Two Rhode Island churches, one hearing and one deaf, share community and the gospel

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Nov 7, 2023

The Rev. Seth Sobral (left), pastor of Alpha and Omega Deaf Church, joins the Rev. Spencer Reese, vicar of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during a visit to St. Paul’s. Both churches are in Wickford, Rhode Island, and have begun a journey of friendship this year. Photo: Courtesy Spencer Reese

[Episcopal News Service] In Wickford, Rhode Island, two churches that would seem to have little in common – St. Paul’s, an Episcopal church founded in 1706, and Alpha and Omega Deaf Church, a 40-year-old Assemblies of God church that relocated from Providence – have taken the first steps of friendship that may lead to new ways of sharing the gospel in their community.

The Rev. Spencer Reece, St. Paul’s vicar since December 2022, told Episcopal News Service that this past summer his parishioners engaged in sessions to dream about what they wanted the church to be and do. “The number one thing the parish said is that they wanted diversity,” he said.

Not long after that, he learned that the deaf church – all its leadership and most members are deaf or hard of hearing – was moving into town, with members remodeling a building to be used for services. He also learned that as the only church for deaf people in the area, drawing members from Connecticut and Massachusetts as well as Rhode Island, it includes people of a variety of races and ages.

Putting the two things together, Reece reached out by email to Alpha and Omega’s pastor, the Rev. Seth Sobral, inviting him to meet in Reece’s office to get to know each other. In an email to ENS, Sobral said he initially was surprised by the message, “because it was the first time a hearing person like Father Spencer had reached out to me.”

Sobral pondered the invitation for a bit, he said, because he was used to communicating within deaf culture. He decided to meet and chose not to bring an interpreter along so he could gauge how he and Reece would engage. After a bit of an awkward start, Reece said they managed a conversation by typing into their phones.

Not long after, Reece and a few St. Paul’s parishioners visited Alpha and Omega, and while their service is conducted in American Sign Language, one of their hearing parishioners was able to interpret for them. Reece now has attended about half a dozen times, taking a few parishioners with him on each visit. Sobral has visited St. Paul’s twice, and in early October about seven parishioners joined him. Reece made sure his members wore name tags and had learned some basic signs so they could greet their guests and make them feel welcome. After the service, he and others were overcome with emotion, “because it takes such courage for them to walk through the door” into a hearing congregation, Reece said.

Assemblies of God was founded by 300 people in Hot Spring, Arkansas, in 1914. It is now the largest Pentecostal denomination, with over 12,000 churches in the U.S. and claiming over 69 million members worldwide.

The two churches have made plans for a joint service at St. Paul’s on Christmas Eve afternoon, which Reece said would include live animals, angels signing in ASL and the Eucharist. Alpha and Omega is creating a special video for the event.

Both Sobral and Reece said that breaking down barriers between hearing and deaf cultures is a real benefit of this new friendship. Sobral noted that the two churches are very different from each other, but he hopes together they can share the gospel with their community. Alpha and Omega has a robust video ministry that could benefit from some upgraded equipment, and Reece is working to help raise funds for that.

Sobral appreciates the way St. Paul’s has welcomed his church with open arms, and he said he hopes in return they can come to understand deaf culture as a blessing. Reece said he has begun that exploration, including learning about The Episcopal Church’s connection through the ministry of the Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, for whom Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., is named.

Gallaudet began offering services in sign language in 1852 at New York’s St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf, which is thought to be the first congregation for the deaf organized in the United States. Gallaudet and the Rev. Henry Winter Syle, the first deaf person ordained in The Episcopal Church in 1876, share a feast day on Aug. 27. Today, the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf carries on the work of sharing the gospel among deaf people.

Early next year, Reece and some parishioners will begin taking private ASL classes from a member of Alpha and Omega, and ASL classes will be offered generally to the parish weekly. He hopes this makes it possible for members of both churches to share a brunch together before Easter. Reece said once he has learned enough sign language, he would love to accompany Sobral to a deaf camp where he serves each summer. “Maybe after that we could have a mission trip,” he said.

Reece said that the association with Alpha and Omega is changing St. Paul’s. “I think it’s bringing the congregation out of themselves, because they are thinking about something that they never imagined they’d be thinking about. Jesus does that, right? – reaches out to the blind and the deaf – and so, here we are,” he said.

Beyond that, Reece said it has changed him, too. “I told Pastor Seth, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know this feels like God’s will.’” He added, “I’m conscious of the deaf world in a way I never was before. It has opened my heart, my priesthood and has expanded my world.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.