FRESNO, Calif. -- As music plays at the Fresno Deaf Church on a recent Sunday, most people sitting in the pews sign along. The only audible voice in the room is the one on the recording, singing a soulful, "I Can Only Imagine," but sound isn't needed to make the devotion of the worship evident.
They are expressing themselves in their own language – American Sign Language – a complex mix of intricate hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures.
Some can faintly hear the melody. Others, not at all. There aren't signs for around a quarter of the English words in "I Can Only Imagine," says the Rev. Keith Catron, but much of the song's meaning comes through.
"When you think about, 'imagine,' " Catron says with sign language, translated by interpreter Kathy Doerksen for this story, "that concept is difficult to convey in ASL (American Sign Language)."
This communication disjunction between the non-hearing and hearing is a common challenge for deaf people, but at Fresno Deaf Church, the deaf are mostly free of that burden. Communication is fluid and effortless as pastor and parishioners converse in their first language – sign language – at the church run by the deaf for the deaf. It's the only one of its kind between Modesto and Bakersfield except for a Seventh-day Adventist deaf church in Fresno, Catron says.
Fresno Deaf Church, which identifies as Evangelical Free, worships every Sunday in The Bridge Fresno in central Fresno.
"If you compare us with a hearing church," says Matthew Mickle, a Fresno Deaf Church member and volunteer, "it doesn't mean the people who are deaf are lacking the ability to hear God's word. Whether you're deaf or whether you're hearing, it's both the same."
Catron has severe tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, but he can hear a little. The pastor, who also teaches sign language at Fresno State, chooses not to speak because he's fully immersed in deaf culture and considers himself "culturally deaf." He was born to deaf parents, and his wife and two sons are deaf.
His decision to start leading the Fresno Deaf Church in the late 1980s is rooted in experiences from childhood, when he attended a Lutheran church for the deaf run by a pastor who could hear. Catron's father wasn't able to understand many of the services because the pastor's signing wasn't fluent.
"So that stuck in my mind," Catron says. "I remembered my father, and I thought to myself, 'I'm going to solve that.' So I became a pastor as a result."