Rev. Renee Rouse

posted Aug 17, 2017, 5:00 PM by UCC Women   [ updated Sep 17, 2020, 6:00 PM ]

Her first service in Warner was Easter Sunday 2016. Shortly before the service began, a few members of the congregation approached their new minister to tell her there was a deaf man included in their church.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Rouse said. “We can’t just let them sit there. . . . So I started doing some homework.”

So began an initiative at the church in Warner, something Rouse calls “extravagant hospitality” where the focus is “loving people based on their need.”

It started with Rouse slowing down her speech during sermons and prayer. She stands near the deaf congregants – there’s six now – so they can focus on her lips. A projection screen hangs in the corner of the hall, to the right of the organ, where hymnal lyrics appear as members rise to sing. Pictures illustrate the sermon.

About a year has passed since Rouse joined the church and pushed for a more inclusive congregation. Over those months, more deaf congregants have come through the doors and return each Sunday.

“It’s been a huge change,” O’Neill said. “Before, (the church) knew nothing about working with the deaf. . . . Renee gives a lot more attention, and people are motivated. I’d like to have more, and we are starting to grow. That’s a good thing.”

Earlier this month, Annie Goff, Daniel Martin and David Binett – three of the church’s deaf members – stood before the congregation to read John 21:1-19 about the miraculous catch of fish and the restoration of Peter by Jesus. Each took a turn reading a third of the passage, signing the words to the church as Cotton, the interpreter, recited the words through a microphone.

Rouse implored the congregation to “listen with your eyes and ears” instead of reading along.

Goff went first, combining the signs she motioned with her hands with the expressions on her face and body movements illustrated how the men pulled their ponderous catch up and into the boat. Martin and Binett followed, finishing the passage and returning to their pews as the congregation applauded by waving their hands in the air.

“That took a lot of courage,” one member told Rouse later in the service.

Rouse closed that Sunday’s service by telling the story of her first Easter with the church. In August, 11 new members were baptized, including three who are deaf.

“When people look back, what will they be saying?” she asked. “Extravagant hospitality. You have to get outside your bathtub of comfort.”

After services, members typically gather downstairs for coffee and to learn a new sign taught by one of the deaf parishioners. One of the recent signs was for “thine is the glory.” The room filled with laughs as the congregants tried to make the sign, where “glory” is shown with the left hand held waist-high, while the right hand flutters up and away from it.

Rouse said there is no other church for the deaf in the state, and she hopes this church will continue to grow.

“This is a place they know they can come to,” she said. “We are moving forward.”