By Paula Andrea Gean | Photos by Herb Nygren Jr.
Local Pastor Dirk K. Hill doesn’t use his voice to deliver his message Sunday mornings. In fact, he doesn’t use spoken words at all throughout the week. As pastor of New Beginnings Deaf Fellowship, Hill relies solely on his hands to speak for him, utilizing American Sign Language. The church, which began meeting last October, is held at Calvary Baptist Church in Tyler and is the only Deaf church with a Deaf Pastor in East Texas. Hill started the church because of his desire to establish a community for the local Deaf community, a place where attendees could connect with prayer, Bible study and worship in their own language with their own culture.
There are 381 distinct non-English languages spoken in the United States, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Of those languages, American Sign Language, or ASL, is estimated to be the second or third most commonly used language. Sign language is defined as a formal language employing a system of hand gestures for communication, according to the Merriam- Webster dictionary. Although there are multiple forms of sign language, ASL is considered the predominant sign language of the U.S. Deaf communities. ASL is a living language with an expansive vocabulary and considered a foreign language due, in part, to its complex grammatical structure and the rich heritage it encompasses, says Rhonda McKinzie, Tyler Junior College department chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program. Across the nation, ASL is growing in its daily use, and East Texas offers numerous exciting opportunities for the advancement of ASL and the Deaf community, McKinzie says.
The Deaf culture in East Texas is blooming via the passionate interpreting professionals and slew of unique services and organizations available such as ASL Honor Society, Deaf Connection Club, Interpreter Student Association, Tyler Metro Association for the Deaf, the East Texas Deaf Festival held in Jacksonville yearly, The Deaf Ladies Club of East Texas and others.
Beth Noble, Educational Sign Language interpreter for Tyler Independent School District, says Tyler is considered the epicenter for the East Texas Deaf community. This comes as no surprise since the Sign Language Interpreting Program offered at Tyler Junior College is the only program in Texas to have an American Sign Language Honor Society. The program is an in-depth two-year study that prepares students to become skilled interpreters, McKinzie says.
The life of an interpreter is diverse. Not only do interpreters serve in the traditional professional environments like the medical, legal and educational fields, but interpreters also can be spotted translating for football players on the sidelines, swimmers at swim meets, cheerleaders, basketball and baseball players, Noble says.
They provide translation in job interviews, weddings, meetings, on-the-job training, driver’s education classes and tests, and semester-long college classes.
Pastor Hill and his family hope New Beginnings Deaf Fellowship will continue to grow and provide a haven for the Deaf amid the language and culture in which they feel comfortable. The goal of New Beginnings is to minister the deaf within a 100-mile radius of East Texas. To achieve this dream, Hill supplements his vocation by working full-time at night at Trinity Mother Frances as a lab tech so it will not interfere with his daytime pastoral duties. Though at times he might grow weary, or sometimes the growth may be slower or stagnate than hoped for, he can find hope in scripture.