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Q & A
Q&A: Disability awareness shapes bishop’s ministry Bill Fentum, Aug 15, 2008
Bishop Peggy Johnson
Bishop Peggy Johnson knows how to find a blessing where some see only a curse. “My first gift from God was being born with one eye and using a prosthesis,” she says. “It sensitized me to other disabilities and needs I might have ignored.”
Before her election in July to the United Methodist episcopacy, she served 20 years as the hearing pastor of Baltimore’s Christ UMC of the Deaf; her book, Deaf Ministry: Make a Joyful Silence (BookSurge Publishing, 2007), chronicles that experience. She also started a prison ministry for deaf inmates, directed summer camps for deaf children and young adults, and led a sign-language choir in more than 400 performances.
Bishop Johnson, assigned to lead the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences, spoke recently with staff writer Bill Fentum.
On the day you were elected, Bishop John Schol told the jurisdictional conference, “In the coming years, we as United Methodists will learn a whole new vocabulary.” Do you hope you’ll be able to promote deaf ministry?
I think Bishop Schol may have alluded to my use of sign language when I greeted the conference. But sure, I hope it becomes broader than that, that we’ll all learn a vocabulary of disability awareness. The United Methodist Church is a leader in many areas, and we have a good witness. But we could do more to provide access to folks with disabilities and include their gifts in ministries.
What are the obstacles to making that happen?
Mostly it’s about empowerment. A lot of people with disabilities are never picked for leadership tasks in their churches. They’re not elected as delegates to annual conferences or to General Conference. It’s the same with membership on boards and agencies. I hope to keep that issue on the front burner wherever I go as a bishop. And the disability community needs to be proactive about advocating for themselves. It’s a partnership.
The UM Congress of the Deaf has pushed recently for expanded sign-language interpretation at General Conference.
Yes, we had to do a lot of advocacy and raise a lot of the money ourselves just to have limited signing in 2004, because there weren’t any deaf delegates. The people in charge of General Conference change from one quadrennium to another, and the business administration at that time was pretty adamant about providing only for the languages of delegates.
But we did pass a resolution that said there would always be signing in the future, so deaf visitors to General Conference would feel included. That was put into place, and things were much different this year. We didn’t have to house and feed the interpreters ourselves, and they were on the stage instead of being shoved into a corner somewhere. I’m not sure what changed the attitude.
What’s being done to encourage deaf United Methodists who feel a call to ordained ministry?
To be honest, nothing much. The denomination has only one ordained minister who is culturally deaf, Kirk VanGilder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Another, Elke Sharma in Illinois-Great Rivers, is commissioned but not yet ordained. The main problem is that we haven’t discipled our deaf youth. Most local churches don’t offer consistent interpretation, so the kids don’t feel led to embrace a denomination that’s so exclusively hearing. Some of them seek out other denominations or groups that serve deaf people, and I don’t blame them.
But United Methodists have a wonderful connectional system, a tremendous mission and a social-justice voice that could lend itself well to these issues. So I hope we can find ways to encourage people with disabilities who might feel a call to ministry, to sensitize the church to their gifts more than their obstacles. Disabled pastors I’ve worked with have such vital ministries. It pains me to see how much they’ve struggled to get in and how much they continue to struggle. And that’s usually caused by garden-variety ignorance and discrimination.
Are some denominations more progressive about it?
I’m often impressed with the Assemblies of God. Their educational requirements for ordination aren’t as strict, and they have a licensing program that gets people up and running a lot sooner than our own four years of college, three years of seminary and 10 years of scavenging. They have deaf-culture ministries that empower people who feel a call, so they take a class, get their license and get rolling.
I’ve heard that you have a personal theology of inclusion and empowerment.
What resonates in my heart is a desire to see everyone included as a gifted part of the body of Christ. Not just people who are disabled, of course; you can broaden this out to any kind of community. But we put up barriers in our churches—either attitudinal barriers or physical barriers, like stairs without ramps or the way we arrange our pulpits so that people can’t get up there if they’re in wheelchairs. Or the way we order our services—you really can’t follow it if you’re not hearing because everything moves at 90 miles an hour. That’s the access or inclusiveness part of my theology.
Then there’s the empowerment piece, where all people are able to get into the driver’s seat as co-heirs to salvation, and their gifts and graces are celebrated. They have gifts and insights because of their disabilities, not in spite of them. We miss out on so much good stuff in the church when we keep people out because “they’re not like us” or “they’re too much trouble” or “it costs too much.”
How did you get started in deaf ministry?
I had planned a career as a music teacher, but my voice started messing up after I got out of college and it turned out I had nodules on my vocal cords. I really took a hit from that. I had always thought that music would be my life’s work. But around that time, I started feeling a call to ministry. And then at the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference in 1976, for the first time, I saw a deaf choir perform. I fell in love with sign language right away, and it was like all the rivers of my life coming together in one place—the disability concerns I’d had since birth, the music—I needed this mission in my life.
But it wasn’t until 1988 that you were appointed to Christ UMC.
Right, it was a long journey. I went on to seminary in 1977, then served several years in hearing churches. I kept practicing sign language, and at last Christ Church had an opening for a pastor.
What’s your proudest accomplishment there?
Partly, just to keep the church going. That’s an achievement in itself, because funding is always a concern. But there were two real turning points. In 2000 we opened the Deaf Shalom Zone to all the deaf community in Baltimore. For that I credit Bishop Felton May, who led the conference at that time. We started case management for deaf people dealing with AIDS and HIV, and drug addictions. And parenting classes for people at risk of losing their kids because there were no parenting classes for deaf people. Also the deaf-blind community and deaf immigrants. We just saw a huge growth of people at the church because they were getting their needs met. That touched my heart. That’s what the gospel is all about: people experiencing Christ through the unconditional love of God.
And then, also under Bishop May’s leadership, we started an emphasis on international mission. We’ve sent mission teams to Kenya and Zimbabwe to work with deaf schools there and start deaf ministries. In those settings, if you just love people and put a little money into it, they start to blossom.
But it’s a reality on our planet that the more vulnerable you are, the more people will take advantage of you. So we need to be mindful about who we put in place to lead deaf ministries. We’ve had a few bad experiences overseas, where the power dynamic led not only to physical and sexual abuse of deaf people but also to misuse of funds. I’m more wary than I used to be of people who present themselves as angels of light. It’s been a big dose of reality for me, but it’s a good lesson. The church needs to be a prophetic voice, sometimes even against itself.