Signing God's love
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 28, 2009 2:00 AM
Emmie Collins, left, and Amanda Stevens, right, both 9, sign to the song "I Am a Friend of God" during worship services at Blended Fellowship Mission in Pikeville on Wednesday evening.
For pastor Doug Seymour and the Blended Fellowship Original Free Will Baptist Mission congregation, celebrating faith does not require hearing a preacher's sermon.
All it takes is an open heart -- and learning a new kind of language.
For nearly a decade, Seymour has worked on "bridging the gap" between the deaf and hearing communities.
That mission led to the formation of Blended Fellowship Original Free Will Baptist Mission in the Pikeville area -- a church that combines traditional sermons and hymns with sign language expressions of faith, a place where those who can hear and those who can't worship together.
The ministry started out in Doug and Melanie Sey-mour's living room as a Bible study. The couple had previously learned sign language while serving at a church in Fayetteville and found themselves drawn to the hearing-impaired.
"As we would encounter deaf in restaurants, we would communicate with them and invite them to church," Seymour said.
Once upon a time, that could have been problematic, he said.
"My estimation is the deaf population in the U.S. is the most overlooked public group as far as the church," he said. A virtually unreached group, he said, only an estimated 7 percent of deaf adults have ever had the gospel presented to them in their own language and fewer than 2 percent consider themselves Christians.
For the Seymours, that obstacle became an opportunity.
Seven years ago, they moved their ministry into a building previously occupied by Pikeville Manufacturing, on the grounds where Big Daddy's Restaurant once stood. Today, they have about 200 active members, a mixture of hearing and deaf.
"We have a saying -- bringing the deaf and hearing together because so many times they're separate," said Mrs. Seymour, who serves as church administrator. "We wanted to be able to come together and sit together."
"Everything is blended, thus the name -- Blended Fellowship," Seymour pointed out.
It's pretty much a typical church service, the couple say -- Sundays at 11 a.m., Wednesdays at 6:45 p.m., with Sunday evenings open to take their "signing choir" to other churches. The Sunday service is also broadcast on the Internet, at www.blendedfellowship.com.
The only difference is that everyone is included. Seymour either signs or has an interpreter in front of the church, with a cameraman broadcasting the service on three screens around the sanctuary, relying heavily on visuals and music.
"It's been a blessing to see families be able to be together," Seymour said. "That was one of our goals, to be able to provide a place where you don't have to have deaf over in this little pocket. ..."
And those who can hear gain something, too, the pastor said.
"It's a beautiful language -- that's something we didn't realize in the beginning, what a blessing the deaf people would be to us. When you as a hearing person sign, it just enhances our worship. When you sign 'God,' you're pointing to God."
The mission receives about one-third of its support from outside sources, including Free Will Baptist and other denominations, as well as an endowment from the N.C. Foundation for Christian Ministries. Sign language classes are offered, while the Seymours also assist the deaf with finding jobs and places to live and are available to help other churches start a deaf ministry.
In many ways, though, their role is to break down barriers.
"There's no poster child for deafness," Seymour said. "Many times they're incognito unless you see them signing to somebody. I have had the opportunity since starting this ministry to lead people to the Lord. Nobody had ever asked them before.
"I think sometimes the problem is the labels. People see that these people sound different. You don't just talk to them and they'll understand, so they're labeled. Everything we do is with this in mind. So we make sure that it's signed, that they can see the person signing, or we do it in such a way (like using) puppets and blacklight, or no words at all. Sometimes we have Hispanics who can't understand English, but when you present the visuals, everybody can understand it."
Seymour, who also works full-time job as a computer specialist at Home Health and Hospice, has worked not only to reach the deaf but to help dispel some myths surrounding the culture.
"The deaf community has their own language, their own community, their own world view," he said. "Many have said they don't feel like it's a disability -- it's who they are. ...
"Some think that all deaf people can read lips. Some are better than others but not all deaf people can do that. And a really big misconception is that you can just write notes back and forth. That's not the case because most (deaf) people, their primary language is not English. ASL, American sign language, is their first, which is a conceptual language. It's not really words, it's concepts."
Of the estimated 40 to 50 active deaf members at Blended Fellowship, most were not previously involved in a church, Mrs. Seymour said.
There are also many plans ahead for the mission -- from current efforts to raise money to repair a leaky roof to ideas that will benefit the deaf population.
"One of the things that we want to do is eventually have a church deaf school, probably starting with a preschool," Seymour said. "There used to be one in this area from what we have heard, and some of our adults attended it."
Another lofty goal is an assisted living facility for the elderly deaf.
From humble beginnings, the church mission has quietly found its way into people's hearts. As Seymour will attest, sometimes it takes time to see the investment pay off, but if you are patient and faithful, the changes and growth will come.
"We have been blessed, just about everything you see has been donated by somebody -- the pews, the sheetrock on the walls -- because as you might expect, our congregation does not have a huge sum of money," he said. "But God has blessed us. Every time we have a need, it's met one way or another."