these obstacles, speak to his intelligence and determination. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Hartford, and hopes to graduate in 2016 with a Master of Divinity degree from EDS.
Through him, I’ve come to appreciate even more the challenges that Deaf people encounter in the Church. Few dioceses offer any kind of ministry for the Deaf, so gaining access to worship and the sacraments is a significant obstacle. Beyond obvious constraints like these, there are deeper questions, even about God. In the Bible, God communicates easily and readily with hearing people. God speaks and they listen; they speak and God listens. Is God hearing? In the gospels, a hearing Jesus heals a Deaf man, restoring his ability to hear and speak. Does this indicate that “God’s will” is for Deaf people to be healed (i.e. to become hearing people)? Likewise, is it God’s desire that blind people see, and that people in wheelchairs walk? Based on the gospels, it seems so. What does this say to a person whose disability is an accepted part of his or her identity?
It’s always a challenge to see the gospel through another’s eyes. Seeing through Dick’s eyes has certainly been enlightening for me.