A devotional gathering conducted entirely in American Sign Language via a Zoom video call was perhaps the first initiative of its kind in the Baha’i community.
Austin Vaday, a deaf Baha’i in California, and Akil Raspberry, a deaf friend of the Baha’i Faith in Florida, had each expressed interest in having a devotional but didn’t know one another, says Naledi Raspberry, convener of the Baha’i Task Force for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Jason Schwartz, a sign language interpreter and member of the task force, knew Austin. Naledi Raspberry is Akil’s mom.
“We all got to know each other on a joint text call that Jason set up,” recalls Naledi Raspberry. “Austin agreed to host the devotional and Jason set up the Zoom call,” which was held in two parts on May 5 because of the time limitation Zoom places on free accounts.
In the first part, the six participants introduced each other. Akil Raspberry’s daughter Jaden and Tavoria Kellam-Lawrence, a member of the task force, joined Akil and Naledi Raspberry, Vaday and Schwartz on the call.
The second portion was devoted to sharing prayers. Vaday had posted the text of prayers to the chat feature of Zoom so others could sign them.
“We experimented with ways to clearly see the hands of the person signing on-screen, and Gallery View seemed best,” recalls Naledi Raspberry.
Afterward, the two deaf participants arranged to contact each other to schedule future ASL devotionals, says Raspberry. “Each was eager to invite friends. Children of deaf parents usually learn to sign before they learn to talk, and they can also be invited.”
The milestone event elicited praise from the National Spiritual Assembly, governing council of the Baha’i Faith in the U.S., which in a letter sent May 13 encouraged that this effort “continue from strength to strength.”
In its letter, the National Assembly expressed its “wish to commend all those involved for your creativity and perseverance, especially during these challenging times when spiritual connection is so important.”
The Assembly noted that the staff of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, has been hosting daily pre-recorded devotional meetings “and would welcome occasional participation by someone reciting a prayer in Sign Language.”