A sign of Christmas

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Bishop Peggy Johnson leads the Christmas Eve service at Barratt’s Chapel Thursday evening while Carol Stevens interprets for the hearing impaired. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

FREDERICA — Angels delivered the first Christmas message.

Two millennia later, Bishop Peggy Johnson, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, delivered her eighth sermon at Thursday’s annual Christmas Eve Candlelight and Communion Service at Barratt’s Chapel and instead of an angelic host for help, she spoke in harmony with a nearby pair of hands to make sure everybody could experience what she said.

She and American Sign Language interpreter Carol Stevens, of Bear, have worked together since 1996.

“And worked together really well,” Ms. Stevens said earlier this week. “We see the ministry the same way.”

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Carol Stevens of Bear helps spread the word.

That similar vision includes ensuring they communicate “the visual word of the Lord,” as Bishop Johnson phrased it.

The head of the Philadelphia Area of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Johnson leads the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware conferences. She started the tradition of Christmas Eve at historic Barratt’s because she considers it an ideal setting for people who don’t have a home church but want to experience the Christmas message of Jesus Christ’s birth.

It also is an opportunity to minister to those who might not be comfortable in services that mostly cater to the hearing.

“It’s Christmas Eve, the Deaf want to be included,” Bishop Johnson said last week.

Deaf, when uppercased, refers to a particular group of deaf people who share a language — American Sign Language — and a culture, according to the National Association of Deaf.

Traditionally, about five people who are deaf and their families attend the Christmas Eve service.

And with Ms. Stevens next to her, Bishop Johnson was confident they saw what she said.

“She’s really good.”

While Ms. Stevens, officially a volunteer in deaf ministry development for United Methodist Church, is comfortable interpreting extemporaneously, Bishop Johnson shared the text of Thursday night’s “Believe” message several weeks ago.

“She’s wonderful,” Ms. Stevens said of the bishop. “I know where she’s going.”

Having the text in advance allowed her to consider the best signs to use to get the most accurate interpretation. Rarely are words spelled.

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Bishop Peggy Johnson welcomes visitors like John Dewar of Frederica to the service.

“Everything you can say in English, I can say in sign,” she said. “But it is an entirely different language.”

One might wonder why Bishop Johnson needs an interpreter since she is fluent in sign language and is a former pastor of a completely deaf congregation in Baltimore.

“I have preached in total ASL,” she said.

Despite the fluency, however, juggling vocal and sign simultaneously would be like trying to preach in English and French at the same time.

Fortunately, she has Ms. Stevens, who was the bishop’s first sign language teacher and also voice interpreted for her in that Baltimore church.

“It’s a holy thing to me to be entrusted with their message,” she said, whether it is to vocalize the signed message or to sign the vocal message.

She explained the process.

“First, you have to understand what it means and then interpret it in a limited time.

“Music and scripture are the hardest to do,” she said.

One problem with music is the time limit in interpreting lyrics.

“With music you are stuck with just this much space,” she said, holding her hands about a foot apart.

She used the second verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to explain further.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Diety!

“How are you going to interpret that?” she asked.

Ultimately, it took her four hours to work out the interpretation for the traditional Christmas carol.

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Desiree Amaya, 16 of Felton performs a Christmas carol on her flute during the service.

“I take this pretty seriously,” she said.

For both Bishop Johnson and Ms. Stevens, life’s experiences drew them to deaf ministry.

“Growing up I always felt different,” said Bishop Johnson, who is blind in one eye. She was moved to minister to those who may have vision and hearing impairments.

Ms. Stevens, on the other hand, learned how to sign the alphabet as an eighth-grader so she could communicate with her best friend when a teacher separated them in the classroom.

She grew up to become a nurse and in the early 1960s was working at an inner city hospital in Baltimore.

“There were 10 families of deaf people in the clinic!” Ms. Stevens, 73, said. She learned sign language so she could communicate with them.

“I took two semesters and that’s all it took,” she said.

“I was crazy enough to go out there and do it because nobody else was doing it.”

Years of experience has made her a skilled interpreter, as did the early assistance of members of the Deaf community.

A level of trust has grown between Bishop Johnson and Ms. Stevens.

“She certainly knows my shtick,” Bishop Johnson said.

Perhaps so. On Monday, Ms. Stevens predicted Thursday’s service would be 60 minutes.

“I know my bishop.”

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Carol Stevens makes sure that everyone can join in the Christmas Eve service.

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