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Signs of Faith
Interpreter lets her fingers do the talking
Pastor Jim Clark speaks firmly to the Crossroads Community Church congregation Sunday with his strong voice and lively arms.
Just a short distance away, Arlene Atwood-Noteman uses her hands and expressive face to interpret his message for deaf parishioners, conveying his words fluently through American Sign Language.
The service is "so alive and well and very exciting," Patrick Dye, 50, of Yuba City signed later. "If I didn't go to church, I feel my spirit would atrophy. My faith has kept me going."
Atwood-Noteman "was an answer to my prayers," said Dye's mother, Dottie Wurm, 76, of Yuba City. She had been praying for an interpreter for the deaf to come to the church for two years before it became a reality.
Her son, born deaf, hadn't enjoyed church as a youngster, she said, because he couldn't understand anything.
"I love going to church," Wurm said, but "if you don't know the language, it's pretty boring." Dye said that as a child in New Jersey, the church service just went over his head. He was baptized, but didn't understand it. Now that the deaf ministry in Yuba City has helped him, "I would like to be baptized again."
Cindy Heipel, 54, of Marysville found the ministry a few years ago when she and her husband were looking for a church. She has worn hearing aids for the past 15 years, and her husband is deaf.
They continued attending, she said, "and have built such a wonderful deaf family." The church has "so much to offer." If she misses a Sunday service, she misses socializing with the deaf, she said.
Atwood-Noteman, 67, a professional sign language interpreter for more than 30 years living in Sacramento, started volunteering at Crossroads more than 10 years ago to interpret for Dye and his then wife.
At first, she simply sat in front of the couple at the front of the church. Then there were two rows of people straining to see her hands. Finally, someone constructed a low platform, so about 30 deaf and hard of hearing parishioners could see her.
"It's an odd place to be," Atwood-Noteman said. "You want to be visible to the deaf, but not a distraction to other people."
The deaf members sit up front during the service and at church activities.
The director of deaf ministries at Crossroads, she and her husband, Richard, finally moved to Yuba City less than two months ago.
The deaf ministry team also includes interpreters Robin Beals, Misty De Bartolo and Diane Kindred. The church has started a deaf Bible study class and has also hosted a Deaf Day in the fall for several years, attracting deaf families from throughout Northern California to hear deaf speakers.
Companionship is essential to the deaf congregation, Atwood-Noteman said.
"I think the gospel is awesome, and we want them to hear about Jesus," said Pastor Clark, 59. "But we also want them to feel like they're a part of the community."
Heather Bullington, 41, drives every Sunday from her home in Williams to attend the deaf service. "It's a very long drive," she said, but the loneliness and isolation she felt at home are gone. "No way I could stop coming to this church."
Atwood-Noteman studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., works at interpreting in courts in 26 counties and has interpreted in the U.S. Congress, in Europe and Japan, for delegations and individuals such as Sen. Hilllary Clinton, Ross Perot and the late Congressman Robert Matsui.
Previously, she interpreted services at Sunrise Community Church in Fair Oaks for 12 years.
"I can see how God uses me in every realm of my life," she said. "It's important learning about God's word, having strength in our family.
"I feel most comfortable at interpreting in church," she said. "I see myself far, far, far from retiring. As long as I can see and hear, I can still do that. It makes me feel blessed."
Deaf persons may have been fearful of the church when they first arrived, Clark said. "But the church embraced them, and then they turned around and blessed the church with what they do. They're active.
"They've become enough a part of the church that we just count them as church family."
• What: Signing for deaf and hard of hearing
• When: 9 a.m.
• Where: Crossroads Community Church, 445 B St., Yuba City
• Contact: 751-9168
Contact Appeal-Democrat reporter Leticia Gutierrez at 749-4722 or at lgutierrez @appealdemocrat.com.