Schisms in the Church

The disconnect faced by deaf worshippers in Nigeria
Line outline drawing of a large church building with an imposing facade. Signed Tan Kuan Aw 2024.

Dear Debriefers,

I am Alexander, a blogger, team member at Voice for the Deaf Foundation, and a special educator. I shuttle between Lagos and Oyo in Nigeria. I’m deaf, and I’m a pious believer from a strong church background.

Over the years a kind of obsession pulls me towards exploring the disability justice crusade from the lens of organized religion. In organized religion there are a whole lot of injustices related to disability: discrimination, superstition, prejudice and neglect.

However in a society where disability justice is understood almost entirely within a secular framework, these injustices happening in organized religion often get brushed under the carpet.

This piece explores the challenges of deaf persons in the church. It draws from my own life and the experiences of other deaf folks, most of them close friends and acquaintances I met within the deaf community. We often talk about what causes our disconnection in church. We are treated as after-thoughts, objects of charity, sub-par humans, or needing healing. But we know we are much more.

Disability Debrief is able to commission unique reporting from authors in the Global South thanks to support from readers.

Not all things are possible

I’ve felt profoundly the disconnect from Church. One unforgettable experience was in 2009, when I went to a five day camping program for young people.

At the time I knew no sign language and had endured some grueling days. I just managed to pick words few and far between from the massive communication going on around me. Trying to piece together scattered words by speculation left me mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

That stress would erupt on the fourth day. I still remember the hymn: “All things are possible to Him”. As it resounded across the meeting halls on that sweltering August afternoon, I tried my best to sing along. I used my residual hearing and tried hard to read the lips of people around me.

For the first three stanzas all my efforts were in vain. However, by the fourth stanza, the one before last, I caught up. But by now I was overwhelmed by the struggles to connect. Others seemed to participate effortlessly. Emotions swept over me, and slumping to my seat, I bowed over the wooden bench in front, sobbing.

The miracle we need

This disconnect endured by deaf worshippers transcends barriers erected by communication gaps. The more painful aspect of the disconnect are linked to attitudinal issues – stereotypes, biases, superstitions, misconceptions, etc, of the hearing people in church.

It is often assumed that deaf persons come to church expecting to get their ears opened by some extraordinary act of God. This notion is most common during gospel crusades or revivals, characterized by healing miracles. It’s a kind of thinking that says God is repulsed by a disability, and if you have one you certainly need His touch to make you whole. As my fellow Nigerian Bernice Oyeleke shared on the Debrief, “We seek help or solutions to get rid of it, through whatever means we are believing.”

Of course, I believe in miracles, and that God still heals. Each one of the interviewees I talked with shares similar beliefs. But there’s a big problem when that clouds our sensible judgements. Superstitions get mixed with spirituality to foster some very dangerous mindsets. 

These mindsets can erupt in dehumanizing acts under the guise of healing. My fellow deafies tell me of various degrees of assault experienced. One was whipped with palm fronds and another had holy water forced into his nostrils with a syringe. One woman told me about how a so-called church prophet bathed and massaged her to supposedly restore her hearing.

The truth is, a number of us deaf folks have gone in and out of various hells in fruitless searches for healing. Having reached the acceptance stage, why should we bother about miraculous cures? Why don’t the miracle enthusiasts in our church ask the deaf worshipper if  they want their hearing restored?

We continue using these arguments to counter the assumption we come to church to be healed. There are options available to bridge the communication act. For me, and many others, the miracle we needed for our deafness was learning sign language.

A new quandary

When I came into sign language and sign language interpreters I thought the problem was over. But I soon found myself in a new quandary: demeaning attitudes. Time and experience would reveal how this other side of disconnect can be more disgusting than sitting without following an entire church service.

Too often deaf worshippers are related with as an afterthought, seen has having little or no value to contribute to church activities. Hardly do you find a deaf person in a general leadership position, even when they have demonstrable leadership skills. We are seen as unfit for the pulpit and relegated to bench-warmers. It’s impossible not to feel the indignity in this trivialization of deaf worshippers and waste of potential. Many respond with indignation, dissent, and pulling away.

Ezekiel, a close friend of mine who works in Lagos told me about attending a church where he was the only deaf worshipper. He was relying on lip-reading. One day, during prayer session, when all eyes were supposed to be closed. Ezekiel didn’t take his eyes away, so he could follow the prayer points. Their gazes locked momentarily. The pastor was puzzled and then belligerent. But then he concluded Ezekiel must be some agent of darkness in human form. He changed his prayer narrative asking to pray against evil spirits in the church.

Dami, who I know since my student days, told me about how Church had been her “everything”. Before she became deaf she was in charge of the technical unit in her home church and played the keyboard with flair. She was valued for what she brought to the table. The church, which formed the core of her life ought to have built on that. Unfortunately it didn’t. When deafness came, it was assumed that the musical talent was lost. And she told me that by the time she got to college:

“I wasn’t admitted into the area of my skill because no one believed in me. I kept begging to be involved like the others, but was seen as a joke.”

