Deaf church focuses on community, communicating

AMARILLO, Texas – Worshipping at Paramount Baptist Deaf Church is not a silent affair. Deaf people who can speak joyfully shout during the baptism of one of their friends.

A member of the church’s hearing minority sits in the front pews with a microphone, interpreting into spoken English the prayers and messages signed by Pastor Darrell Bonjour, who delivers his weekly sermon from an abnormally raised stage that allows all of his congregation to see him. Prayer is held with eyes open.

Conversations are signed in the pews.

Speakers and subwoofers anchored to the ceiling and the stage play music loudly enough for deaf people to feel vibration.

Hearing congregants and guests take advantage of the small basket of earplugs by the entrance of the sanctuary for those who might be sensitive to the volume.

"This is where we make hearing people deaf," Bonjour told the Amarillo Globe-News as he laughed about the loud music that appears to be accompanied by a synchronized performance of American Sign Language.

PBDC began as a simple interpreted ministry at its mother church, Paramount Baptist Church. Bonjour would drive church vans around Amarillo, picking up deaf people and bringing them to services. The first day was Easter Sunday of 1980. Three deaf people were in attendance.

Today, more than 100 attend what is now a standalone church. As the ministry grew in popularity and it was realized that deaf worshippers had different needs than the hearing, deaf congregants began holding their own church services, Bonjour said.

They outgrew a mobile home on PBDC’s property. Then, they outgrew a renovated chapel on the property – even after holding multiple services each weekend. In February 1999, the congregation moved into their own building on Holiday Drive in Amarillo.

The deaf children Bonjour drove to church in the ’80s and ’90s have become the leadership of today’s PBDC and who now drive vans to pick up the next generation of deaf people seeking their own community.

PBDC’s congregation is not all deaf. It’s not all Baptist. It’s not all ASL signers.

As much as 70 percent of the congregation is deaf. The rest are hearing spouses, family members or signers who simply fell in love with the community.

Some are Baptist. Others are Catholic. Still others are Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist or worshippers who identify with other denominations.

"The deafness draws them together," said Bonjour.

Even within the deaf community at PBDC, there is a larger melting pot. There are ASL-only signers, deaf people with cochlear implants, deaf people who can speak as well as those who are hard of hearing.

Bonjour said the church’s diversity is due to its isolation and location. In larger areas such as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the deaf community might have the opportunity and the population to selfsegregate into specific groups and denominations.

That’s not a possibility in Amarillo, and it seems to work for the church’s community.

Bonjour said the community at PBDC is one of love.

"(Our church is) a bridge to work together through differences," said Bonjour.

Melanie Lyons, a member of the church’s hearing minority, joined the church as a summer missionary and then transitioned into being a member of the staff. She has served as a ministry associate for 16 years.

"The first sign that I learned was family, and it was like lightning hit," Lyons said with glassy eyes. "I can’t even describe it. It was like this is it. This is where you’re going to be, so buckle in because this is going to be your family."