Being deaf in the Church: How 3 leaders are influencing their wards, stakes and communities

The stories of three Latter-day Saints who are deaf and serve in leadership callings in their hearing units: a counselor in a stake presidency, a bishop and a Relief Society president

The call to serve in the stake presidency “came as quite a shock” to President Michael Ballard.

He was serving as bishop of the Utah Valley Ward (Sign Language) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he received the call to serve as second counselor of the Provo Utah South Stake — a diverse group of congregations that includes two Spanish-speaking wards and a Native American ward, in addition to the American Sign Language ward.

“This experience has really humbled me,” said President Ballard, who is deaf and has been serving in the stake presidency since December 2022. “Deaf people rarely get to this place in callings in local units. It’s new for a lot of members in our stake, particularly that there’s a deaf person that’s serving at this level.”

In the history of Church leadership, President Ballard is one of the first deaf men to serve in a stake presidency.

President Michael Ballard, right, second counselor in the Provo Utah South Stake presidency, writes on the white board during a stake presidency meeting on May 3, 2023, in Provo, Utah. | Jeff Born

“It’s a great time right now to be deaf in the Church,” he said. “There’s really a pioneering experience that’s happening among members of the Church now, to be able to have responsibilities and callings and such at this level. …

“Right now I’m [one of few] serving in this particular calling, but I’m not going to be the last. We’ve been able to open this door so that more can come behind me.”

President Ballard — along with Bishop Thomas Graham in Hawaii and Katrina Trevenen, a ward Relief Society president in Utah — spoke to the Church News about their experiences as Latter-day Saints who are deaf and serving in leadership callings.

Michael Ballard: ‘Learning to love quickly’

President Ballard and his wife, Justine Ballard, met at a Church Educational System fireside while she was attending Brigham Young University and he was going to Utah Valley State College. She was learning ASL for fun and decided to sit near the interpreters, where he also sat.

Sixteen years, six children and four states later, the Ballards feel fortunate to have experienced the Church in different places. President Ballard’s education and career path have taken them to Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky and Utah. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of education from Drake University and is an assistant professor and program director of ASL and deaf studies at Utah Valley University.

“Everywhere we’ve gone,” Justine Ballard said, “there have been people that have really just taken it upon them to make sure that our family was included in the ward.”

President Michael Ballard and his wife, Justine, and their family. | Provided by Michael Ballard

“We’ve learned to love people very quickly,” President Ballard added. “I’ve had to learn how to love people who don’t understand me and vice versa. I think that’s been a large part of what we’ve learned together, and that’s learning to love quickly.”

President Ballard was born hearing and developed spinal meningitis as a baby, which caused his deafness. Justine Ballard and their six children are hearing. As they’ve moved around, people have often asked Justine for advice about how to communicate with her husband and others who are deaf.

Her response: Don’t be afraid.

“You don’t have to know everything to start,” Justine Ballard said. “You just need your five loaves and two fishes — whatever that looks like for you — and give it to the Lord. The Lord will magnify that, and you will be able to form relationships with people that are deaf, or that have any sort of disability or difference.”

President Kyle Reyes, president of the Provo Utah South Stake, described serving with President Ballard as an honor. He noted President Ballard’s ability to be truly present with those he meets with.

“Personally, I have appreciated the insights I have received as he communicates with me due to the combination of his sign language and the interpreters’ audible translation,” President Reyes said. “I have found a deeper meaning in conversations with him because of the addition of visual representation of his messages. There is something so sacred and powerful about watching how the hymns, prayers and thoughts are shared through sign language.”

The Provo Utah South Stake presidency — President Kyle Reyes, middle; President Matt Mecham, left, first counselor; and President Michael Ballard, right, second counselor — participates in a stake council meeting in Provo, Utah, on May 3, 2023. President Ballard is deaf. | Doug Stringham

President Reyes said President Ballard regularly messages him and his first counselor, President Matt Mecham, with words and phrases he is learning in Spanish to better communicate with the two Spanish wards in the stake. “And he is so patient with us as we learn signs as well.”

That’s what President Ballard hopes others see in his experience serving in the stake presidency — “It doesn’t feel foreign. … There’s a language difference, and there’s really not much more than that,” he said.

“We’ve been able to open this door so that more can come behind me,” President Michael Ballard said.

President Ballard also hopes he can be a support to youth who are deaf. “My hope and prayer out of this is that youth — the deaf youth — can look and see, ‘Wait a minute, there is somebody that is serving at this level, and that is someone who is like me?’ ... I hope that that’s somebody that they can see that they can trust, someone that looks like them and acts like them.”

