May 18, 2023 | Christian Chronicle, The (USA)
Author/Byline: Bobby Ross Jr. | Section: National
FAIRFAX, Va. — Sunday morning at the Fairfax Church of Christ finds elder Dennis Cesone and his wife, Cindi, in the foyer, greeting and encouraging fellow Christians.
To a visitor, the couple's friendliness and welcoming smiles are evident immediately.
The fact both were born deaf is not.
"They are the most shepherding people that I know," said Robin Gough, who preaches for the 400-member congregation, about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. "They love people. They want to be present with people. When somebody's sick, they will go visit them."
For years, Dennis and Cindi — each of whom learned to speak and read lips as children — have worked to bridge the cultural gap between hearing and deaf Christians.
"My favorite thing is unity," said Dennis, one of Fairfax's elders since 2018. "I love to see people come together in unity. I feel like that's my gift."
His wife joins him in working to unify fellow believers, whether they communicate verbally or through American Sign Language.
"Sign language serves as a bridge to connect the two worlds," Cindi said. "Even if someone is able to sign 'Hello, how are you?' it can speak volumes in simply acknowledging a person's existence/being/presence."
The couple's only child, Kayla Cesone, 21, is a hearing Christian. She grew up knowing her deaf parents loved Jesus.
But only after moving away to attend Harding University in Searcy, Ark., did Kayla process their "desire to break free of the mold that sometimes deaf culture likes to impose. They really like to find their identity in something much more than being deaf," said the daughter, who finished her nursing degree this spring before heading on a medical mission assignment to Zambia.
"One thing I watched them work through was trying to bring together the deaf and hearing ministries at our church," Kayla added. "And a continuing struggle that I observed them encountering was just a desire (of people) to stay in separate groups because that's what's comfortable."
Love and racquetball
Dennis, 62, grew up in New York City's Manhattan borough as the only deaf member of a hearing family.
Cindi, 59, came of age in Winston-Salem, N.C., as a third-generation deaf person.
The couple met at a racquetball tournament for the deaf in Baltimore in 1991. Dennis was competing. Cindi was a spectator.
Dennis originally moved to the nation's capital to attend Gallaudet University, the premier higher education institution for the deaf. An information technology specialist, he later went to work for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he remains employed.
Cindi earned a fine arts degree from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., then entered a three-year visual arts program in Atlanta. She later accepted a graphic design job in a Maryland suburb of Washington.
That's when Dennis came into her life.
They married in 1995.
Seeds of faith
Dennis grew up in a Catholic family. But he never read the Bible, and his church lacked a sign language interpreter.
Cindi developed her faith at the South Fork Church of Christ in Winston-Salem. The congregation had interpreters, and she studied the Scriptures in a Sunday school class taught by a deaf boy's mother. They were the only two students.
She became involved in campus ministry at the Friendly Avenue Church of Christ in Greensboro, where she decided to be baptized. While in Atlanta, she attended the North Atlanta Church of Christ.
"I sensed an opportunity to grow spiritually at Fairfax."
Decades later, she still thanks God for the elder and his wife — Ryan and Cheryl Touchton — who helped her "survive city life in the heart of downtown Atlanta as a young adult."
When Cindi relocated, the Touchtons urged her to check out the Fairfax church.
"I sensed an opportunity to grow spiritually at Fairfax," she said. "In addition, there were already a few deaf members and a few interpreters for the deaf, so I decided to place membership there."
Cindi introduced Dennis to the Bible during their courtship.
"Initially, she gave me a picture Bible, which I enjoyed reading very much," he said. "It was helpful in providing me with the background of the Scriptures."
A personal calling
The roots of Fairfax's deaf ministry trace back to the mid-1980s. That's when late member Becky Hinckley moved from another area congregation to provide sign language interpretation for a deaf member.
Since then, Fairfax has hosted the National Deaf Christian Workshop three times, said David Hinckley, Becky's widower, who remains active in the deaf ministry.
"Among the Churches of Christ, I would be surprised if even 10 congregations have a paid deaf minister."
"No one knows how many churches have deaf ministries, nor how many even have full- or part-time deaf ministry staff," Hinckley said. "Among the Churches of Christ, I would be surprised if even 10 congregations have a paid deaf minister."
Fairfax hired a full-time deaf minister, Mark Lowenstein, in 1998.
"Mark was instrumental in my ability to understand and recognize my personal calling to follow Christ," said Dennis, who accepted Jesus in baptism that same year.
Since Lowenstein left Fairfax in 2007, the church's deaf membership — which topped 50 at one time — has declined.
"When Mark moved away, we got down to the core," Cindi said of the remaining nine deaf members.
After Lowenstein's departure, Dennis and Cindi began leading the deaf ministry — and urging closer ties with the hearing members.