A personal relationship with God

I’ve sat through hundreds of sermons without getting the gist. This was before I came into sign-language but also in more recent times, when there is no interpreter, or the interpreter is inept. My mind wanders and I day dream. I am both there and not there. While others sing the lyrics during congregational hymns and praise sessions, I have to manage with humming along. While others pray in line with the prayer list, I have to pray astray, my own monotonous prayer points.

Rebecca, a dear deaf friend from Ikorodu told me about her experience in college:

“I was attending a hearing church without interpreter, I just had to stay there for the sake of ‘being in church on a Holy Sunday‘. I didn’t understand anything and the people there didn’t have time to write things out for me”

A couple of friends told me about having an “inner ear“ that guides them. Edirin, a lawyer in Delta State who I met in an online group of later deafened adults, tells me about how that helps her bridge the communication difference:

I am able to meet this gap drawing on the reservoirs of a good grounding in both church and scriptures from my younger hearing days. This gives me an edge as I really do not need to have the bible interpreted for my understanding. That earlier foundation still serves as an ‘inner ear’ that helps me reduce the gap in church. One’s foundation and personal relationship with God are key to hearing from Him personally

In many ways, we become both pastor and pew. Dami told me about how, in the absence of an interpreter, the service can “become a bore” and her mind wander off. How does she cope? 

“Hearing from God transcends what is said. I ask the Holy Spirit to take over and minister to me by Himself. This doesn’t come easy it takes training, discipleship and growth to come into this.”

Our affairs left to unprepared interpreters

With difficulty we find churches that provide sign language interpretation during some services. Deaf folks have to travel considerable distances to find these services. Even there, provision is grossly insufficient, and the quality of interpreting is often amateurish. This sensitive position has been treated flippantly by church administration.

But it’s not just the availability of interpreting services, but also the attitudes of the interpreters. Overly or covertly, it can create animosities between deaf persons and the interpreter. One penpal of mine told me:

“In my present church, we have two interpreters – a lady and a man. The lady is very good at interpreting and we enjoy having her sign as she always gives her best for us to be carried along. She isn’t 100% but we know she is doing her best – and we are content with that. The male interpreter is the direct opposite. I’m always praying [that] he isn’t the one to interpret.”

Church leadership have left the affairs of deaf worshippers to interpreters, which greatly limits the odds of our interests being well represented. Some interpreters have overbearing or snobbish attitudes. My friend Teslim told me his experience of correcting an interpreter who then got defensive and dismissed his corrections.

Interpreters have their own complaints too. While some churches do hire and pay, most times they are providing the service without training, remuneration, or incentive. Deaf folks don’t always have great English and it’s not uncommon to see interpreters reach their wits’ ends explaining simple English terms. Interpreting is hard work and they don’t always feel appreciated.

Dwelling together in unity

Coming from these schisms and dissatisfaction, churches of exclusively deaf worshippers have sprung up. These centres are meant to provide a safe space to foster an organic sense of belonging. They come few and far between and are often scantily populated.

My friend Odunlami, a banker and entrepreneur based in Lagos, told me how much she felt at home in these settings:

“I love it because there was no form of language barrier as in the pastor was deaf and the message flowed seamlessly. In fact, the way of worship, it made me less self-conscious, I was so joyful being in a gathering of people with same identity.”

However, opinions about this are mixed. There are those who believe a mixed church serves the greater good. Some of the people I spoke to prefer mixed congregations. One person hinted at a moral and spiritual laxity in the leadership of the deaf church. And for Edirin, a mixed setting was more comfortable:

“It provides the opportunity for each group to learn from each other how to communicate, relate and fellowship together… that way the deaf worshippers won’t feel left out.”

There are a number of deafies like myself who prefer staying put in the conventional mix of deaf and hearing worshippers. In my various experiences, I feel more refreshed and recharged in my spirit when I worship in mixed settings than in exclusively deaf settings.

And I hold the firm conviction that church life will be more harmonious when we reach the understanding that the God whose presence and power we come to jointly partake is neither small-minded nor biased like ourselves. As it says in Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” 

A spiritual refreshing

There is an unvoiced schism, insidiously eating into the fabric of church life as we have it in Nigeria. Further exploration is needed to show the deeper problems and solutions that will make for a church that is more cognizant and inclusive of deaf worshippers.

Church leadership must come to the realization that we, deaf faithfuls, are as much a part of the body of Christ as others. We have many gifted people that can contribute to the building of the church. The church would have benefited from our talents and what we add. 

It’s time for a change. For too long, deaf voices have gone unheard in church space. I myself have had to pull away from the Church because of the discrimination. But each time I was away I felt some spiritual dryness. And when I went back I felt a spiritual refreshing. Leaving is not the best way out. 

Yours in God’s vineyard,


Please share this with friends, as that's how people find the Debrief. See more from Alex on Linkedin, where you can also find the Debrief. And hit reply to say hello!


With special thanks to Debrief’s Peter Torres Fremlin who edited this piece and whose passion for disability causes was a strong motivation for this work.

Huib Cornelgie of The Enablement Inc. whose vision for an inclusive church is contagious. Biola, Bukola, Dami, Edirin, Odunlami, Rebecca, Wale, Teslim, William and other respondents for the shared time and experience.

Thanks to Tan Kuan Aw for the illustration of the church building.

Thanks to the readers and organisations whose support makes this work possible.