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Thomas Graham: Utilizing ‘tremendous technology’

On a Sunday morning on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Bishop Thomas Graham prepares to conduct a sacrament meeting. It’s an effort that involves a laptop, two tablets, a smart phone, his cochlear implant, the FM transmitter and receiver, and sign language interpreters — all to help him get as much information as possible.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle to get our meeting started on time,” Bishop Graham said with a smile. “It is fascinating how much tech goes into me functioning as bishop.”

Bishop Graham, who is deaf but functions more as a hard-of-hearing individual with his cochlear implant, has been serving as bishop of the Kahala Ward in the Honolulu Hawaii Stake since Jan. 1. The Kahala Ward is a traditional hearing ward.

Bishop Thomas Graham, left, signs with Elder Maile Akana Fifita, a missionary from Salt Lake City, during a service project in Niu Valley in Honolulu, Hawaii. Bishop Graham, who is deaf, serves as bishop of the Kahala Ward in the Honolulu Hawaii Stake. | Emma Waltman

When asked how it’s going so far, Bishop Graham admits he is more tired than usual. But he loves it. “I love what I’m doing. To be able to get to know the people, to help the people, to lead the people … I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t.”

Bishop Graham grew up in a Japanese-American family in Hawaii and joined the Church when he was 24. He met his wife, Claudia Graham, shortly after he was baptized. They have two children and six grandchildren.

An experienced and passionate teacher, Bishop Graham will soon complete his 27th year working at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind. He currently works as the school’s registrar. 

“I’ve worked 30 years teaching and working with youth outside of the Church. This is my opportunity to work with the youth in the Church, using the same skill set, the same heart. ... That, too, is just another reason I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” he said of his calling as bishop.

Bishop Thomas Graham and his wife, Claudia, are pictured with their family. | Provided by Bishop Thomas Graham

“I love what I’m doing. To be able to get to know the people, to help the people, to lead the people … I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Bishop Thomas Graham said.

Claudia Graham enjoys seeing the youth say “hi” to her husband. “They seem so happy to see him as he is so happy to see them, too,” she said. “He is really enjoying getting to know them individually. He is getting to know the ward members better, too.”

She also said he has been helping members of their ward and stake understand deaf culture and how to better communicate with him. As Bishop Graham explained, there are many varieties of deafness. He has a degenerative hearing loss. For him, English, spoken and written, is his first language, and ASL is his second language. Many of his students at the deaf school can physically hear better than him but can’t comprehend what they hear as well as he can. On the flip side, their ASL is better than his.

Honolulu Hawaii Stake President Paul W.Y. Kurihara has known Bishop Graham since the 1980s, when Bishop Graham was a new convert. President Kurihara remembers him being cheerful and positive and not letting his inability to hear prevent him from participating in activities.

“Almost 40 years later, he is still funny and loves to joke around but also is a great leader and missionary-minded member of the Church,” President Kurihara said. “He is fully committed to the Lord and His work and loves it. Because of his attitude to center his life around Christ, together with Claudia, they both allow people to feel included, and we forget he is deaf. He might be ‘hard of hearing,’ but he can ‘hear Him’ clearly because of who he is and what he does.”

Bishop Thomas Graham of the Kahala Ward, Honolulu Hawaii Stake, teaches Primary children sign language on Sunday, May 14, 2023. | Kumen Kurihara

Being deaf and serving as a bishop of a hearing ward creates a unique situation for Bishop Graham, and he’s grateful he is able to do as well as he can.

“As they say, ‘in the Lord’s due time.’ If it wasn’t for the team of leaders, supporters, interpreters, the tremendous technology we have now and, of course, the Lord, there would be no way I could ever serve as a bishop — especially as an effective bishop, even though I’m still really new and still getting used to things,” Bishop Graham said.

When it gets busy, he is reminded of where the calling came from. “This is the Lord’s Church, and He called me. And He called our counselors. I won’t even call them my counselors because they’re not mine, they are His. … 

“As much of a testimony that I do have now, I have so, so much more of a testimony of Jesus Christ that I need to develop. I can only hope this calling can be an experience to help me develop it.”

