Pastor serving the deaf community for 40 years

By Sheila Allen
Northwest Baptist Convention,

A routine class assignment at California Baptist University changed the trajectory of Fred DeBerry’s life. After leaving the Navy where he served during the Viet Nam war and enrolling at CBU, DeBerry volunteered in a school for his classroom assignment.

He wound up at the California School for the Deaf, which was an educational and residential program.

“I had never met a deaf person in my life and volunteered for their Webelo’s group, a Boy Scout troop for fourth and fifth grade boys , in the evenings,” DeBerry said. “I was the only person in the room who could hear and was struggling to learn some basic sign language.”

Within two months DeBerry was offered an early morning job at the residence hall helping the students prepare for their day and the next year was hired to work in the dorm while attending CBU part-time.

“I never got formal training in sign, but if you’re very motivated you learn everything you can,” DeBerry stated. “I became involved in deaf ministry at my church, Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in Riverside and taught Bible studies and more.”

DeBerry made his way to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas following graduation and became the music director for the deaf church at First Baptist Church in Dallas.

“That got me in with a wonderful pastor, a direct answer to my prayer for a mentor,” DeBerry said. “I had a semester to finish at Southwestern when I was recruited and came in view of a call to Calvary Baptist Church (now Sunset Community) to pastor their deaf ministry.”

And DeBerry is still serving and meeting the needs of the deaf at the same church, a record of longevity among Northwest Baptists. He has served with five senior pastors during his tenure and assumed the leadership of missions for the church along the way.

“I tell people that being a deaf person is like being a foreigner in your own country,” DeBerry noted. “Being cut off from others is the biggest challenge for the deaf. We never realize how much we pick up as children just hearing conversation of others. The deaf tend to be reserved, but it is a shocker for the hearing world that the deaf are more blunt and have less inhibitions.”

The number one thing DeBerry encounters among the deaf is no knowledge of Christ or the church.

“The starting point is sometimes less than a hearing person’s journey to Christ,” DeBerry said. “They miss the incidental learning and often need to be led to that knowledge, but not approached with an ‘in your face’ style.”

The deaf church is not separate from the hearing congregation at Sunset, but they have their own services, according to DeBerry. This allows their hearing children to attend Sunday school and other programs of the church.

“Most deaf churches tend to be separate from hearing churches and are autonomous and self-governing, but often don’t have the financial means to support a pastor,” DeBerry reported. “Two flaws of a ministry to people with a disability is they are often underemployed and do not have the opportunities the hearing do. There are also a limited number of deaf people in the population, so deaf churches will never be large congregations. But healthy deaf churches have their own programs, which is different than for hearing. In our church, if the deaf don’t do it, it won’t get done. We don’t have hearing folks come in and teach us.”

DeBerry preaches to his flock of 20 to 30 people each Sunday using American Sign Language and voicing simultaneously. The deaf members also provided extra aides for attenders that are blind and deaf by signing individually into their hand.

“There are a lot of life skills we need to teach, as their kids aren’t hearing some of the basics in normal daily life,” DeBerry said. “There is a lot more involvement in people’s lives. The deaf often get charged 10 percent more than others because they can’t negotiate as we can. The challenge for them is to have better coping skills in life. Deafness can mask other problems.”

Those close ties to his members has meant DeBerry has served as a de facto chaplain to the greater deaf community by performing funerals and weddings of those not connected to the church.

“When I preach, it is intentionally to the deaf, not the hearing, even if they are present,” DeBerry added. “I have found that the hearing tend to take over and we work hard to prevent that.”

DeBerry has also served First Baptist Church of the Deaf in Portland, OR, and for many years traveled three hours to preach to that congregation, but now sends taped sermons from Renton. Now 75 years old, DeBerry has given notice to his church of his impending retirement in the next few months.

“I could not have done this ministry all these years with my wife, Roberta, by my side,” DeBerry said. “I preached on the seasons of life when I told my congregation I was retiring and I cried in my office before the sermon. I will always be a pastor in my heart.”

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