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Manhattan priest is 'ordained to the world, not just to the deaf'
Daybook

By Neva Rae Fox
2/16/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Communicating is not a problem for Christine Selfe. She communicates with everyone she can in many ways-vocally, using American Sign Language (ASL), email-it doesn't matter to Selfe. She has a message, and she communicates it.

The Rev. Christine Selfe is the vicar for St. Ann's Church for the Deaf in Manhattan, a calling she has enjoyed "one year exactly on January 5," she smiled. "It's been a wonderful year."

While questions were presented to her in ASL through an interpreter, Selfe answered vocally, always with a smile.

Her calling to St. Ann's may be only a year old, but she has been a part of St. Ann's since 1982, "when I first came to St. Ann's as a student assistant," she said. "Since then, it's been an ongoing relationship."

"I came as a student in college," she elaborated. "I'd come to New York and I'd visit St. Ann's. I attended St. Ann's while I was at GTS [General Theological Seminary] in New York]. In the deaf community, you get to know all the deaf churches."

In fact, Selfe is proud of her church and of her diocese in pioneering ministry with the deaf: St. Ann's, founded in 1852, is the world's oldest religious congregation for the deaf.

"There are over 40 congregations where deaf worship regularly," she explained. "Many of these are predominately hearing churches that utilize an interpreter. There are a growing number of churches where services are held in ASL as the primary language. As a matter of pride, again, St. Ann's was the first to do that."

She said it feels "awesome" to be the vicar of one of those congregations.

Born and raised in central Pennsylvania, Selfe lost her ability to hear as a child. "I was born with jaundice and sustained loss of oxygen during blood transfusions," she shared. "The medical professionals told my parents that if I survived I would be mentally retarded. So they attributed any trouble I had understanding speech to mental retardation. I was eight when I was finally diagnosed as hearing impaired. My hearing loss is classified as progressive sensorineural."

Selfe's alma mater is Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.-which, according to its web site, "leads the world in undergraduate liberal arts education, career development, and outstanding graduate programs for deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing students." (http://www.gallaudet.edu/).

It was there that Selfe found the Episcopal Church. "I become interested in the Episcopal Church when I met the Rev. Jay Croft through the campus ministry at Gallaudet University in 1981," she noted. "I was confirmed by Bishop John Walker in 1982."

A 2004 graduate of GTS, Selfe's first week of seminary was the week of September 11, 2001. Her face grew sad and reflective at the memory. "For me, it was a matter of learning that I really could trust God in all circumstances. I knew it before, but that moment when it comes very clear, and very much a part of you, that happened that week. You can move on, in spite of the fear. That first day was so much."

Today, living in Brooklyn, she is active in the deaf and disabled communities. She quickly pointed out that St. Ann's is accessible for the physically challenged. "It's a big pet peeve that many of our churches are not accessible," she stated.

But she is also very clear about her role in the Diocese of New York in helping the deaf and hearing-impaired community. "I make myself available," she stressed, noting she will assist any congregation or priest who wants to reach out to the deaf and hearing impaired. "It's part of my ministry," she said. "If the clergy in the diocese have deaf members, please don't hesitate to contact me."

However, her ministry doesn't stop there, Selfe said. "I don't want to limit my ministry just to deaf people. I'm ordained to the world, not just to the deaf."

Selfe is a member of the national network, the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf, and she hopes to attend General Convention 2006 in Columbus, Ohio in June to share the news about the growth and opportunity in the deaf community. (http://www.ecdeaf.com/)

In her spare time, Selfe is an avid reader and has started a new venture: she's currently writing a children's story.

Modern communications systems are also part of her work in the church. "I have an on-line ministry and through that I have people who serve from as far away as Norway, Australia, and Scotland. They contact me for spiritual advice."

She recognizes the impact of today's communications technology. "Email has really opened up the world for the deaf community," she stated. A web site is in the works, she promised.

Selfe has tracked a lot of changes at St. Ann's. "It's very exciting to see," she explained. "In the past we had bi-weekly services. First thing I said is that we will have services every Sunday."

That is a promise she has kept. Sometimes it is new people coming to church. Sometimes it is the "old" people coming. "Every Sunday is different people," Selfe said. "I don't have the same people every Sunday. It varies, it's small numbers but there's growth because there are new people."

She is glad that her congregation is varied. "Right now 90% of my congregation is deaf. The other 10% are hearing, but they are people who are involved in the deaf community."

Whereas services at St. Ann's are conducted in ASL, "I will voice if necessary to meet the needs of a deaf and hearing congregation."

"One of my hearing members is an interpreting student from NYU. She grew up Episcopalian and started coming. When necessary I ask her to voice and interpret."

She is reaching out to Columbia University and has what she calls "a small ministry there."

"Many of my members are elderly and they are located in all areas of the diocese; because they cannot travel to the diocese, I go to them. I do a lot of traveling."

She smiled broadly when sharing the mission statement for St. Ann's. "It may be long but it tells a lot about us," she said. "God willing, the church will continue to grow."

St. Ann's is located at 209 E. 16th St., New York, NY. Phone: Dial 711(Local) 1-800-421-1220 (Outside NYC) then give operator (212) 673-2653 (TDD); (646) 247-1046 (Pager) Email: acselfe@tmail.com


Mission Statement for St. Ann's Church for the Deaf

We are in service to the deaf and hearing-impaired (and hearing) communities in the diocese of New York. While there are a number of churches in Manhattan which provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters as an adjunct to hearing services, we are unique in that our services are run by deaf clergy specifically for deaf congregants in their own idiom, ASL. Litany, Bible readings, and Prayers are not "translated" from verbal English, but tailored to and delivered directly in ASL.

Deaf worshipers do not feel like "visitors" here, but are "spoken" to directly and participate actively in all services.

Our outreach is not limited to worship services only. We share weekly fellowship meals following Sunday services. Our doors are always open to members for counseling or prayer. We celebrate together significant events such as member's birthdays, Church and significant secular holidays (i.e., thanksgiving). Our goal is that every member know they are part of our extended Church family in Christ. They are never forgotten or isolated. Members can always reach us using a TTY, voice phone relay, or through direct email. We also publish a monthly newsletter, seeking to foster our emphasis of being a family (body) in Christ.

We have an active and lively Men's Fellowship Group which meets on Thursday afternoons.

An integral part of our ministry is in visiting the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. Many of our members are elderly. Some of them have been unable to physically attend Sunday services for years. This is no obstacle to their inclusion and oneness in our Christian family! Our every prayer and sharing reminds them of this; as His instrument, we bring forth the reality that He is with each of us always - wherever we are and in whatever condition! Church is not a building nor a specific location, but a living Relationship with our Lord and Savior. We are one body always!

Although our mission is primarily in service to the deaf, we also equally serve the hearing community, whether it be hearing family members, students of ASL, or hearing persons interested in attending deaf services. When hearing congregants attend, our services are simultaneously delivered in vocal English and ASL. Naturally, hearing persons can also share in all our other outreaches (i.e., fellowship meals, pastoral counseling, and prayer).