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Captioning during worship “has been miraculous”

By Barb Harmon

As worship begins, Susie Shelton puts on her headphones. She concentrates intensely while stroking keys on the stenograph machine in front of her. The presider welcomes the congregation, and her words appear on two 55-inch monitors on either side of the rostrum.

When Susie was 7, a stranger asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Susie said she didn’t know; he suggested she become a court reporter. “OK,” she recalls saying, “I’ll do that.”

This encounter began a journey of developing gifts that now benefit one of the largest unchurched groups of people – the hearing impaired.
Susie, now retired, sensed a call to use her skills to provide realtime captioning in worship. She became aware that 98 percent of people with impaired hearing do not attend church.

“The comfort that the word of God brings is phenomenal. It’s the foundation of living, and if they don’t have that, people are cut off. I think because I’ve always gotten so much comfort from the word of God and being able to participate in services, that I can’t imagine being cut off from your church family.”

Susie visited Stone Church in Independence, Mo., and shared her vision with Pastor Terry Snapp. Terry, whose wife, Betty, has severe hearing loss, was drawn to Susie’s idea.

A World Church Field Ministries grant funded the equipment. Terry says the Mission Initiatives were a priority in the grant proposal. “The ministry addresses issues of equality and justice for one of the largest populations of people. We also stressed an outreach in terms of inviting people to Christ, aware they can have an experience here unlike anywhere else.”

The captioning ministry at Stone Church is one of only a few in the world. Bill Landrum, a counselor in the Stone Church pastorate, has hearing loss. “None of the aids has equipment for my loss. I miss some women’s voices, high tones, and sounds like the fire alarm. I use closed captioning on my TV at home, so the captioning at Stone Church has been a real blessing.”

Betty Snapp has attended Stone Church since she was 16 and has worn hearing aids since age 21. “It can be terribly discouraging. In my 30s, I remember not attending for a while. It didn’t last very long, but that was the reason I stayed away. What did I get out of it?

“Though I read lips well, if a person drops their head, I miss out. Hearing aids can only do so much. I get tidbits and pieces, but not the whole ministry. I come away feeling cheated. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. This has been a miraculous thing to lead Susan here.”

Terry says the ministry also benefits people learning English as a second language, children, and adults who are visual learners: “The ripple effect extends beyond those with hearing impairment. I have been so proud of our congregation, inspired by Susan, to be so open to doing something so important and so relevant to the needs of people. We really feel God brought Susan to us, and God’s Spirit has encouraged us to go somewhere we never dreamed of going.”

Barb Harmon is from Independence, Mo. This article was originally published in the November 2012 Herald and is republished here with permission.