One of the truisms in shared lives as a worshiping community is, “It’s about the relationship.” Today’s feast on our liturgical calendar affirms that.
Thomas Gallaudet (the son of famed educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of Gallaudet University, the first institution of higher education for the hearing-impaired) was an Episcopal priest who, even though his path in life took a different turn than his father’s, still carried the fingerprints of his father’s influence. Gallaudet founded St. Ann’s Church in New York City, a primarily deaf congregation, and before his ordination, worked as a teacher in the deaf community.
One of his students was a fellow named Henry Winter Syle. History is sparse when it comes to piecing together Syle’s biography, but we know this much: Syle was the child of missionary parents, born in 1846, in Shanghai, China. He lost his hearing after a bout of scarlet fever at age 6. He attended Trinity College, Hartford, CT but left school before graduating, because of illness. He then studied at St. John’s College in Cambridge, England (encouraged by Gallaudet to do so), but again, became ill and withdrew before graduation. Returning to the United States, he obtained, and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Yale. Gallaudet encouraged Syle to consider the priesthood, partially because there were so few forms of employment for the profoundly hearing-impaired in the mid-to-late 1800s.
The story doesn’t end with this relationship, however. Shortly after Syle’s ordination to the diaconate in October 1876, word of this ordination spread, and Austin Ward Mann, also deaf, was ordained to the diaconate in 1877. (You can read the sermon at Syle’s deaconal ordination here. Interestingly, it references our Gospel reading for today.) In 1883, Syle and Mann would be ordained alongside each other in Philadelphia, at a time our larger church was still vigorously debating at General Convention whether or not to question the Old Testament rubrics stipulating that those serving at the altar were required to be free of infirmities or disabilities. (Shades of the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven in 1974!)
Although Syle and Mann would go different directions–Syle, to found All Souls Church for the Deaf in Philadelphia, and Mann, to establish what would eventually become St. Thomas’ Deaf Episcopal Church in St. Louis–this would start the long association several Episcopal dioceses have with congregations serving a primarily hearing-impaired congregation and using American Sign Language. Ordaining them together created the beginnings of a wave of support for congregations serving the hearing-impaired. It all started with one relationship–a student and his teacher.
The story of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle stands as a living testimonial of how a single relationship, like a pebble tossed into a lake–creates ripples that spread further outward. Any action we take in honoring our Baptismal Covenant, seeking Christ manifest in every human life, has the potential to join with another ripple, and another, and yet another, until the ripple becomes a wave. One ripple can’t change much–but a wave can.
When is a time you’ve been fortunate enough to see a wave that has the signature of “your little ripple” in the world?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.