Bishop Thomas Graham, middle, of the Kahala Ward, Honolulu Hawaii Stake, poses for a photo during a service project with Kumen Kurihara, left, and Brad Burton, right. | Emma Waltman

Katrina Trevenen: Breaking down walls

Shortly after being called as Relief Society president of the Elwood 2nd Ward, Tremonton Utah South Stake, Katrina Trevenen visited a woman in the ward who previously wasn’t open to visits. 

“When she found out that I was deaf, somehow the walls just broke down,” Katrina Trevenen said. “It just did the trick, I guess. 

“If not, it was my cowgirl boots,” she added with a laugh.

Katrina Trevenen leads the Relief Society meeting in the Elwood 2nd Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Elwood, Utah, on May 14, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Katrina Trevenen and her husband, Thayne, have a blended family of nine children and moved from Hutto, Texas, to Elwood, Utah, three years ago. Whether she’s riding motorcycles, making pottery, conducting Relief Society or sharing her testimony online in ASL, Katrina Trevenen seeks to brighten lives and homes and remind all of the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

“He is the only way we can make it through this life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Him,” she said.

Katrina Trevenen was born deaf and has a cochlear implant. Growing up in Utah, she attended church with her family but couldn’t understand much as she had to rely on lip reading. At age 18, she began learning ASL. “It helped me recognize my identity. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve missed out on a lot,’” she said. She became a strong advocate for the deaf community and won Miss Deaf Utah in 1993.

Katrina Trevenen and her husband, Thayne Trevenen, are pictured with their family. | Provided by Katrina Trevenen

According to her husband, Katrina Trevenen’s greatest strength is listening to the promptings of the Spirit. “Her life is a series of events where she willingly puts aside everything and focuses on those in need. … Her spirit makes you feel comfortable enough to share your thoughts and feelings even though you just met,” Thayne Trevenen said.

“[Jesus Christ] is the only way we can make it through this life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Him,” Katrina Trevenen said.

Katrina Trevenen had been serving as an ASL seminary teacher for almost two years when the call came to serve as Relief Society president of her hearing ward at the end of February. 

Bishop Judd Hamson said she has been a great strength in helping bring everyone together, both in her presidency and in the Relief Society, after recent boundary changes. “Her love of the Savior and contagious smile has helped all to feel welcome,” he said.

Katrina Trevenen greets a woman during Relief Society at the Elwood 2nd Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Elwood, Utah, on May 14, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

In addition to her service in the ward and community, Katrina Trevenen has an online influence through her Facebook page Daily-Dove, where she shares inspirational, gospel-related messages in ASL.

The idea for Daily-Dove began in 2019 when the Sunday meeting block was reduced from three hours to two and Sunday School happened every other week rather than weekly. The Sunday School classes in Katrina Trevenen’s ward were consolidated and moved to the chapel — a much larger classroom and class size — where she could no longer lip read and didn’t have an ASL interpreter. Missing out on the lesson, she felt prompted to do a live video on Facebook in ASL about her insights from that week’s “Come, Follow Me” study.

“Come to find out, there were more deaf people like me who were in a hearing ward, and they were missing out as well, so they joined the lessons I was teaching in ASL,” Katrina Trevenen said.

She continues to share daily insights and her testimony of the Savior while attracting a growing audience of people from different faiths. She often invites ASL missionaries to join her and answer questions about the Church.

“The Daily-Dove is an amazing story. But not because of me — because of Him,” Katrina Trevenen said. She recently attended the baptism of a woman who saw one of her videos about the temple and wanted to have missionaries teach her more.

Katrina Trevenen, middle of top row, hosts a Zoom meeting for Daily-Dove with ASL missionaries. Participants are signing “I love you” in ASL. | Katrina Trevenen

“They crave information,” she said of people in the deaf community. “The field is ready to be harvested, and I feel that. I know they are just waiting, longing for information.”

Katrina Trevenen mentioned the work the Church is doing to help those who are deaf have access to what they need to learn and live the gospel. “Each deaf person has different needs,” she explained.

For example, even with her cochlear implant, sometimes she can’t understand comments during a Relief Society lesson or misses out on part of the discussion in ward council. But she is grateful for those who are willing to work with her, and she is putting her trust in the Lord.

“Somehow it’s just working,” she said of serving as a Relief Society president in a hearing ward. “I can share my love for the gospel and Jesus Christ through being deaf. It does the trick somehow. And that’s what I’ve learned, so I need to not be afraid and trust in Heavenly Father. … I just need to be the best me I can be.”

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Michael Ballard is the first deaf man to serve in a stake presidency. The Church News was made aware of another deaf man who is also serving as a counselor in a stake presidency.

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