faith in action

Young clergy addressed by advocates for deaf ministry and health care for children

Rev. Dr. Clayton Childers, Director of Conference Relations, tells of the advocates for deaf ministry and healthcare for children who spoke at the sixteenth annual Young Clergy Leadership Forum at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

For the sixteenth consecutive year, over fifty young clergy came together for Young Clergy Leadership Forum at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

This year, for the first time, the Young Clergy Forum included two clergy who are deaf, Lisa Wirkus from Baltimore-Washington Conference and Jillian Jones from Western Pennsylvania. American Sign Language interpretation was made available for all the sessions over three days. The closing communion service was led by Rev. Wirkus using only American Sign Language.

The speaker who received the most positive comments in this year’s evaluations was the Rev. Dr. Kirk VanGilder. VanGilder shared with the clergy stories of his challenges of growing progressively deaf at a young age. He remembered his doctor diagnosing his hearing loss, telling him: “Kirk, you have something wrong with you.“

For years he felt angry, broken, and insecure. He had friends but he struggled to fit in, to feel fully included. His breakthrough came when he met a deaf friend at Ball State University who had attended Gallaudet University in Washington DC and was surrounded by the love and support of the deaf community and Deaf culture.

This relationship opened a door for support and self-identity that VanGilder had never known before. Dr. VanGilder went on to become a Campus Minister at Gallaudet University, was ordained as an elder in the Baltimore Washington Conference and now serves as the associate professor of Religion at Gallaudet.

At the Young Clergy Leadership Forum, VanGilder challenged church leaders to be intentional in welcoming persons from the deaf community into their congregations. “Most people in the deaf community have not found the church to be a welcoming place. Few churches have sign language interpretation, few clergy know even basic ASL, few congregations have activities or programs which are intentionally welcoming of persons who are deaf. We claim a commitment to inclusion, yet 98% of deaf people have written off the church because when they have tried it, they have not experienced it as a place where they were welcomed.”

Over the course of the three-day event, participants met Rev. Dr. Susan T. Henry-Crowe as well as several other Church and Society staff. Clergy also heard presentations by Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, Council of Bishops Office, Chaplain Barry Black, U.S. Senate, and Shane Claiborne of Red Letter Christians.

One especially inspiring presentation came from Rev. James Brigman, pastor of St Paul UMC, in Rockingham, N.C. In 2017 during the healthcare debate, Brigman walked 356 miles from his home to Washington D.C. to raise awareness and advocate for healthcare access for medically fragile children like his own daughter, Lauren Faith.

Brigman said, “My wife and I had been praying about the access to healthcare and the challenges the medically fragile community would face if Affordable Care Act was replaced. God told me to walk to DC, I assume it was to raise awareness for these children. He told me that sometimes we must act along with our faith, we cannot always just wait on God to fix all our problems. He will give us the strength and the ability, if we trust Him.” I talked with my wife, Lori, about this. Lori said, ‘Well, if God wants you to do this, you need to do it.’

The next day he set out for Washington. “I walked the whole way, but I wasn’t alone,” said Brigman, “People were praying for me – my family, the church, so many friends, my bishop and district superintendent - they were all supportive. Also, others who I met along the way. It opened doors for me to share from my heart about this critical need. We must make sure the most vulnerable, especially the children, are not forgotten. Healthcare is critical.”

Over 750 young clergy have now participated in this event especially designed to introduce and link clergy to the staff and work of Board of Church and Society and provide space for clergy to find resources and connections which support their ministries of outreach and social engagement.