What’s Ahead in 2014 for Word & Sign

Sometimes it is hard to be an academic when I want to be a writer. While I want to write stories about interesting and inspiring people’s lives, I am obliged to plan classes, administer student programs, and (in my spare time) write jargon-laden articles for fellow academics. The good news is that 2013 is the year I had a great I idea: by writing about the lives of Deaf preachers, I can put my specialization in rhetoric to work and write a good nonfiction story that will inspire laypeople of all sorts.
This past year saw a good start to my research, including collecting initial interviews and homilies from 4 priests or preachers (Fr. Paul Fletcher, Fr. Joe Bruce, Fr. Shawn Carey, and Deacon Patrick Graybill) and meeting or securing future interviews with 6 others (Fr. Mike Depcik, Fr. Paul Zirimenya, Fr. Christopher Klusman, Fr. Cyril Axelrod, and briefly Fr. Min-Seo Park). This group represents the leadership of Deaf Catholics from over 5 different countries around the world! After this good start, here are a few things you can expect from Word & Sign in 2014:

1. Fr. Christopher Klusman, Milwaukee’s Deaf Priest

First you’ll hear about my upcoming research trip to Milwaukee, where I’ll meet and see Fr. Christopher Klusman preach in ASL. I can’t wait to meet Fr. Christopher, whose ordination was documented in the EWTN documentary Hearing God. By all accounts, Fr. Christopher has an unusual gift for joy. On the same trip I’ll be meeting Fr. Carmelo Guiuffre, the first profoundly deaf priest in Milwaukee, who first came to my attention in that same documentary. You might say Fr. Carmelo has been an invisible deaf priest, because although he was born profoundly deaf, he has always communicated verbally. Nevertheless, being profoundly deaf, he should have interesting things to say about Deaf Catholics as an audience and Deaf vocations. At Fr. Christopher’s ordination, he talked about the difficulty of being deaf in a hearing world and exclaimed, “This is the first time I actually feel proud to be deaf!” I think that’s remarkable, and it says something about the importance of Deaf vocations and the visibility of preaching in sign language.

2. Sacred Signs Multibiography in Progress

Soon after that, I’ll post a working Table of Contents and rough outline of my book project, which has the working title Sacred Signs: Portraits of Deaf Preachers in the Catholic Church. At this point, I’m hoping to include 10 to 12 life stories of Deaf priests or deacons. Chapters will be organized by gift or charism rather than having one person’s life per chapter, so we’ll have chapter titles like “Good Shepherds of the Deaf: Pastoral Challenges” . . . “Deaf World, Deaf Missionaries” . . . and “Love and the Gift of Listening.” The book as a whole will be held together with an overarching story about theICDA (International Catholic Deaf Association), a world layperson’s organization that, once led by hearing clergy, is now a main channel for Deaf people teaching others how to minister to and with the Deaf in more inclusive ways.

2. Stuff for Rhetoricians

A couple of academic articles for rhetoric journals or conferences are underway right now. You’ll find excerpts or abstracts here, and their content will enhance the multibiography in time.

3. A Trip to Ukraine

In June, I will accompany my deaf daughter Lena Portolano on her mission trip to Rivne, Ukraine, where she will be doing some public speaking about the importance of early intervention for deaf children. She’ll also be working and playing with special needs orphans in a Christian camp there, and generally pursuing her goal of spreading the word about how good parent-child communication vastly improves the lives of deaf children from underprivileged backgrounds. I know: it’s not exactly Deaf preaching, but it’s pretty darned close and I think readers of this blog will be interested in what we find there. (For those of you who don’t know, Lena herself was a deaf orphan who had no language until almost age 5). If you’re interested in contributing $10 to her Ukraine Special Needs Orphan Fund trip, follow the link. I hope the Ukrainian’s revolutionary activities will have resulted in some positive change by then. If not, I might be posting pictures of me and Lena protesting in the streets!

4. The Deaf Catholic Archive

In July, I’ll report on the improved state of the Deaf Catholic Archives at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Fr. Joseph Bruce, the first Deaf Jesuit in America, has been working there for the past six months, carefully organizing a large roomful of wall-to-wall boxes containing primary sources on Deaf Catholic communities dating back to 1920. He is setting aside a whole section on Deaf priests for me, which is going to make my work abundantly productive! Fr. Joe is an amazing source for the history of Deaf Catholics. He has a memory like a Vatican vault, and every time I visit he brings on a flood of interesting background information. We are lucky to have him preserving and organizing these important primary sources, which might otherwise be neglected or lost.

5. Camp Mark Seven: a Retreat for Deaf Catholics and their Families

In August, I will accompany Dorothy Stefanik, a former nun who is Deaf, on a road trip toCamp Mark 7 in Old Forge, New York. This place is almost legendary in the world of Deaf Catholics, and I’m thrilled to be able to go with Dorothy, who will no doubt entertain me with stories about how the former hotel and its grounds became a special place for Deaf recreation and spiritual reflection. While I’m there, I hope to meet and see the preaching of Fr. Tom Coughlin, OP, founder of Camp Mark 7 and the first Deaf Catholic priest in the United States. Also on my list of hoped-for contacts at Camp Mark 7 is Fr. Matthew Hysell, chaplain of the Mark Seven Bible Institute.

6. An Open Letter to Pope Francis about Deaf Catholics &Deaf Vocations

It’s an idea I just had. I may start a series of these when I’m ready.
This is only a sampling of the many research trips and writing projects on my list for 2014. If I only finish a handful of what I hope to do, I’ll be happy with my progress and a step closer to a sabbatical year during which completing a full-length manuscript would become my number one priority. On the whole, you can expect more interesting and entertaining portraits of Deaf preaching in the year to come. Thank you for your interest and I invite you to contact me any time you’d like to talk about Deaf preachers and their art.

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