Lindsey Kasowski leads a Mars Hill Community Group that is unique from all the other 500 groups in the church in one distinct way: nobody says a word. That's because about half of this Downtown Bellevue group's members are Deaf and use American Sign Language as their primary mode of communication. In this video, Lindsey and group member Josiah talk about the importance of having a group like this, both for Deaf church members, and also as a missional opportunity as the church reaches more people in Seattle and on the Eastside.
For Mars Hill Church, the idea of community is no foreign concept. Every service pastors talk about the importance of Community Groups and living out our lives in accountability to others. Perhaps nobody understands what it means to need community more than Josiah Cheslik. Cheslik is deaf. He, like most deaf people, depends on others to translate spoken word into sign language. "Deaf people really value community over everything else," Cheslik signs. "Because if you think about it, they go through their daily lives feeling very isolated, not only because of a lack of communication with this hearing world around them, but also because of a lack of Christian fellowship." That’s where Mars Hill’s Deaf Ministry comes in. Ever since she learned sign language at the age of 17, Lindsey Kasowski, now a 25-year-old professional interpreter and leader of Mars Hill’s Deaf Ministries in Bellevue, knew that she was called to lead. "When I started sign language classes, I knew immediately it was what God made me for," Kasowski says. "I knew he was going to use it in a big way in my life. It was something I would be a part of and it would be a part of me and God is using it for big things."
"Growth depends on accessibility to the Bible … [Deaf people] really depend on other people who can sign to tell us about Jesus." –Josiah CheslikTwo years ago, Kasowski received an email from the Mars Hill Bellevue that said they were seeking professional interpreters. Kasowski immediately replied and has been interpreting their 11:15 a.m. Sunday service weekly since August 2009. In October 2010, Kasowski started a small Community Group in her home where she and a few deaf people met every other week, ate dinner, shared stories and talked about Jesus. The group has since grown to 12 members. Cheslik, a 23-year-old computer science major at the University of Washington, attended church at Mars Hill U-District until he heard there was a Deaf Ministry in Bellevue. There he met Kasowski and later joined her Community Group. "Community Group really provides fellowship for us," Cheslik says. "We like to talk about the sermon and we try to apply it. But mostly, we just cherish that time to be with other people we can express ourselves clearly with." Jennifer Bodaly, 24, who is deaf, appreciates how easily she can express herself with others in the Community Group. "Because I am sharing with my peers—Deaf people who sign like me and have the same experiences as me—I’m able to really open up," Bodaly says. "We are able to have genuine conversations about struggles and questions, all without worrying what the right English words are, or if we are being understood."
Lindsey signs at this year's Easter Celebration at Qwest FieldBodaly has been attending Mars Hill for three years, both in Ballard and Bellevue. By using a hearing aid and reading lips, Bodaly can, for the most part, understand spoken sermons, though she said it can be challenging when in groups. "People in groups talk so quickly, and the turn-taking and dialogue is so fast, I can’t keep track of the speaker," Bodaly says. "Ultimately I don’t understand everything that’s going on." Now, being a part of a Deaf Community Group, Bodaly says she can relate more with the people around her. "Because of those deep relationships, I have accountability and encouragement to have a closer walk with Jesus," Bodaly says. "And that’s why I’m here at Community Group … that is the reason the Bible calls us to community." American Sign Language (ASL), like any other spoken language, has its own unique grammar, syntax and sentence structure. Instead of sound morphemes, or units of language, it has hand-shape and facial morphemes. There are more signs in ASL than there are words in the English language, Kasowski said.
"I feel strongly that God is using Mars Hill to reach Deaf people all over." –Lindsey KasowskiLike a composer conducting a symphony, Kasowski uses vibrant facial expressions and a combination of fast-paced and elongated hand gestures to speak. While she adores the beauty of the language, she also understands the dedication it takes to be able to translate with precision. "Your brain is literally working in two languages at once," Kasowski says. "This is why it’s hard to find interpreters who can do this, plus interpreters who feel comfortable working in a church setting. Because there are so many difficult concepts in the Bible and in Mark's (Driscoll) teaching, the interpreters struggle with their own fluency to be able to interpret correctly." According to multiple Christian Deaf ministries organizations, approximately 2 percent of the deaf population call themselves Christians, Cheslik said. Only 7 to 9 percent will ever be exposed to the gospel in ASL. [Ed. About 1 million people in the U.S. are deaf, and another 10 million are hard of hearing. About three-quarters of the total U.S. population identifies as Christian in some form.] Kasowski and Cheslik feel called to help change that statistic. "Growth depends on accessibility to the Bible," Cheslik said. "Most deaf people don’t have a high level of reading because most deaf kids aren’t taught English to start with, they learn sign language. So we really depend on other people who can sign to tell us about Jesus and who know about the Bible." Along with his studies, Cheslik leads an on-campus program called Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing. The program is designed to help deaf high school students who are interested in computer programming. At the end of this month, Mars Hill Bellevue will replant its church in the John Danz Theater, which holds over 1,500 seats. Kasowski hopes that by expanding the size of the physical church in Bellevue, they can reach even more Deaf people and spread the word about their Deaf Ministry. "I feel strongly that God is using Mars Hill to reach Deaf people all over," Kasowski said. Kasowski will be there, like usual, interpreting for the 11:15 a.m. service for the big Bellevue Grand Opening on Sunday, October 30.
Want to serve with the Deaf Ministry? If so, get in touch with Lindsey. This story was written by Zach Wilson. Videography by Glenn Allyn and Nathan Mascardo, with editing by Glenn.