Kayla, the couple's daughter, recalls some awkward early moments in that process.
"I remember we would have people over for dinner at our home, and I would interpret across the dinner table and whatnot," she said. "But that was still just so fruitful because they just had this passionate desire to connect."
The couple's strong connections with the entire congregation led to Dennis accepting the role of elder — with the backing of his fellow shepherds.
"In the past, the deaf ministry was a separate ministry within the church, but we want them to be a part of the body," said elder Ray Bingham, who stayed at Fairfax after retiring from the U.S. Army. "So now they meet with us. And they will do their Bible study separately, just like anybody else."
Cindi is a "phenomenal teacher" who has helped teach American Sign Language to a number of hearing members, Bingham said, including his wife, DeBorah.
Besides her ministry at Fairfax, Cindi serves as an adjunct professor for online American Sign Language classes at Harding.
For Dennis, elders' meetings can become difficult to comprehend when everyone starts talking at once.
"So when I am in the room, I will always say, 'Hey, guys, knock it off,'" Bingham said. "Or, 'Hey, focus on Dennis.' Or, 'Look at Dennis.' Or, 'Go one at a time.'
"I have to do that because Dennis will never do that," the fellow elder added with a chuckle. "He's too much of a gentleman. He's a really good dude. He's one of my favorite people. He inspires me."
Steve Williams, a longtime deaf member at Fairfax, said it's important "to have an ally, someone you can talk to and feel comfortable with, and language not be an issue."
"So having Dennis to be able to talk to if you have a family problem, or if you need someone to pray with, is nice," said Williams, who spoke through interpreter and fellow Christian Sheri Bloomingburg.
They 'embody Christ'
Talk to Fairfax leaders and members, and they'll mention Dennis and Cindi sending daily texts with Scriptures and inspirational messages.
They'll mention the ministry staff joining Dennis at a coffee shop for early-morning Bible study — and a bit of sign language instruction.
They'll mention both Dennis and Cindi accompanying the youth group — including Kayla before she left for Harding — on short-term mission trips to Alaska and the Dominican Republic.
They'll mention the couple making late-night treks with the church outreach team to feed the homeless — and share Jesus — in inner-city Washington.
"I really can't say enough great things about Dennis and Cindi," said Austin Westjohn, a hearing member who graduated from Harding and serves in the U.S. Army band. "They're wonderful people … that would do anything for anyone. They really do embody Christ in that way."
Like Westjohn, Kenneth McClary serves with the Cesones on Fairfax's outreach team.
"They break down a lot of barriers," said McClary, an employee advocate for Wegmans Food Markets. "The first thing is, they love God. But then they want to serve. And they want to make sure they look out for the deaf ministry as well as step out of their comfort zone to be integrated with the regular congregation, too."
Deaf mission field
Fewer than 2 percent of the world's 70 million deaf people know God, according to Pioneer Bible Translators, where former Fairfax minister Lowenstein leads the deaf group.
"Deaf people all over the world report that they feel unwelcome at the dinner table, a holiday event, church and even the Lord's Supper," Pioneer's website declares.
The Cesones see an opportunity — indeed a need — to reach more deaf people with the Gospel.
"The Lord's Supper is intended to be available to all people," Dennis said. "Our congregation is open to sharing the Lord's Supper with all persons, including the deaf."
But connecting with the deaf requires patience and persistence, the couple said.
"First and foremost, many hearing Christians do not understand or realize that it can reasonably take between three and five years to learn and master American Sign Language," Cindi said.
"ASL is a formal language with its own syntax and grammar," she explained. "Hence, it takes time to learn and master ASL just like it takes a few years to learn any new foreign language."
For any congregation with a mix of deaf and hearing members, education and cultural awareness can be crucial, she said.
"Without the ability to communicate and understand the culture of the deaf, the opportunity to bond and go deep is hindered," Dennis said.
"Inevitably, the deaf need opportunities to educate the hearing about their language, culture and history," he added. "Whereas the hearing need to allow time and patience to cultivate relationships with the deaf. This is a process that can take years to nurture."
The Cesones said they've witnessed the fruit of such nurturing at Fairfax.
Dennis credits the congregation — members, elders, ministers and staff present and past — with bolstering his own spiritual development and leadership capabilities.
The Christian Chronicle interviewed the Cesones through a combination of face-to-face conversations and written questions and answers.
"God's footprints are always in front of us as he opens each door in the right place and at the right time, every time without fail!"
After fielding queries from the Chronicle, the couple stressed that they are not the story.
Rather, they point to "the providential hand of God in all things."
"God's footprints are always in front of us as he opens each door in the right place and at the right time, every time without fail!" Dennis wrote. "We are humbled beyond comprehension and grateful for the myriad of ways to glorify him in all things."
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at email@example.com.