The Big Conversation
Susan Myatt is beginning her fourth year of training at Northern Baptist College, and will be continuing in her two placements she’s had during this time: one at Rising Brook Baptist Church, Stafford, the other with the Lichfield Diocese Deaf Church.
Glen Marshall is one of the Co-Principals at the college, and has worked closely with Susan.
Baptists Together magazine invited them to participate in a filmed conversation reflecting on how Susan’s time at the college has equipped her for the ministry to which she has been called. The conversation was filmed at Rising Brook.
Click here to download the film
Below is the edited transcript of their conversation, which appeared in the autumn edition of Baptists Together magazine.
Glen: Susan, let me take you back to before you started at college and ask you about what it felt like as you were thinking about beginning this journey of preparation for ministry. What did you expect?
Susan: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was more worried about if I was capable of learning and studying, and how much I would struggle with the English. And everyone was hearing and would I be able to cope with that?
G: For those who don’t perhaps appreciate, you say you had concerns about the English - because your first language is BSL (British Sign Language)?
S: Yes, that’s right. It was very hard to read all the literature and the Bible. I prefer to sign, and I was concerned about my use of English in terms of understanding some of the complex terminology and double meanings. And I was the only Deaf person, who signs, and so it was very hard; it was a struggle and very different. I felt they were all very clever, and academic and I felt very inferior. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to manage and I felt stupid – thick.
G: You mentioned something there about ‘double meanings’ and I think one of the things that I learned when talking with you is, not only is BSL a different language, it’s a different kind of language. Whereas in English we do a lot with ambiguity and double meanings, and layers of meaning, that’s less true in BSL, isn’t it? It’s more straightforward – more matter-of-fact.
S: Yes, absolutely, it’s very direct and clear, but English language, either spoken or written when you’re reading it is hard, and I was trying to keep up with the meaning and understanding. It was very hard to learn how to say the words and pronounce them. I’d have to put my hand up and say “What does that word mean?” because I didn’t know, or understand in that context. I felt quite embarrassed at the time.
G: I think you’ve learned since then that when you ask, “What does that word mean?” you are probably helping the other students as well.
S: Oh yes, I was surprised that happened, yes. They were all waiting for me to put my hand up and say “What does that mean?” and were quite relieved when I did because, I felt they probably didn’t understand as well. And that was a relief to me!
G: So you’re describing a situation where your confidence was low, but you were still enjoying the learning. Perhaps, if I’m hearing you correctly Susan, the main thing that happened in that first year was confidence building?
S: What helped was the tutors – that helped my confidence. If I had a difficult question, they would give me time and they would explain and clarify things. And that really struck me. Everyone was learning – like feminist theology, black theology, liberation theology – there were similar parallels to Deaf theology. We could compare and share information.
Also relationships with students started to develop. There was a couple who had been learning sign language, and the tutors were also becoming more aware of my needs: they had to tap my shoulder to get my attention so I could lip-read them, and face me.
G: So with those improvements, and I’m very aware that we’ve had a lot to learn from you, but as those improvements have come along your confidence has built. You are just now at the end of your third year, does it feel different now to how it felt during that first year?
S; Oh definitely. There’s a huge difference. My eyes have been opened and I feel much more confident, and I feel more ready. I thought I knew everything about Deaf community and church, but not really. Now I’ve learned so much, and I’ve grown and I’ve learned so much from the course, for instance how to translate things for the Deaf community and make a rich resource and information.
G: It’s clear from that that you’ve got a strong sense of call to work with your own community, to minister in the Deaf Church, to use the things that you’ve been learning in the classroom, and on placement here and in Lichfield. Tell me what it feels like now as you look forward to starting that ministry in the next 12 months or so. Have you still got your enthusiasm?
S: Oh definitely, yes absolutely. I’ve got lots of ideas. I’d like to create more songs, drama and liturgy for worship. I would like to think about new ways of how Deaf and hearing people can get together and share worship. I know that there’s a lot of work to achieve that, but it's a step and that’s important. Deaf people need their confidence boosted as well, and I want to encourage them and empower them that they can have a relationship with God. But at the same time I want to encourage hearing people to be more aware of Deaf needs as well.
G: We’ve talked quite a bit, Susan, about experiences in Manchester, and studying theology. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been doing here at Rising Brook over the past three years – what kind of things have been going on with the deaf people in this area?
S: When I arrived there was nothing much going on for Deaf people. I decided to set up a Deaf café for both Christians and non-Christians just to come and share things about prayer, drama, songs, Bible stories, any problems perhaps they could chat and share about, and that seemed to be quite popular. It’s once a month and has been good.
And then I visited a Deaf coffee morning that isn’t a Christian initiative, but they were looking for a venue. I said they were welcome to come here and they thought “Oh no, it’s a church, we wouldn’t want that”. And I said, “OK, I accept that”. But a month later I got an email saying yes, they were interested in coming here and using this, and it’s been very smooth – it’s gone well. The lady in charge is Deaf and a social worker. We’ve been working well together and it’s been good to have that professional mutual support. Now a lot of Deaf people know that there’s a Deaf coffee morning and Deaf café here in the church.
G: And one last question about Rising Brook. Am I right in remembering that, since you started here, some people have been baptised or become members?
S: Once we’d started the Deaf café and more people were coming – it was a small group, but it was good – one person wanted to be baptised. Two of them became members of the church, and they regularly come to church services which are accessible with an interpreter. More recently, two people who are Deafened (they don’t sign) have both become members as well. They are also involved in Deaf café. They feel safe here and that they belong, and that we understand their needs and how they can learn things in the Bible. The relationship that’s grown has been amazing.
S: Looking back and reflecting on things, what have you learned from my experience at the college – having a Deaf student there?
At this point in the conversation Susan began to ask Glen questions:
G: I think the first thing, the big thing that we learned, is just how little we understood about Deaf people, Deaf culture, the Deaf community. So we’ve learned to appreciate just how challenging it is to be Deaf, living in a hearing world. And more than that – just how much mainstream society actually, in lots of ways, discriminates against Deaf people; how difficult it is for Deaf people to access all kinds of resources, all kinds of forms of communication that we take for granted. So I think I’ve learned a lesson about injustice really.
And you may remember that, when we became aware how little we knew, we invited Hannah Lewis who works up in Liverpool, and who is an expert in this area. She is Deaf and has a PhD in theology. She did some staff training with the whole of Luther King House. That was very, very helpful.
S: Do you feel the college is preparing people for ministry for the Deaf community?
G: Well I think, obviously, most of the time we are working with people who are not Deaf – that goes without saying – and we try to prepare people by helping them to grow in their relationship with God. We try to prepare people by giving them the skills that they need for the practice of ministry and we try to prepare people to think theologically – to think about God’s word and how to interpret that to the modern day world.
But specifically in relation to working with Deaf people, we really weren’t equipped for that when you came. We still have a lot to learn, but I would hope that because of the experience of working with you for three years now, we’d be better equipped should anybody else come along who is also deaf.
S: Looking at the future, what are your plans to improve things?
G: Generally speaking, we’re aware that preparing people for leadership in God’s church and in God’s world needs to keep on developing and changing. We’ve already been learning that to prepare people for ministry is to prepare people for mission – that we can’t separate those two things out; they belong together.
I think in the future we are going to have to be able to prepare people for a big range of ministries – so people who are full-time, people who are part-time, people who are spare-time, and to find ways that are appropriate to equip people for a whole variety of ministries in the future. Part of what makes it exciting and a little bit scary is we don’t quite know what the future is going to be like.