Many deaf people cannot read or write and learn the Bible solely through sign language.
Catron estimates around half of his church's 35 to 40 members only communicate through sign language. Michelle Bronson, executive director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center in Fresno and a member of Fresno Deaf Church, says the average deaf person reads at a fourth-grade level.
During last Sunday's service, Catron focuses on the Book of Nehemiah as part of a series he's teaching that started with Adam and Eve. He hopes the message encourages people to pray often like Nehemiah and to talk freely with God "without worrying if God is going to get angry."
"I want people who are deaf to get a taste of what His love is like," Catron says, "and to know Jesus and to develop a relationship with Jesus. That's my passion. That's my joy."
Mickle says a service delivered in sign language is much different than an interpreter translating English into sign language, which happens at a number of churches in the Valley.
"It's the same thing as the Spanish church that's here on campus," Mickle explains. "People who are Mexican or Spanish or who use Spanish as their first language like to go and hear the message in their language. It doesn't mean that we are rejecting the hearing world."
Bronson says around 9 percent of people have some kind of hearing difficulty. The deaf and hard of hearing face a number of challenges, she says, including employers afraid to hire them, and parents hesitant to teach them sign language out of a misguided belief it will make it harder for them to learn to speak or read. Deaf students in the area also have few peers their own age, in part because children are spread between three programs in Fresno and Clovis where many learn alongside children of different grade levels, Bronson says.
At least at Fresno Deaf Church, these challenges can be laid aside.
"We value our time with each other," says Talitha Chumley, a church member and volunteer. "We value our interaction and being able to talk to someone else who has the same language, who has a common life experience. We don't have those opportunities often, and when we get those opportunities, we take advantage of it, so it's highly valued. It's a rare opportunity for deaf people to learn from someone who is also deaf, and we understand in the same way."
Bronson describes Catron as wonderful, warm, gentle, wise and respectful – a man who sees the best in people and makes the Bible "come to life."
Catron hopes more people reach out to the deaf, many of whom he says often feel isolated and cannot drive, and bring them to the deaf church.
Sometimes Catron wishes he could hear, but most of the time, he doesn't.
"I really enjoy deaf culture," he says, "how we act, how we talk, how we interact. It's beautiful, and I value that."
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