VDS Feature: Jana Hall

“I believe in God
Who made everything in heaven and on earth
Including me.
Full Deaf and made
In the image of God…”
–Hannah Lewis[1]

The World Health Organization reports nearly 360 million Deaf people worldwide. Although awareness and inclusion of Deaf and hard of hearing people has slowly increased in the past few years, the Deaf and hard of hearing have been significantly underrepresented in our faith communities, faith spaces, and theologies.

Reflecting on my experiences during the  academic year at Vanderbilt Divinity, I recall the start of my work in ministry with Deaf and hard of hearing youth and people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities through Nashville’s Hearing Bridges, Brentwood’s Deaf Baptist Church, and Vanderbilt’s Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. I have formed new relationships and partnerships, found new communities, reconstructed theologies to include enablement and self-advocacy, and explored the faith spaces in which I worship as places of inclusion.

One of the most memorable events of 2013, the December memorial service for anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African president Nelson Mandela marked a pivotal and significant event in the lives of people across the world. News of a “fake” Sign Language interpreter who stood on stage during the event making meaningless hand signals became a widespread headline across the world. I find it painfully ironic that at the memorial service for a man who embodied liberation, the oppression and marginalization of another subculture of South Africa occurred. What is more striking to me is that I never saw a news report of the “fake” interpreter that included a narrative from a Deaf or hard of hearing person.

In one of my favorite texts, Deaf Liberation Theology, British theologian Hannah Lewis engages a British Sign Language exploration of theology and the universal British church. She calls for the church to be a place of creativity, a safe space for all persons regardless of ability or disability, and most importantly, a space where people can reflect on God in a way that makes sense to them. Lewis asks in the text, “Just what does a hearing Jewish man who lived in first-century Galilee have to say to Deaf people in the twenty-first-century?”[2]

As our Vanderbilt Divinity community moves forward into 2014, I wonder who will have a seat at our community’s tables, whose interests will be represented, whose voices will be privileged. Is there room at our table for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities? How do we speak prophetically as the Schola Prophetarum to this particular group of marginalized persons? I invite and encourage our faith community to pause in a moment of reflection, to engage in a social justice, emotional justice, and theological reshaping that embraces people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in our community.

[1] Lewis, Hannah. Deaf liberation theology. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub., 2007. 182.

Jana I. Hall