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The congregation members take their seats, and Beth Lockard, clad in t

March 29, 1997

The congregation members take their seats, and Beth Lockard, clad in the white robes of a Lutheran pastor, begins her sermon. Silently.

The coffeepot churns away in the corner, the heater whirs and clanks, and the muffled notes of the organ upstairs in the main sanctuary of the Calvary Lutheran Church waft down through the floorboards.

The only other sound comes from Lockard’s fingers feverishly whisking past each other, as her hands cut through the air and her speechless sermon fills the room.

Deaf since the age of 6, when she suffered spinal meningitis, Beth Lockard is the ``mission developer″ of Christ the King Deaf Church in West Chester, Pa. She acts as the pastor of the congregation of more than 50 deaf and hearing-impaired parishioners and their family members, but she isn’t a pastor. Not yet.

When the church lost its hearing pastor two years ago, members launched a nationwide search for a new leader. Unable to find someone who fit all their needs, they looked into their own fold. Lockard, 38, and her husband, Bill, had established the church some years earlier, and Beth had run the day-to-day operations of the congregation ever since.

``We’re unique because we’re sending our leader to the seminary to become our pastor,″ says Arlene Treibel, who attends services with her deaf husband.

So now Beth, who had dreamed of becoming a pastor while an undergrad at Concordia Lutheran College in Portland, Ore., is attending Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. The congregation is paying for her books, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is paying her tuition.

``It’s exciting and a bit overwhelming,″ she says, beaming.

When Beth was attending Concordia 17 years ago, she felt a spiritual calling. ``I wrote a paper about it,″ she says, ``but my teacher said that though it was a good paper, women could not become pastors.″ So she put her dream away, and completed her undergraduate training in elementary education.

Several years later, she moved East and met Bill, dean of the high school at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where she doing an internship to complete her master’s in deaf education. Though Bill could hear, the two found an instant connection on other levels _ in the church, in education, and in each other.

Today, they live just a few blocks from their church. Their sons, Aaron, 4, and Jesse, 7, both can hear _ and both are whizzes at sign language.

``Our mealtimes are silent and a signing-only time,″ Bill explains. ``Up until 2, kids are terrific signers, but after that, in a household with a hearing parent, they start to lose it. This gives them a good chance to practice.″

When they first moved to the suburban Philadelphia town, the only church for the deaf was back in the city. But on bad weather days, Bill and Beth would attend their neighborhood Calvary Lutheran Church, with Bill signing the sermons for his wife.

The church liked the Lockards, and the Lockards liked the church, so the pair invited other deaf friends to attend a service with them.

``At first,″ Bill recollects, ``I’d sit at the end of a pew and interpret the sermon. As more friends started coming, I’d move my chair out into the aisle. And as our group got bigger and bigger, I was encouraged to move to the front of the church.″

And when the group got too big, they happily moved downstairs and set about forming their own, separate congregation.

``I think that most deaf, if they had their choice, would choose a deaf church,″ Beth says. ``In this church, they have found a warm place where they can become part of a church family. This is a place of comfort.″

Bev Groff agrees. Deaf since she was a child, she attends Beth’s services with her hearing-impaired husband.

``In the hearing church, I’d spend my time reading the hymnal book,″ Mrs. Groff says. ``I’d look up, not understand what was going on, and go back to my hymnal.″

``This church gives me a good warm feeling and a clear understanding,″ she continues, taking her husband’s hand in hers. ``I’m connected to my church now.″

Beth and Bill now spend much of their time making all the deaf people in their community feel connected.

Bill established and runs the Center For Hearing and Deafness, which provides a variety of services for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in southeastern Pennsylvania. Beth is the coordinator of Deaf Ministry Committees for the National Council of Churches. She also is working on translating the Book of Luke into American sign language.

On Sunday mornings, she teaches an hour of Bible study before presiding over the service for her congregation. And when the service is done, she takes time to reflect.

The room is silent, but the air is electric with the conversation of a hundred hands. Beth is happy.

``It’s like I had an old dream that finally became real,″ she says.