UNION, Kentucky -- Dwight Swim, the minister to the deaf at Union Baptist Church, doesn’t just teach a Sunday school lesson – he acts it out.
He communicates with the hand gestures of American Sign Language, of course, but he also uses facial expressions much more than most people do.
When he talks of opening presents on Christmas morning, relating that to gifts God gives us, his face is a picture of glee.
Swim, who’s been deaf since birth, sometimes speaks a word or two as he’s signing, but his face never stops moving – his brow furrows, he smiles, his lips push out.
This Sunday morning in November, about a dozen deaf people are gathered in the Union Baptist basement for fellowship and learning. The church now has 18 deaf members, Swim said, speaking through interpreter Sara Noyola.
It’s not nearly enough for the need, Swim said.
“There are so many deaf people out there who are lost … having one (ministry) is not enough,” he said. “We need more preachers who preach in our language. It helps so much for deaf people to learn in their language.”
After all, he said, English is a second language to most deaf people – ASL being the first.
Deaf residents from all over Northern Kentucky and parts of Cincinnati worship at Union, Swim said, some making 30-minute commutes.
More than three-quarters of the deaf members of Union Baptist formerly attended Erlanger Baptist Church, where Swim served as the deaf ministry pastor from 1998 to 2008.
Erlanger began a deaf ministry in 1968, when the late Elizabeth Pidcock, of Union, was asked to lead a deaf Sunday school class. The church hired its first deaf ministry pastor in 1988.
Swim loved serving as deaf pastor there, he said, but he left because his health was declining a little and he was still working full-time for the Internal Revenue Service (he’s since retired).
After he left, he said, the church seemed to push the deaf ministry aside, and the deaf members scattered.
About five years ago, some of them began meeting again for Wednesday night Bible study at a local restaurant, he said, and then four years ago Union Baptist asked them to start meeting there.
The church’s new pastor, Mark Webb, is very deaf-friendly, Swim said, and keeps the class informed through text messages.
The deaf members meet on Wednesdays night for a Bible study led by James Jaworek, who serves as Swim’s assistant. On Sunday mornings, they meet for fellowship and Sunday school, then participate in the worship service with the entire congregation.
The deaf ministry supports itself with tithes and offerings from the members, Swim said, which pay expenses such as interpreters’ fees. It will also pay for a revival in May, when the ministry brings in a deaf preacher from Alabama.
Neither he nor Jaworek are paid for their work. “It’s our service for the Lord,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to be paid anyway.”
He’d like to see the ministry have its own building and church one day, he said, which was also a vision of Pidcock’s, whom Swim said died in 2010.
Other local churches with services for the deaf include Mother of God Roman Catholic Church in Covington. The deaf community worships at the 11:30 Mass on Sunday morning, then meets in the church fellowship hall afterward.
In Cincinnati, the Western Hills Church of Christ has a deaf ministry called Christ’s Church of the Deaf. It’s led by Rodney Burke, who’s deaf and legally blind. He wears reverse telescopic glasses for his right eye, and his left is almost completely non-functioning.
He said in an email exchange that 15-20 people come to church on Sunday, where he conducts Sunday school and leads spiritual lessons during the worship hour. During the week, he also does Bible counseling via videophone or at his house.
There are about 2,200 deaf people in the Tri-State region, he said, and about 110 deaf/blind people (with at least mild hearing loss and 20/200 or worse vision).
Christ’s Church of the Deaf was founded in 1993 when some local deaf Christians asked Burke, who was then living in West Virginia, to help them start a deaf church. He became the minister in 2001.
Although it’s officially a ministry of Western Hills, Christ’s Church of the Deaf is allowed to do its own thing. Western Hills provides three rooms and allows use of the church copy machine.
Christ’s Church of the Deaf has its own budget, with a weekly offering of about $1,000 a month, Burke said. Part of that offering goes to Deaf-Blind Christian Ministry Inc., a nonprofit Burke founded this year, which pays him a salary.
He’s trying to raise enough funds so the nonprofit can hire a support service provider to help him do his ministry more effectively. He also wants it to have enough money to support other deaf/blind ministers.
The nonprofit “simply wants to tell the world the good news about Jesus, and to teach the word of God using passionate, deaf-blind Christians and others side-by-side, with them,” he said.