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Deaf ministry resource opens at Conway church (Nov. 18, 2004)

Deaf ministry resource opens at Conway church (Nov. 18, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Deaf ministry resource opens at Conway church

Nov. 18, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0196}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

ORLANDO — Debbie Bennett has been almost fully deaf since she was 3 years old, but that has not prevented her from hearing God's will with clarity and passion. 

ORLANDO — Participants of Conway United Methodist Church's deaf ministry here share their enthusiasm for ministry. Photo courtesy of Debbie Bennett, Photo #04-0111.

Bennett, a grandmother of three, has launched a ministry for the deaf based at Orlando's Conway United Methodist Church. Hearing-impaired members of the Orlando metropolitan area receive services that range from spiritual care to worship to help paying bills and finding a job. 

Bennett did not get involved in the deaf community until her marriage ended and she returned to Orlando, her hometown. It was then that she learned American Sign Language from a deaf friend. Although she had a Pentecostal church background, a friend invited her to visit Conway United Methodist Church, and it was only a matter of time until a vision for ministry was formed. 

"I just had a heavy burden for deaf people not being able to hear the gospel," Bennett said. "They would turn to alcohol or drugs or stealing just to get attention. A lot of their family members don't know how to communicate with them, so they don't feel accepted."

Bennett said she became particularly aware of deaf people's needs-and frustrations-while helping out at a center for assisted living. She then worked for about a year and a half at the Deaf Service Bureau in Central Florida.

"All of a sudden, I felt a calling to set up a ministry at Conway," she said. "I asked Pastor Randy if they could give me a little office space in the church."

Before this, Bennett was already serving as president of the Orlando Club of the Deaf and had organized a game night, called Deaf Soul Café, for Christian people of all denominations that involves fellowship, dinner and playing poker without gambling for money.

Last June 21 Bennett received her office space and the formal church ministry was launched, encompassing the game night and many other services. The last Sunday of each month Bennett conducts a deaf chapel service. Attendance varies from seven to 20 people, she said. The church's three Sunday morning worship services also feature a sign language interpreter.

"At my other job [at the Deaf Service Bureau], I was not able to minister to them when they grew weary," she said. "I encourage them and let them know that we care, that we are praying for them. I pull them into the church if they do not have a church home."

Bennett also sees her role as an advocate for deaf persons to navigate the waters of society and be treated with equal rights and opportunities. She plans to develop a lecture class to discuss items such as Social Security insurance, the Internal Revenue Service, planning for funeral expenses and setting up a living will. She also helps deaf persons understand their Americans With Disabilities rights.

"I have to be their mouthpiece and to fend for them, speak up for them. They really don't know how to stand up," she said. 

From the church office, Bennett often uses a videophone to sign back and forth with deaf persons who can see her on their home televisions. It operates much like a Web cam on the Internet, she said, and added, "Pastor Randy gets a kick out of it."

On a recent Sunday Bennett delivered a sermon featuring a baton relay runners pass to each other. She got the idea from her father's funeral, which took place in October.

"I handed each of them the baton and asked them, 'Will you met me in heaven? Will you run the race for the Lord?' " Some of them came up and told me that they never heard a sermon like that before: 'If I were to die and go to heaven, would you finish the race for me?' " she said, adding, "I've always wanted to be a preacher, to reach out to people and bring them into the fold."

Bennett hopes people from across the Florida Conference and beyond will consider donating funds to Conway's deaf ministry to help it expand. She is currently a volunteer and would like to be able to quit her part-time job at American Sign Language Inc. in Kissimmee so she can spend more time working with the deaf at Conway.

For more information about the deaf ministry, visit


This article relates to Health and Wholeness.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant