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Diaconia: Spiritual Enlightening of the Hearing-impaired, by Priest Pyotr Kolomiytsev
The Situation with Initiation to the Church of the Hearing-Impaired in Russia
Work Experience with the Hearing-Impaired in Tikhvinsky Church of the New Monastery of St. Symeon
Religious Education of the Hearing-Impaired

The Situation with Initiation to the Church of the Hearing-Impaired in Russia

Today the All-Russian Society of the Deaf (VOG) numbers 28,000 in Moscow; while the people with defective hearing, those with hearing impairments acquired at adult age, and the deaf who are not the VOG members increase this number to 500 thousand, that is to about 5 percent of the entire population of Moscow.

The number of disabled due to hearing impairments is constantly growing because of numerous children's diseases and use of medical preparations that lead to the loss of hearing. The dynamics of growth may even be exemplified by the growth of the number of educational institutions. While before the revolution there was only the Arnold School founded by Tretyakov, now Moscow has eight specialized schools for the hearing-impaired. There is a night school, a regional school, and several middle technical schools and small groups for the hearing-impaired in the highest educational institutions such as the Pedagogical University and the Bauman Technical University. There is also a small group of hearing-impaired students in the Orthodox St. Tikhon Theological Institute in Moscow.

The people with impaired hearing communicate using the language of gestures sometimes referred to as the sign language. This is an international language understood by the hearing-impaired all over the world, although it contains signs specific to the given country. The people with hearing impairments easily communicate using the sign language but as the people around use the spoken language (the Russian, in our country) there is an additional communication system called dactylogy or a hand-sign alphabet used by the hearing-impaired to express some notions of their national language such as family names, names and words that have no equivalents in the sign language. Besides, sign-language interpreters and teachers communicate with the hearing-impaired using so-called "calqued" gesticulation language, a normal Russian language accompanied by simultaneous gesticulation and dactylation.

In the USSR, education of the hearing-impaired was always aimed at attaining their free communication with other people, lip-reading, and distinct pronunciation of words. Meanwhile, today the sign language has been recognized as the one which is native to the hearing-impaired, and it has become the second national language in many countries. In Sweden and USA, for instance, a person cannot become a policeman, an air hostess, or a social worker unless he or she is familiar with the sign language and knows a minimum of 20-40 gestures to communicate with the hearing-impaired. The world tends to facilitate communication between the hearing-impaired and other people, that is to teach the latter, those who in their capacity often communicate with the hearing-impaired, to "speak" the sign language.

The sign language is being introduced in the art. In some musical clips the sign language is used as additional means of expression to enrich the plastics of the performers and make it understandable to the hearing-impaired. In our country a "fashion-setter" for a artistic language gesture is the Mime and Gesture Theater; one of the genre practiced in the Theater involves interpretation of songs by hand movements and signs reflecting the rhythm and the plastics of the song.

Practical spiritual work with the hearing-impaired also involves the sign language and one may say that today's preachers who master the sign language gather their audience. Today, the largest audience in our country has been gathered by the Baptist Church. In each city, Baptists learn the sign language and create communities of hearing-impaired inhabitants of the city. Meanwhile, many of such hearing-impaired inhabitants think of themselves as the Orthodox, do not conceal the fact that they come to the Orthodox Church for the Holy water or to consecrate Easter cakes and sadly note that for them the Evangelic Christian Baptist Church is like the Orthodox bot not as beautiful, with no icons, although they can communicate there using the sign language, and, which is important, their pastor knows the language.

The second large confession that works with the hearing-impaired in Russia is the Korean Christian Church. A large center of the Korean Christian Church in Sankt-Petersburg is located in the very building occupied by the VOG.

These two Churches believe they are the only religious organizations in our country that have an experience of education work with the hearing-impaired. They held seminars and conferences for the hearing-impaired, sharing their methods with other pastors who begin their activity. Usually, this movement is promoted by the VOG itself, since the largest audience gathers at the VOG city branch, and that is where the preachers with enough funds to lease the premises come. The management of VOG branches willingly lease the premises to the Baptists or the Korean Christian Church, so the hearing-impaired who come to their native branch of the All-Russian Society of the Deaf are given the chance to directly enter the newly-founded communities.

A religious society of the Witnesses of Jehovah is another community that has become common enough in our country. Many of the hearing-impaired indicate that Jehovists act very aggressively - intimidating them. They demonstrate horrible pictures: see, this is the Hell, this is where everyone who is not a Jehovist goes; and this is the Paradise, where all the Jehovists go. Such colorful publications have their hypnotic effect on the many. They come to Witnesses of Jehovah societies even without understanding the religious movement and its differences from the Orthodoxy.

Besides the above confessions there is a very small Catholic community of St. Prince Olga equal to the Apostels. Small Catholic communities also occur in other Russian cities; usually they are inclined to enter into dialogue with the Orthodox Church and ready to give help and work with the hearing-impaired without proselytism, that is without rending them from the Orthodoxy.

As to the Russian Orthodox Church, its position is sufficiently complicated at the moment. The most successful is Moscow is the parish of the Patriarchal Church in New Monastery of St. Symeon: the Church has a Sunday School, it works with specialized schools for the hearing-impaired but unfortunately not every school wants to admit Orthodox priests, while willingly leasing its premises to foreign preachers to receive material benefits.

An Orthodox Community of the hearing-impaired in Sankt-Petersburg has neither priests, nor the Church, but should they find a priest there is an agreement that the Church will be provided. A community is being formed in the city of Bryansk; an agreement has been reached with teachers from the Byelgorod boarding school to conduct services for the hearing-impaired. A young Orthodox priest in the city of Ulyanovsk who has received training in sign-language rendering is organizing the work with the hearing-impaired. The work with the hearing-impaired is being carried out in Barnaul where there is no sign-language interpreter and small text-bearing posters help parisheners to take part in services.

Today, facultative teaching of the sign language in seminaries for those willing to work with the hearing-impaired would have been a solution of the problem of Church care for the hearing-impaired. Of interest here is the experience of Poland, a Catholic country where two or three clerics who have mastered the sign language graduate from each seminary every year. Perhaps not every one of them works with the hearing-impaired in future but the country has a sufficient number of clerics able to work with people who suffer from hearing impairments, and therefore there is no sectarianism, as all the hearing-impaired in Poland unite around the Catholic Church.

As far as Russia is concerned, it is only in the Orthodox Church that the hearing-impaired have the chance to receive visual (rather than verbal) information on the Faith through the icon and applied art, and fully participate in the Sacrament of Eucharist, for instance in water consecration services and polyunction. Besides, we could significantly improve the environment the hearing-impaired live in, provided there is a sufficient number of Orthodox Churches - at least one in each city. It is no secret that today the hearing-impaired often are unable to find jobs, their pension is insufficient for their needs which, pitifully, induces some of them to join the criminal world. Lately this negative trend has become stronger, most likely due to disruption of production structures and professional vocational training carried out in the pre-Perestroyka times when there was a sufficient number of educational and industrial institutions for the hearing-impaired. Therefore, in this time of economic hardships the Church may prevent the hearing-impaired from degrading and taking the wrong way, giving them help to participate in the voluntary charitable deeds provided by Orthodox parishes.

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Work Experience with the Hearing-Impaired in Tikhvinsky Church of the New Monastery of St. Symeon

A community under Tikhvinsky Church was registered back in 1991, and coming December will celebrate two-year anniversary of sign-language services conducted in consecrated side-altar of the Church. I, priest Pyotr Kolomiytsev, am the dean, the second priest is Andrey Goryatchev. Both of us have studies the sign language; the Church has sign-language interpreters. During the service, choir singing is accompanied by the sign-language rendering, the interpreter knows the service rules, is well-versed in service books and, following the service by the book and listening to it can be sufficiently accurate and synchronous in rendering what the choir is singing.

Before the revolution there was only two Churches for the hearing-impaired in Russia - a Church in the Arnold School in Moscow and the Church in the School in Pavlovsk (now the Middle Technical School for the hearing-impaired in Pavlovsk). Now these Churches are closed and we have to start everything from the scratch. The tradition has been disrupted, and this explains the difficulties we encounter in sign-language rendering - there are very many Church notions that the sign language just does not have, we have to invent them ourselves or borrow them from sign-language dictionaries of other countries. In this we receive assistance from the hearing-impaired themselves, especially from hearing-impaired students of the Theological Institute. One may call them creators of a new sign language that is capable to reflect all the beauty, expression, and theological complexity of Orthodox service texts.

The entire religious and spiritual work conducted with the hearing-impaired may be divided into charitable activities and spiritual enlightening. Abroad, it is charitable activities that a larger emphasis is placed on. Numerous diaconical organizations, especially Protestant ones, provide the hearing-impaired with hearing aids and material funds, while not forgetting spiritual enlightening. On this road one encounters very many obstacles. Priests and pastors who work with the hearing-impaired often complain they cannot overcome the consumer approach of the hearing-impaired. Therefore, from the very beginning our parish neither duplicates the work of charity organizations that work with the disabled, nor does it duplicate the activity of the Russian Society of the Deaf.

Our parish has been formed primarily as a community of people who come to pray and exercise their religious spiritual life. When asked what we are doing for the hearing-impaired, we answer that we help them be full-fledged Christians. In our Church they read spiritual literature, although many of them did not read books at all before coming to us; they pray and communicate, feeling themselves as regular parisheners in a regular Church. Parisheners with impaired hearing come to our Church not to receive material benefits, things or other assistance but to bring their prayers and toil, to work together in reconstruction of the Church. They love their Church very much, willingly work to decorate it, sew investments, embroider tassels for holy books.

Meanwhile, we do not reject aid that comes as though by itself. Two times we received humanitarian aid from the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate; two times, from the Department of Church Charity and Social Diaconia; three times, from the St. Sergius Orthodox Institute in Paris. The latter aid has become a catalyst of a new movement among our hearing impaired parisheners. By themselves, they began to bring to the Church clothes and things that they can do without at home for the others to use.

We have a parish room where everything - tables, chairs, a samovar, a stove, and a refrigerator - was donated by the parisheners. On Tuesdays this furnished room houses classes of our "Sunday" School. Parisheners who have been coming to the Church for a long time continue their religious education in the School, discuss complicated issues there. For the beginners, there is catechization courses, detailed discussions of various sects as it is from the sects that many hearing-impaired parisheners have come to our Church. On Saturdays protodeacon Pavel Troshichkin holds divine service regulation classes for the hearing-impaired to give them some knowledge on liturgy required for better understanding of the rich hymn heritage of the Orthodox Church. The room is also used for mutual repasts and meeting of the gold-embroidery group.

There is no need to say that we encountered difficulties in the very process of service organization but here we used experiences gained by other confessions where the service is obligatory accompanied by sign-language rendering. We have decided to reject neither choir, nor common divine service texts but arranged accompaniment of singing with sign-language rendering, and priests began to say litanies complementing them with hand signs. Of course, considering the visual nature of comprehension of the service, we had to make the Holy Gates not very high to maintain the link between the praying and what is happening at the altar. We also had to make good illumination for interpreter's and priest's articulation and gestures to be well visible, so our Church is lit very brightly.

During confessions we have to ensure a chamber ambiance to confessors, so we have a folded screen to shield the lectern where the confession takes place from the rest of the people praying in the Church. But since the confessing hearing- impaired person cannot see the service and becomes kind of excluded from it, we suggest our parisheners to come to confession before the service begins, and always ask the parisheners who can hear to let the hearing-impaired parisheners in the front of the line.

From the outset, we have decided that our Church is open to everyone who wants to come. Now the parisheners who can hear sometimes find themselves in situations where they require some assistance, and the hearing-impaired who can well communicate with those without hearing impediments help them in buying a candle or writing a note, since the candle box is also serviced by the hearing-impaired.

This produces an unusual situation where the hearing-impaired, rather than feeling themselves rejected by the society who require extraneous help, feel as hosts receiving parisheners who can hear, providing them with assistance to make them feel comfortable. Thus we are gradually eliminating the ghetto conditions that the hearing-impaired often find themselves in. They have to communicate with the world around them but all institutions for the hearing-impaired turn into a kind of reservations with their own Club, a specific press, community, and a special language. It is these reservation conditions that our parish eliminates - our numerous parisheners who can hear continuously communicate with their disabled brothers and sisters in Christ. Those of our parisheners who can hear, gradually learn to understand the hearing-impaired, while the latter acquire the experience of direct communication with the people who can hear.

As the result, the hearing-impaired parisheners of community have altered their attitude to life, they do not consider themselves disabled any more, actively participating in the life of the parish, taking a noble toil in reconstruction of their Church and doing their Christian deed in this world.

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Religious Education of the Hearing-Impaired

A group of hearing-impaired students of the Orthodox St. Tikhon Theological Institute was formed in 1994. In organization of the educational process we proceeded from the experience gained in two Higher educational institutions where the hearing-impaired study - the Defectology Department of the Pedagogical University and the Bauman Technical University. Despite the fact that the hearing-impaired can read and write and thus may undergo a purely methodological training that involves necessary lecture and subsequent examination of the knowledge acquires, we have chosen another way. The Bauman Technical University practices sign-language rendering of the lectures attended by the hearing-impaired students, and this rendering has proven to be very useful for the students. Despite the fact that in the end they turn to printed text of the lectures, their first acquaintance with the material occurs through the sign-language rendering.

We understand that a simple reading of the lecture text cannot ensure comprehension simply because of a significant amount of unknown words, whereas a lecture accompanied by sign-language rendering provides an immediate involvement in the subject and subsequent reading of the lecture printout helps consolidate the material. Very useful are seminars where one of the hearing-impaired students prepares a report on the topic and reads it to others. The student makes some work while working on the subject and the latter is comprehended by other hearing-impaired students more effectively that at the lecture read by the teacher. Often we subdivided the subject of the seminar into small topics, giving everyone a chance to prepare his or her report on the topic and then inform of it other students.

Unfortunately we do not know if the specialized schools will invite our students to teach the Word of God or history of religions but there is no doubt that the training in the St. Tikhon Institute has involved a very serious rehabilitative component for the students. They began to feel themselves fully able people, freely communicating with other students of the Theological University, independently studying numerous spiritual literature, making pilgrim trips to monasteries and Churches.

Three students are acolytes in our Church and often prepare sermons to fill in the pause in the service when the priests communicate. We hope that some of these students will become teachers for the next generation of hearing-impaired students and perhaps will be ordained.

We do wish our toils are not wasted, we wish that the experience that we have just began to gain would develop, since hearing-impaired priests can do to their kin a lot more than those with no hearing impairments. I can give the following example: two hearing-impaired girls in a topography college where a group of hearing-impaired students studied have succeeded in turning into Baptism their entire group and then all the students with no hearing impairments and the director of the college. Eventually the college started to openly held Baptist praying meetings. This is what one hearing-impaired preacher can do. Therefore, the hearing-impaired who have assimilated the Orthodox Church spiritual truth that passed through their hearts and souls can be much more successful in witnessing the truth that the able to hear preacher who addresses the hearing-impaired audience.

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