Imagine attending a Sunday School class in a language different from your own. Without an interpreter, it would be nearly impossible to understand.
For Nancy Kelly-Jones and her husband, Clyde Jones, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are both deaf, Sunday School in their English ward can be difficult to understand — even with an interpreter or a typist. A lot of comments and conversation can be missed, and sometimes they feel intimidated to ask questions in fear of slowing down the class.
Two years ago, they began attending an adult religion class in American Sign Language, what they describe as their “safe space” where they can freely ask questions and learn more about the gospel of Jesus Christ. They meet weekly via Zoom with a teacher and class of about 40 students from around the United States and a few other countries.
“We were just so thrilled to have this program, to truly realize that Heavenly Father does know who we are and our needs,” said Kelly-Jones, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. “Through His great wisdom and celestial love, we were able to join and meet all of these awesome deaf people. …
“We learn from one another. We learn each other’s stories. We see those faces, and we look at each other, and because we all share similar experiences of struggling with communication access throughout our lives — we just know and connect immediately,” she said.
Earlier this year the Church sent out two official notices for local leaders regarding classes in ASL for those who are deaf and hard of hearing — adult religion classes and seminary and institute classes.
Kade R. Johnson, adapted needs manager in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, said by spreading awareness, the Church hopes members of all ages who are deaf and hard of hearing can sign up and benefit from these classes. “This is an effort to try to help people hear and understand the gospel in their own language so that they can grasp what’s really happening,” he said.
Added Rick E. Jensen, North America ASL coordinator and adviser, “Our goal is to find the one individual who can really benefit. ... And there are ‘ones’ all over this country and all over this world who are isolated. The program is going to grow as the ‘ones’ come, but the purpose is to focus in on the ‘one.’ And so the invitation is extended: Come and join, come and be part of this, come and see.”
ASL adult religion classes
While ASL seminary and institute classes are intended for youth and young adults ages 14-30, ASL adult religion classes are for members ages 31 and older. Like ASL seminary and institute classes, ASL adult religion classes are taught by members who are deaf.
Melissa Julien, who lives in St. George, Utah, co-teaches an ASL adult religion class on this year’s “Come, Follow Me” study of the New Testament. Some of her students struggle to understand English so she uses pictures and visuals to help explain words from the scriptures. This teaching style resonates with Clyde Jones, who attends her weekly class.
“Zoom is a great blessing,” Jones said of being able to see her presentation while she teaches. “Her PowerPoints help make the scriptures clear. To see the word, see the meaning and also see the sign, it helps me to understand the gospel on a deeper level. It sticks in my brain and makes it memorable. The visual teaching style matches our needs.”
Melissa Julien shared the story of a woman in her class who grew up attending church without an interpreter and didn’t understand much. “When she began taking this class, she started to cry. She said, ‘I love this class because I love learning about the gospel.’”
“Many of the people in our classes misunderstood the gospel,” Melissa Julien explained, “and so this allows for an expansion, or an expounding, of the gospel so they can understand deeply.”
She said she tries to teach her students study skills to help them feel the Spirit. “I’m not the teacher; the teacher is the Holy Ghost. And He’s the one who can change hearts,” she added.
ASL seminary and institute classes
Kailee Hancock, a 17-year-old from West Haven, Utah, said she has two favorite parts of ASL seminary — chatting with other deaf students and learning more about Jesus Christ and His Church.
Kailee participates in an ASL seminary class via Zoom three times a week and serves on the ASL seminary council. As part of the council, she helps spread awareness about the ASL seminary program and comes up with creative ways to help students remember doctrinal mastery scriptures in sign language.
“I think it’s very fun for students to see and meet other deaf youth, to make good connections, and learn more about Jesus Christ through sign language,” Kailee said of ASL seminary. “It’s not through talking, where so much of the talking goes right over your head, but it’s through ASL and so you can learn so much more. There are a lot of messages of Christ that we might miss, and there’s more that you can learn through ASL. You can understand what’s being said.”
Kayleen Pugh, an ASL seminary teaching supervisor and institute teacher who lives in Marietta, Georgia, commented on the benefits she has seen from youth and young adults who participate in these classes: “Before they were in their hearing ward, isolated, and now they’re in a class with other deaf youth. You can see their eyes light up. You can see that they’re learning the gospel. …
“One student mentioned to me, he said: ‘I love this because when I go to the hearing ward, it feels like I’m limited on what I can learn. In this class, I feel like I can go much deeper and talk with you and the class members, and be able to expound on the gospel of Jesus Christ and learn and share in that conversation. I feel like I’m free with what I can say.’ …
“It’s like they come to life because they realize they can communicate freely and effectively,” Kayleen Pugh said.
How to sign up for ASL religion classes
ASL adult religion classes:
- For adults ages 31 and older
- To sign up or learn more information, email deafsupport@ChurchofJesusChrist.org
ASL seminary and institute classes:
- Seminary for youth ages 14-18
- Institute for young adults ages 18-30
- To sign up or learn more information, visit aslseminaryandinstitute.com