Idalme Rodriguez, 16, looks forward to the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention every summer. The San Antonio teen has ventured to Denton each year since 2003 for the event, where Bible stories and Scripture are told in American Sign Language.
The convention, held in the Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses east of Denton, is for congregants who are deaf, or deaf and blind.
“I just wanted to be here with my brothers and sisters, together,” Idalme Rodriguez said to one of the many convention volunteers who are fluent in sign language. “For me, it’s just good to be here.”
The shy teenager was born deaf, but her mother, Griselda Rodriguez, said the family didn’t know she was unable to hear until she was 3 years old.
“It was important for us as a family to be able to communicate with Idalme,” Griselda Rodriguez said. “We learned sign language with her. And then when we had our son, we taught him. We did this as a family.”
Little Miguel Rodriguez Jr., called “Miguelito” affectionately by his father, Miguel Sr., signs as reflexively as Idalme. His hands move quickly as he answers questions.
Thousands attended the three-day convention at the Denton assembly hall. The event began Friday, and featured the first video feed from the International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It ends on Sunday.
The convention is startling in its quiet. The assembly hall is packed, with presenters using sign language to preach and teach from the Bible. Along the back of the hall, witnesses who are blind and deaf sit facing interpreters who speak in telegraphic taps to the witnesses’ palms and hands.
A row of video cameras flanks the left side of the hall. Every so often, the congregants lift their hands in the air and wiggle their fingers — their way of clapping and cheering.
Miguel Rodriguez Sr. calls American Sign Language “the beautiful language.” He said the family originally attended a Spanish-speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. Then they learned that a sign language group of Jehovah’s Witnesses was meeting. The meeting turned into a congregation.
The Rodriguez family joined, he said, and watched their daughter’s spirit soar and her confidence grow.
“We want Idalme to learn the Bible in her language,” Miguel Rodriguez Sr. said. “We want to learn about Jehovah and be able to preach in her language.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have the most comprehensive and vigorous ministries to the deaf and the blind and deaf of any Christian denomination. The church has interpreted the New Testament of the Bible into American Sign Language, as well as sign languages used across Europe and Asia.
For congregants such as Idalme Rodriguez, the Jehovah’s Witnesses not only offer the full benefits of membership in their churches, but expect the same study and service from them.
“I want to share in ministry with my brothers and sisters,” Idalme Rodriguez said. “I want to teach others about Jehovah.”
The teen said she teaches what her peers in the faith teach: that Jehovah governs the world through the rule of Jesus Christ, and will restore a broken, hurting world to the paradise it was created to be.
Idalme Rodriguez teaches and preaches — often going door-to-door, as witnesses are required to do — that after the end of days, the faithful will be restored to the image of God they lost in the Garden of Eden. When Jehovah restores the earth to paradise, she said, his children will be without suffering or sickness. They will be whole, holy and healthful in eternity.
Austin resident Lorita Serna, 63, described a childhood much different than that of Idalme Rodriguez. Serna grew up in a Methodist family and said she was taught the oral method, which coaches people with impaired hearing to speak and read faces, lips and body language.
She didn’t learn sign language until she was 23, at Gallaudet University, which is a college for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Serna said that when she learned to sign, “I felt like I found my language.”
Serna said she never felt included in her childhood church.
“I had to guess what was going on by looking at their faces,” she said, recalling her congregation.
Serna drifted away from church for other reasons, too.
“My father passed away, and the Methodist [preacher] at the funeral said that God took my dad because he needed him,” Serna said. “That really bothered me. I needed him.
“And there was judgment. I wondered whether I was going to go to heaven or if I’d go to hell. I always wondered if there was something I was doing wrong, or what it was that I needed to do to go to heaven. That bothered me.”
Serna was working in Breckenridge, Colorado, when she befriended a woman who was a Jehovah’s Witness. They passed notes, and Serna said “all the questions I had, she had answers for.” She was baptized in 1985, and moved from a hearing congregation to a deaf congregation while living in Seattle.
Serna found comfort in the Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine that there is no hell. And she said she found love and acceptance that felt like family.
The conventions further the spiritual formation of the witnesses, Serna said, and she never tires of the study or the work. She’s what’s called a “regular pioneer,” a witness who commits 70 hours of service to the church each month.
She focuses on the deaf community, and is especially devoted to a Bible study she has with a deaf single mom of three young children. Serna cut herself some slack when she was diagnosed with cancer and in treatment, but not too much.
“I just relied on my Jehovah and my Jesus,” she said. “Even when I was sick, I kept teaching. I feel God has given me the ability and confidence to preach to deaf people.”
Program overseer Tim Lowe said he’s seen the conventions change lives in the 16 years he’s worked with hearing witnesses to organize the convention.
When the church started its outreach to people with hearing loss, there were two sign language conventions. This year, there are eight. The sign language conventions are like the hearing conventions, free of charge and open to anyone.
“We have people who were raised in deaf families, and people who were raised in hearing families,” Lowe said. “And we have people who have had very little education at all, and so we have material for them that is based mostly on pictures, images.”
Lowe was raised in the faith, and recalls going door-to-door with his brother, who is also deaf, before the church began its intensive outreach. He’s seen a lot of change.
“In New York [the world headquarters of the church], they have foreign language classes,” Lowe said. “You can learn all kinds of languages there — Spanish, French. But that’s where you can go to learn sign language if you want to work with the deaf. It’s a course that’s like four or five months.”
Idalme Rodriguez has found an extended family at the conventions. The teen was born with a cleft palate, a congenital deformity that results when the plates forming the roof of the mouth don’t close. She’s had a number of surgeries in Dallas.
When she awakens after the procedures, Griselda Rodriguez said, there is almost always a friend from a nearby deaf congregation there to greet her.
“They are like family,” Miguel Rodriguez Sr. said. “Idalme, all of us, consider her brothers and sisters family.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.