16 17 I recently read two articles on America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, that reminded me of the Deaf Catholic community (of which I am a part). The first article, My black Catholic church was closed in the name of integration (capitalization following the original), reminded me of arguments that Deaf parishoners should go integrate with hearing churches, instead of having Masses of our own.
In the Deaf world, there’s a lot of conversation about how best to educate kids with hearing loss. I grew up “mainstreamed,” which means I was the lone deaf kid in my neighborhood public school (a “hearing” school). This is in contrast to being at a Deaf school where all students are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH), or in a “mainstream program” with other DHH students within a hearing school.
There are benefits to mainstreaming. Since Deaf schools serve a small population, they can only offer so many specialized options – team sports, special-topic science classes, clubs, and so forth. But there are also downsides. Although I did extraordinarily well in school and had kind, supportive teachers, I was also isolated and exhausted. Students in Deaf schools and mainstream programs might not have had number theory classes or zero-gravity research projects like my gifted magnet high school did, but they had access to communities and spaces where they could sign without anybody staring. Places to figure out what it meant for them to be Deaf.
There is a parallel to faith development here. We do not find our identities in faith all by ourselves, but with the help of Christ in many forms, including via the Body of Christ, the community of believers. We need to be with others who are unlike ourselves, yes – but we also need to be with others like ourselves.
And so when we say “we need our own spaces,” we’re not saying “we don’t ever want to be with people who aren’t like us.” We’re saying… we do that all the time. (Seriously, I get plenty of time with white people and hearing people and men in engineering; my life isn’t lacking for that exposure.) But we also need places to find and become all of who we are.
Effectively, the argument for “integration” in church as an argument for closing minority churches (Deaf, Black… Vietnamese, Hispanic, whatever) – be it with Black parishoners like in the article, or Deaf parishoners like me – is the parallel of saying all Deaf people should mainstream all the time. And I’m not saying there’s no place for mainstreaming – I did and do it constantly myself. I’m saying there’s a place for Deaf churches, Black churches, and other places where it may seem counterintuitive to allocate resources to serve a few when they could instead be used to serve many.
But these places and communities do serve many. If Christianity claims it is a great gift to the world (which is a complicated claim I won’t unpack here) – well, the world has also been a great gift to Christianity. Enculturation brings a richness to our faith we would never otherwise have - I can no longer imagine Catholicism without Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the shrine at Fatima, or the celebrations of Simbang Gabi. To deny us our own spaces is to deny the gifts we could bring to the world if we could find out who we are and bring that becoming into the Body of Christ, as part of it.
To argue for the “integration” of these communities into the “mainstream” implies that it’s our responsibility as the “other” to become part of the dominant culture surrounding us. But as the article author said: why were no White churches closed and asked to “integrate” into the Black ones? Or in our case, as Deaf Catholics: why should the hearing parishoners not come and experience our ASL masses? We have interpreters. It can go both ways.
We see this sort of thinking (of the world as a gift to Christianity) in programs focused on other minoritized cultures and languages. The second article that spurred me to write this post was about Guyanese children and the world some adults are working to build them so they will not have to, as the article says, “begin school they encounter a system based on an English-language framework, referencing a culture and experiences they do not share.”
I do not want to lose the gift these children could bring us, with eyes and hands and souls formed with pride in their heritage as something true and beautiful and good. I want them to grow up rooted in their own cultures as something that images a Creator that is Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Because if children grow up that way, what could they bring into the world for all the rest of us to share?
And so it is with all the rest of us. I want to see what happens when we let Christianity – when we let Christians, little-Christs, grow up with their faith within all of the worlds they could bring to us, share with us, after they have it. All the worlds we could bring to you, share with you, if only we had the time and space and resources to discover it within ourselves first.