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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Sowing seeds for joint ministry

Five denominations in the greater Fox River Valley of northeastern Wisconsin created a deaf ministry that began last September. The seed for this ministry was sown at All Saints Lutheran Church, Oshkosh. When the congregation approached the ELCA East-Central Synod of Wisconsin, Bishop John C. Beem suggested the ecumenical approach.

Gisele Berninghaus, an ELCA pastor, leads this effort, which is supported by congregations and judicatories of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Housed at First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, the ministry stretches from Green Bay in the north down to Fond du Lac.

Berninghaus learned American Sign Language as a child. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, served a deaf congregation. "I went to seminary," she says, "so I wouldn't have to interpret the words of another pastor."

She has a two-pronged approach to the early stages of this deaf ministry. First, she works within the denominations, helping the leaders, clergy and hearing congregations understand the dimensions of sharing God's word within the deaf community.

Berninghaus preaches in a hearing congregation each month. She plays a tape of her sermon while preaching in sign language. "It's too difficult to do both at the same time," she confesses. Preaching in sign language "helps a hearing congregation understand deaf culture," she says. "They see the gospel in a whole new way."

Often the choir from the Roman Catholic deaf ministry in DePere, Wis., accompanies her on her these monthly visits.

Secondly, Berninghaus is becoming known in the community, building trust and sharing the gospel message. She regularly visits deaf clubs in the Fox River Valley. "In this area 93 percent of the deaf are unchurched," she says.

Will this ministry lead toward an ecumenical deaf congregation? "We must let the deaf decide what's best for them," she says. "I can't decide this for them."


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