The Sun News

Lagos church where the deaf worship

How hearing-impaired persons celebrate Catholic Mass each Sunday

Cosmas Omegoh

It could be emotional watching hearing-impaired persons communicate. The act becomes more profound when the communication is with God.

Every Sunday during the mid-morning Mass at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Ijeshatedo, Surulere, Lagos, a particular woman stands out. She is Mrs. Mirabel Chinenyerem Utam, a sign-language teacher who has been working with hearing-impaired persons many years after she graduated from the University of Jos, Plateau State.

Mrs. Utam’s seat is different from everyone else’s. It is a raised chair at the extreme right corner of the church auditorium, as one approaches the altar from the congregational entrance.

From her position, the lanky lady watches over a row of front-pew parishioners, and the parishioners, in turn, look up to her. They are deaf persons who depend on the movement of her arms and fingers to get along. They clap when she claps, laugh when she laughs and stand up when she does. She is the lens with which they see God.

Mrs. Utam was brought to the church by the parish priest, Very Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Ania, with her job clearly cut out. She leads the deaf to worship and follow other activities at Mass. No one was in that role before her arrival.
Fr. Ania told the congregation the week Mrs. Utam resumed that he knew her in his former church in Akoka, Lagos, as a sign language interpreter. But having realised that there were deaf people in the parish desirous of worshipping God, he asked her to come over to Ijesha and help out. He proclaimed that the deaf too were children of God, explaining that no impediment ought to keep them from worshipping their creator.

Whenever Mrs. Utam arrives the church a bit late, gloom always stood on the faces of her deaf friends. Among them are a boy, a few girls and two women.

Once Mrs. Utam steps in, they simply come alive. You watch them exchange pleasantries with her. And while the Mass lasts, they have their eyes fixed on her as their main source of information.

“Fr. Ania was once our parish priest at Akoka,” Mrs. Utam confirmed in an encounter with Daily Sun. “Sometime ago, he told me that he had a few hearing-impaired parishioners and asked if I could come here and interpret to them. He studied abroad and knows a lot about their psychology. So, that is why I have been coming here.
“We have a few of hearing-impaired persons coming to church. They follow the Mass and respond well. Each Sunday I come here, I do my best to ensure that they have something to take away.”

Mrs. Utam noted that the fact that someone is hearing-impaired does not mean that they should be left out. “The point is that we have so many hearing-impaired who are Christians, Catholics. We have some who are Muslims too and some who belong to no religion. However, every one of us was created by God. If we all believe that, one day, we will all give account to God on the last day, then the question should be, ‘what will be our fate when we meet God? So, the help we are rendering is for them to live right and make heaven. After all, we all are creatures of God. We have souls, and the Bible says. ‘let every living soul praise the Lord.’”

She stated that working with the hearing-impaired is a huge task, as it is impossible to get all the information across to them.

“We don’t succeed in passing information to them 100 per cent because we have some challenges. One of such is that when you are trying to communicate in a context that is strange, a lot of meaning is lost. But in that situation, we try to help them to have an idea of what is going on. You can finger-spell or demonstrate the message to communicate meaning – just to give them an idea of what the message is all about.

“Now, there are certain words that are abstract. Take faith for instance. If you are talking to a deaf person about faith, he will surely find it difficult to understand you. So you have to think about possible ways of making them to understand it. Where possible, we act it out or role-play it just to give them an idea of what is going on.

“Even those of us who are hearing, it is difficult for us to fully understand what faith in God is all about. If you are telling someone about faith in God, you will find out that it is difficult for the person to appreciate it in full. It is same with explaining deep things about God. Surely, people who are inclined to doubting will still do.”

While giving insight into the world of sign language, she said: “What makes it special is that we work with challenged children, especially the hearing-impaired. They cannot communicate normally. So we use manual communication, sign language and total communication in passing messages across to them.

“Naturally, hearing-impaired persons depend on guess work. So we use gestures and pantomime which is any type of demonstration helpful in passing information. We have many of such methods, depending on the context.

“However, the American Sign Language is the most acceptable across the world because it is standardised. It is the conventional one. It has alphabets A to Z and number one to 10.  Anyone who has interest in learning it or communicating with it has to learn the alphabets. If you are able to master the numbers 0 to 9, you can sign into 10. There is no English word that does not contain a letter from A to Z. If there is any word that is difficult for them to understand, you can finger-spell or demonstrate it.”

She warned that there was nothing to be ashamed about if one is hearing-impaired. “No one can foretell what happens next. Somebody might be hearing today, and be deaf the next day. There might be an accident, which is a possible cause of deafness. Drugs too can cause deafness. A child can be deaf after a medical treatment, one form of illness or the other or even after injection administration.”

She called on parents to follow up on their children in case they are hearing-impaired. “At four months, a baby should be able to identify sounds. If you bang the door, for instance, a living being should be able to react. So, when a mother discovers that her baby is not opening his mouth, if a baby is unable to react to sounds, she should start suspecting something.

“A six-month-old baby should be able to identify sounds. If he hears the mother’s voice, he should be able to turn and desire his mother’s company. If he is not doing so, it means that something is happening. The mother should begin to suspect the untoward.

“It is true that we all don’t develop at the same rate. But if after four to six months you bang the door, make some noise and the child doesn’t react, the mother should seek doctors’ attention.

“Mothers should insist on knowing the type of drugs their kids are being given in the hospital. They should not conclude that the caregivers are experts. Children might get well after certain medication but sometimes, the side effects pop up.

“Gone are the days when certain conditions could not be managed. As long as God has told us not to take life, we should be able to manage every child as much as we can. There is no child incapable of accomplishing great things. So, they should be assisted to live an independent life and acquire skills,” she counselled.

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