Manhattan branch serves as an oasis for deaf members

MANHATTAN, N.Y. — While many members prefer to speak of gospel precepts in cool, intellectual terms, members of the Manhattan 7th Branch for the deaf and hard-of-hearing discuss the gospel with obvious feeling.

Branch members, employing American Sign Language, enhance their communication with expression and emotion, said branch President Bart D. Worthington.

"It is exciting to see the gospel expressed so passionately, and with high energy, rather than it just being a cerebral experience," he said.

President Worthington, a pre-med student and former missionary to the deaf here in New York, serves a congregation of about 50 active members from Manhattan and the Bronx. They gather in the Church's multi-ward facility on Lincoln Square, surrounded by New York City's high rise buildings.

Two sets of full-time missionaries are assigned to the branch and are kept busy in member and missionary work. Branch members are good missionaries, said President Worthington. "Our three upcoming baptisms are from member referrals," he said. "The deaf community is very small. Most of the time when investigators come to the deaf branch, members typically know of them, whether it be from school or some other social event for the deaf. The investigators like what they see and want to be part of it."

Non-hearing people have many challenges in the city and in the Church, he said. Communication is a continuing difficulty and jobs for the deaf are scarce.

In the Church, communication is also a challenge; interpreters are in short supply. It is difficult to train people in their callings and for leadership. "Stake training meetings require a lot of interpreters, which we don't have," he said. "But we do the best we can."

Wendy Feliz shadows, or repeats teacher's signs, for Ritcharde Kunkel, who is deaf and legally blind.
Wendy Feliz shadows, or repeats teacher’s signs, for Ritcharde Kunkel, who is deaf and legally blind. Credit: Photo by John L. Hart

The closeness of the branch sometimes leads to problems when feelings are hurt, but that is the nature of people, he said.

Despite these challenges, the branch is growing and members find great joy in attending and participating in services. A typical Sunday School class includes everyone focusing on every sign, with multiple responses, jokes and insights. People eagerly respond to questions and discussion is spontaneous.

"The deaf branch is an important part of our stake," said President Brent J. Belnap of the New York New York Stake. "The branch has been around for about 10 years and during that time, it has grown steadily."

He said the branch provides an important gathering place for fellowship among deaf and hard-of-hearing.

"They sponsor regular trips to the temple and hold other fun activities," he said. "The branch has stayed strong through all sorts of leadership changes, in part because of the good spirit among the members."

He said that the stake is facing the challenge of too few interpreters.

"The stake leadership is trying very hard to learn even the basic sign language in order to communicate with the branch members. Last week was branch conference, and the stake Relief Society president signed her name and said hello. I gave my testimony in sign language. The reaction was so positive that the hearing would take time to learn just a few words to communicate with the deaf members."