Ophelia Thomas holds her hands up with the signs for 'okay' during a musical performance at the Family Deaf Church.
Ophelia Thomas signs "worthy" during a musical performance at the Family Deaf Church. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

When you walk into Family Deaf Church, you aren’t handed a Bible, hymnal, or an order of worship. Instead, you are handed a set of bright orange single-use earplugs – the kind you might buy before attending a rock concert or perhaps for quieting your snoring bedmate.

The need for earplugs for those who are hearing is thanks to the large stereo system on the floor. It gives off enormous bass and midrange tremors that you never knew existed in contemporary Christian music.

Interpreters signing during musical portions of the service communicate the teachings of the Bible to the congregation. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“Deafness is a spectrum, from being totally deaf to perfect hearing and everything in-between,” said Mary Ann Richey, founder of Family Deaf Church. Congregation members “might be able to hear the music, maybe they can’t hear the words but they can hear the music, or they can feel the beat.”

An electricity among the dozens of worshippers complements the booming audio.

“People often think deaf people are quiet,” Richey said. “They’re actually some of the loudest people you’ll ever know.”

Richey and her husband, John, work in tandem during the services at the church. John preaches using his vocal cords while Mary Ann does the same with her hands, face, and body in American Sign Language (ASL).

Mary Ann said she was called to preach to the deaf at a young age and learned sign language while attending a deaf church in Virginia. She later received a master’s degree in interpreting from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school centered around the deaf and hearing impaired that was signed into charter by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Together, Mary Ann Richey and husband John Richey deliver a Sunday service before the Family Deaf Church congregation. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The church, which started services in January 2013, is one of the only incorporated deaf churches in San Antonio. It’s located within Baptist Temple Church in the Highland Park neighborhood in the near Southeast Side.

Family Deaf Church is housed within Baptist Temple Church, 901 E. Drexel Ave. at South Gevers Street, off Interstate 10. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Having services that are spoken, interpreted in ASL, and projected for maximum accessibility gives everyone the ability to stay caught up during the sermon including those learning ASL. One of them is Jesse Alderete, who attends the church with his deaf 14-year-old daughter, Zabrina, who is fluent.

They learned about Family Deaf Church during Aid the Silent Annual 5K in Boerne hosted by Emma Faye Rudkin, a former Miss San Antonio who lost her hearing at the age of 3.

Beyond sharing the teachings of Christianity with San Antonio’s deaf community, the church, since its inception, has grown with an emphasis on youths. Camping, potluck lunches, and small theater drama are among its offerings. A sign language class for parents of deaf children is another. It even offers free tutoring on Wednesday evenings for deaf students needing schoolwork help.

“I’m particularly excited about the youth, because they’re the future,” Mary Ann Richey said. “They’re the ones who will be the deaf leaders in the future, and they’re already leading in their own way in their own classrooms by teaching each other.”

Ophelia Thomas (right) laughs as she hugs a fellow member of Family Deaf Church. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Scott Ball

Scott Ball

Scott Ball is the Rivard Report's photo editor and a native San Antonian.