September 6, 2019

Evangelization and Catechesis Supplement

Taking down barriers helps children learn God’s message

As a volunteer sign language interpreter for St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, Stephanie Campo translates God’s message to 12-year-old parishioner Bae Meh, who is deaf. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As a volunteer sign language interpreter for St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, Stephanie Campo translates God’s message to 12-year-old parishioner Bae Meh, who is deaf. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The trusting smiles of the two Burmese children who are deaf reflect the special connection they have with their American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

For 9-year-old Peh Bue and his 12-year-old sister Bae Meh, interpreter Stephanie Campo is a bridge who helps them cross further into their knowledge of the Catholic faith during the children’s faith formation program at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.

“Having an interpreter sign helps me understand what the teacher is talking about,” Bae says in sign language as Campo interprets.

Her brother adds, “My favorite part is learning about God.”

The children’s responses elicit a warm smile from Campo.

“It’s rewarding that they’re getting the same experience that a hearing child is getting in the classroom,” says Campo, a 36-year-old mother of four children between the ages of 9 and 2 who offers her interpreting skills as a volunteer. “It would be a terrible thing for them to miss out on God’s message to them.”

At the same time, Campo insists that her connection with the two children has helped her faith and even deepened her empathy for the journeys that some families make.

Regarding the influence on her faith, Campo says, “Sometimes, I can get complacent at Mass. But hearing faith formation from a child’s perspective helps me slow down and appreciate it.”

She also has an appreciation for the journey that the children and their father, Pray Reh, and their mother, U Meh, have made as refugees.

Both Pray and U fled their homeland of Myanmar in 1996. They married in a refugee camp in Thailand where Peh and Bae were both born. Then the family came to the United States in 2015 through the help of Catholic Charities. And here in Indianapolis, they have faced the challenge of adapting to a new country while also trying to learn English and ASL.

“They’ve been on an amazing journey,” Campo says. “I’m sure it’s been a lot to adjust to. It’s got to be difficult at times.”

That connection as people of faith—with the goal of all involved to grow closer to God—is exactly the hope of the archdiocese’s Ministry to Persons with Special Needs.

“It is very common to hear from our catechists that they learn more from their friends than they could ever teach,” says Erin Jeffries, coordinator of the archdiocese’s special needs ministry.

That ministry focuses on making the Catholic faith more accessible for a range of people who have special needs.

‘Every child has special needs’

“Many of our parishes are working with individuals with autism, or other intellectual developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome,” Jeffries says. “More frequently now, deaf individuals or their family are reaching out to their parish or myself, looking to connect with parish life.

“Some parishes are also working with individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Bringing awareness to and meeting the needs of individuals who have a mental illness is something that has been taking on ever greater importance these past few years as well.”

The overall approach of the archdiocesan ministry to people with special needs is three-pronged, she says: awareness, inclusion and specialized or adaptive efforts.

“Basically, I begin with the premise that each person is uniquely called to holiness by virtue of their baptism, and has their own strengths and challenges,” Jeffries says. “So the first step is always taking some time to get to know the person.”

That’s the approach that St. Pius X Parish takes with all the children in its faith formation program, including Peh and Bae who are deaf and another child who has Down syndrome.

“As a mom, I tell people that every child has special needs,” says Julie Hughes, a mother of six who coordinates the children’s faith formation program at St. Pius X. “Some special needs are more apparent than other children’s special needs. I just try to work with the families and our catechists. If parents have a special concern, we try to work with their child.”

That approach is appreciated by Peh’s and Bae’s parents, who both have their hearing.

“With the help of Stephanie, they have confidence in class, they learn more things and they learn about God,” says their dad.

Besides Campo, St. Pius benefits from having three other sign language interpreters who volunteer their skill: Diane Jones, Gretchen Krug and Lucy Wahnsiedler.

Jennifer Naville hopes to provide that service in the future at St. Mary Parish in Navilleton in the New Albany Deanery. Right now, the mother of four and grandmother of two is starting her senior years of studying sign language at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. This summer, she attended a weeklong program that connected ASL to the Catholic faith.

“I just always felt I wanted to integrate my faith with ASL to connect people who are deaf to their faith,” says Naville, who made a career change after 30 years as a nurse. “It’s giving them access to the word and connecting them to the Gospel. It’s something I’m looking forward to doing in the future.”

Taking down barriers, building a sense of belonging

Jeffries welcomes that help, noting that about 200 children are born every year in Indiana who are deaf or have significant hearing loss.

“Yet the vast majority of deaf individuals do not attend a religious service, much less a faith formation opportunity, for the primary reason that it is not accessible to them,” she says. “So I would just encourage our parishes to consider the possibility of this need in their planning, and to be open when the opportunities arise and someone reaches out.”

That openness to any person with a special need will help to give all people a sense of belonging to God and the Church, Jeffries says.

“My hope is that persons with disabilities are empowered to achieve the fullest measure of personal participation—belonging, serving and flourishing as part of the body of Christ. 

“I think what it comes down to is that so often we put up barriers that, in large part, these folks don’t. They truly are who they are—human in the best sense of the word. To be in relationship with them brings down our barriers—and allows us to be vulnerable as well. It truly is a gift I hope every parish experiences.”
 

(For more information on the archdiocese’s Ministry to Persons with Special Needs, visit www.archindy.org/specialneeds, or contact Erin Jeffries, coordinator of the archdiocese’s special needs ministry, at ejeffries@archindy.org, or 317-236-1448.)

 

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