The Word is a thing beyond words when pastor Dean Francini delivers a sermon in American Sign Language. 

"American Sign Language is more pictorial; it's a lot different than spoken English," said Francini, pastor of Solid Rock Deaf Baptist Church, which began offering services late last year in a basement meeting hall off 8th Street in Colorado Springs.

Whereas Signing Exact English aims for a straight translation of spoken words, ASL is more a conceptual tapestry, as well as a means of manual communication with its own unique vocabulary and grammar.

"In Signing Exact English, I'd ask, 'What is your name?' and sign that; in ASL, I'd sign 'name' and raise my eyebrows," said Francini, whose ASL sermons might not cover as much ground as his audible messages but can take longer to write. "When I do a sermon in ASL, I focus in and break it down a bit more. I can't continually throw out Scripture because I have to wait for them to be watching."

The dynamic during worship, too, can be vastly different from voice services.

"Normally when you preach from the pulpit ... there's not much interaction involved in that. In a deaf service, there is," Francini said. "It's almost like what we'd consider a Sunday school. They'll just raise their hand and ask a question right in the middle of it. That's just the culture of it."

The fundamental, mission-minded Independent Baptist church introduces a new regular service tailored solely for the hearing next Sunday.

"There are a lot of people who live west of I-25 and I don't think they have an Independent Baptist church to chose from," said Francini, whose outreach campaign included the distribution of 30,000 welcome packets to homes in the city's west and southwest neighborhoods. "Though God's called me to teach to the deaf, I don't want to just leave out another people group I can reach as well with the Gospel."

Several of the area's larger churches, including Woodmen Valley Chapel, have thriving deaf ministries and offer interpretive sermons; Francini believes his church to be the only one of its kind founded for and focused on the deaf, a population that could be as high as 5,000 in El Paso County, he said.

"A lot of people say, 'Why a deaf church?' There's millions of deaf in our country and very few people are reaching them just teaching the Bible. They can't hear it from a TV or a radio," Francini said. "It's a people group in our country I feel isn't getting an unadulterated version of the Word of God. Knowing sign language, I'm able to explain that to them in their language."

A child of deaf adults - or CODA - Francini learned and actively used sign language growing up. After high school he spent 20 years in the U.S. Marines Corps, but a spiritual awakening in 2005 eventually set him on a new path. Francini retired from the military in August 2014 and began working to raise money and support for a new church; a year later, he was headed to Colorado Springs with a mission from Sword Deaf Baptist Church in Tennessee to plant Solid Rock, which hosted its first service just before Christmas.

Francini's wife, Anne, teaches Sunday school and oversees the nursery area, if needed, during Thursday and Sunday services. The couple's three sons also help out, providing voice translations for the hearing when their father delivers a sermon in ASL or signing along with hymns during musical worship.

"I'm not fluent, but I can carry on a conversation and sign songs," said 15-year-old songleader Benjamin Francini, who honed his signing skills on the road while the family traveled around sharing their dream and earning support for the church. "Sometimes it's hard to change the words into ASL, but we also have an ASL book for hymns and if you know the signs it's not super hard."

As part of his mission, Francini hopes to inspire and train other deaf church leaders who can continue to spread the Gospel in ASL.

"It's amazing when we go out, the Lord brings us deaf people we never knew about," said Francini, whose Sunday and Thursday services usually draw around 15 people. "There are a lot of deaf people who know that I'm here ... they're watching to see if I'm going to stick it out. We're going to stay here until the Lord moves us on."

Reporter

Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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