Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the array of worship services offered by Lovers Lane United Methodist Church included one in American Sign Language. About two dozen people came on a typical Sunday.
On March 22, when the Dallas church could no longer safely meet in person due to the fast-spreading coronavirus, the sign language service debuted online.
It came together quickly, and a bit primitively. For want of a tripod, a cell phone with a video camera was propped up by hymnals on an upright piano.
But word had gotten around, and about 200 Deaf and hard of hearing people tuned in.
“I was just stunned,” said the Rev. Tom Hudspeth, pastor of Deaf ministries at the church.
Since then, professionalism has increased and viewership for livestream and archived broadcasts has grown to about 450 weekly.
People from around Texas and the rest of the U.S. have joined the virtual flock. Others have made it known they’re watching from Greece, Zambia, Sri Lanka, the Bahamas, Australia.
Collins Prempeh, a Deaf student of theology at The United Methodist Church’s Africa University, has participated from Zimbabwe.
“We’ve circled the globe on this,” Hudspeth said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant all kinds of upheaval for The United Methodist Church and other religious groups. For Deaf ministries, it’s been a season of challenges and opportunities.
Those will be discussed Aug. 8 at a United Methodist Congress of the Deaf Northeastern Jurisdiction Deaf Ministry Virtual Summit, a free event open to all, but with registration required. Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson — who has a long history in Deaf ministries, and signs fluently — will be among the speakers.
As Johnson points out, much of The United Methodist Church has of necessity gone online with worship for the first time or enhanced online offerings since the pandemic began – with better access for Deaf and hard of hearing folks as a consequence.
“I am thrilled at how many online opportunities are now available throughout the country,” the bishop said.