Learning British Sign Language brought me back to Faith

First published on: 30th April 2021

We spoke to Lorraine Innerdale, who works with deaf prisoners through Prison Fellowship.

I love learning new things and am always on one course or another, and some completely random. I always think ‘give it a go, and I may like it’. Some courses I would never touch again with a bargepole, but others I have thoroughly enjoyed and progressed further. British Sign Language (BSL) being one.

When I was on level 2 in BSL, part of the course involved being in the Deaf community for 20 hours, and one of the students suggested that I go with her to St Helen’s Deaf Church. I said “I can't do that, that would be just wrong”, but she assured me that it would be ok and I would be warmly welcomed, and I was.

Over the next few weeks, it was as if the bible was becoming alive right in front of me, and I wanted to know more.  I believed in God, but I wouldn’t class myself as a committed Christian at that time. The other problem being that my signing ability wasn’t great at that time, and I needed to know a lot more.

So I attended a church near to home, and joined an alpha group, bible study group, etc. I also went on a Christian Sign Language course. And of course, I did make mistakes “Deliver us from Evil”, I signed gave birth to the devil. Jesus also rode on a rabbit instead of a donkey. But as with everyone else I am a work in progress.

Over time I got more involved with my local church, and the Deaf churches, and my faith grew and grew over quite a short period of time in comparison to a lot of people who have been brought up in the church.

I saw a trip being advertised to go to the Holy Land, with the Liverpool Diocese, and decided to put my name down, despite not knowing anyone who would be going. Turned up at the airport, and sat down next to this man, and said “Oh what do you do?” “I am the Bishop of Warrington” – that is when I wished that the ground would just swallow me up. But Bishop Richard found it quite funny, and I like to think that I kept him entertained for the rest of the trip – with Mr Bean moments.

On one of the last days, in the Garden of Gethsemane, I became overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit, and I said straight away to Bishop Richard. “I have just been called, and I am going to be a Reader for the Deaf Church, but not yet, I don’t know enough about the bible or signing”.

So my journey progressed then quite quickly, going on lots of courses, lots of praying, and support from those in the Deaf Church, especially Rev Hannah Lewis and Rev Pauline Makin.

It wasn’t easy being on the Reader’s course, and I struggled a lot, especially with the technical side of things – although by the end of the course, I was able to do a PowerPoint and Scan. I felt like a technology guru then, even if a toddler could have done the same thing.

Tell us about how you use your signing?

Using my signing within the church context can be extremely difficult, as you have to ensure that you are clearly visible, the light is just right, and you even have to wear the appropriate clothing, as in plain, no patterns. Although obviously wearing a cassock and surplice does help. Signing also involves a lot of teamwork, and working with an interpreter a lot of the time.If I am signing, the interpreter is doing the voice-over or vice versa. There is also a lot of preparation that goes beforehand, to ensure the hand shape is correct, and of course the context. There is also the grammatical structure to think about, as it is different from the English language.

I also learned how to work with a lady who is Deaf/Blind which is a privilege to do, but my goodness, it is hard work too. But knowing that you are able to communicate with someone about the love of Jesus in a way that they can understand is a true blessing.

I have always felt called to people who seem to be seen as marginalised in Society, and I then volunteered to work with Street Pastors and Prison Fellowship. From working with ex-offenders on the street to those now in prison, I felt that this was a place that I was meant to be. I am also trained to work with people with varying disabilities, and those who struggle with literacy, so I felt that I was able to use my skills in a much more proactive way, whilst also still spreading the Good News.

How does your work within the prisons make a bigger difference?

So now I am now working in two prisons, and love every minute of it. There are D/deaf prisoners in both prisons and I have been able to advise staff of Deaf awareness, and Deaf culture, the importance of having subtitles on the TV, which isn’t an automatic thing in prison, it has to be requested specially. But more importantly, to lower face masks when talking to Deaf prisoners, to enable them to lip read. There are also a couple of prisoners who are profoundly deaf and use sign language, so when they found out that I could sign they were really happy about having someone to communicate with them in their own language.

One thing that I need to be aware of is boundaries. I am not an interpreter, so have to refuse at times to attend meetings, to ensure that Deaf prisoners do get the interpreters that they are legally entitled to.

What do you find most rewarding?

 Meeting people where they are – literally. Being with people who are at their lowest points, but being able to give them hope. Letting them know that God’s love is there for anyone who asks – it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

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