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Deaf congregations worship in their own way

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The church is silent when the Rev. Brian Sims takes the pulpit for his Sunday sermon. He pauses to make sure all eyes are on him, then raises his hands and begins preaching.

Not a word passes his lips."We're all different," Sims relates in American Sign Language, "but it doesn't matter as long as we open our hearts."

Two deaf women lead the first hymn, which is played on tape for the handful of visitors who can hear. Sims, who also can hear, bangs a bass drum to mark the beat for the others.

The congregation signs the words, fingertips touching palms for "Jesus." When the music and signing end, a hundred hands wave in silent applause.

While some churches provide signers to help deaf and hearing-impaired worshipers, Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church is among a small but growing number with services in sign language with oral translation.

The church is part of Brentwood Baptist Church, which until three years ago used an ASL interpreter for its dozen deaf members. It hired Sims in 1995 to start a full-time ministry to the deaf. Now his church has about 70 members and seven Sunday School classes.

Though Sims can hear, he can relate to his deaf parishioners. His adoptive parents were deaf, and he grew up signing.

Church deacon Michael Gournaris of Columbia is deaf. For him, attending a church with a deaf congregation is more spiritual. "The deaf church has its own culture," he signs. "For a deaf person to worship in a culture that's not their church, it's harder."

Churches for the deaf are not new. Woodmont Deaf Church, which Sims attended in his hometown of Houston, is one of the nation's oldest at 75.

In Minneapolis, Bread of Life Evangelical Lutheran Church was built almost a half-century ago and specially designed to minimize visual distractions. The walls are stark white, with windows at the top to cut glare. A raised platform replaces a pulpit and includes a video screen.

The National Association for the Deaf estimates 1,000 or more mainly deaf congregations nationwide for 28 million deaf and hearing impaired Americans. Sims expects the number to grow in Tennessee and elsewhere as more denominations reach out to underserved populations.

The National Council of Churches, a group that includes most major Protestant and Eastern Orthodox religions, has more than a dozen committees for underdeveloped ministries.

"More denominations are now becoming aware of the diversity of people who have been excluded, mostly unintentionally, in the past" says Beth Lockard, head of the council's committee on deaf churches. "And that includes the deaf."

She cites statistics that indicate 90 percent of the nation's deaf community is unchurched. "If these figures are accurate," she says, "it shows that deaf ministry has a lot of catching up to do."

Lockard, who is deaf, is working toward ordination so she can lead the new Christ the King Deaf Lutheran Church in West Chester, Pa.

Lamont Perry is another success story. The 17-year-old resident of Nashville has attended church on his own for three years, riding in a van that Sims sends to pick up deaf teens. His mother, who can hear, worships elsewhere.

Perry would stay home if there were no deaf church. "I'd be bored trying to read the Bible myself," he says.