Holy Angels Church of the Deaf in Vernon seems caught between two worlds, an anomalous ray of spirituality shining through the city's now famous corruption and graft, a tribute to life and resurrection across the street from a closeout toilet paper dealership and in the shadow of the slaughterhouse. If the Word is God, the Holy Angels Church of the Deaf embodies a level of irony that's almost divine.
Vernon is on the brink of dissolution by the state, a plight brought on by corruption and embarrassingly high salaries for city officials. [Ed. note: Vernon was spared the ax on Monday, after this story went to print.] Yet amid that maelstrom, baptisms continue at Holy Angels, as do weddings and quinceañeras. A spaghetti dinner is held to raise funds for a parishioner trying to make it to the 2013 Deaflympics.
Holy Angels is a small chapel — only 120 seats or so — with two masses held on Sundays, in English and in Spanish. A screen above the lily-drenched altar telecasts the sermon for the day, unfurling the subtitles of the prerecorded hymns, which are loud enough to be physically felt.
Catholic masses in particular, and religion in general, are propelled by sound as much as if not more than vision. To lift voices up to heaven without words is an impasse that tests the boundaries of faith itself. Yet it is that strength of faith — the faith that God is listening and actively watching here on this sunny Sunday — that parishioners believe elevates their prayers.
The church is flanked by stained-glass windows shot through with deep reds and blues that break up the bone-white sanctity of the chapel walls, bringing to mind those churches that sit in the background of Western movies, cinematic shorthand for hope and God hiding in the lawless frontier.
Edging into its 25th year as a Personal Parish for the Catholic Deaf Community, the Holy Angels Church was brought together by the rootless deaf faithful, weary of wandering from parish to parish before finding the circa-1907 church that has been their home ever since. The sign-language services, led by Father Tom Schweitzer and Father Brian Doran — both deaf — for an ethnically diverse crowd make the imparting of the Word that much more direct.
On first hearing about a church for the deaf, you might be tempted to think the services are soundless events. They're not. They're also not like the famously quiet meetings of Quakers, who sit together in still contemplation, nor like the Zen reflection on the silence of the Buddha during meditation. Instead, services today bring a whole other universe of sounds.
Older parishioners and priests — those who have lived for years without speaking or hearing — try to distill larger spiritual concepts into simple sign language. The younger deaf clergy at the pulpit are somewhat more vocal in their desire to communicate, with glottal stops and clicks that become even more pronounced amid sweeping, urgent gestures.
A newcomer might also think that because parishioners lack one of the five senses, this somehow impoverishes them or spiritually removes the deaf from the rest of the world's faithful. But the human drive to communicate ensures — to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald — that the deaf are not in the habit of confusing one defeat with the final defeat. Fittingly, the sermon on a recent Sunday centers around joy — namely, the joy of appreciating one's lot in life (let it not be said that the only silver lining in Vernon is the mercury flowing down its gutters).
Holy Angels is not alone in serving the spiritual needs of L.A.'s deaf community — other options are the L.A. Deaf Church, the Grace Bible Church for the Deaf and the Silent Word Deaf Ministry.
But if any part of L.A. needs redemption, it's Vernon — and it's as if the presence of Holy Angels Church is the plug that keeps the whole sordid mess from swallowing itself whole and falling into a bottomless pit of big savings and despicable odors.
The service ends after Communion, and the churchgoers slowly find their way out, most lingering to shake hands and sign friendly words of praise to the priests as the sun beats down on the traffic along Santa Fe Avenue at its lowest ebb. For the deaf believer, the stakes of faith are that much higher. There's already enough doubt about God, let alone how well God hears prayers.