Houston deaf church enhances sanctuary with vibrating floor and high-tech lighting
Renovation includes ‘floating floors’ and LED lights
By Allan Turner
November 15, 2015
As Southern Baptists, members of northwest Houston’s Woodhaven Baptist Church are accustomed to being moved by God’s word. That was certainly the case when they arrived for services Sunday – the first in a sanctuary transformed by a $1 million renovation.
More than 60 percent of the church’s 175 members are deaf, and recently completed improvements to the church sanctuary – originally designed for use as a basketball gym and worship space – are expected to enhance the experience of both the hearing-impaired and their hearing relatives.
Key to the improvements, said senior pastor the Rev. Arthur Craig, is a state-of-the-art sound system that will generate vibrations through a specially designed “floating” floor. With the proper placement of powerful bass speakers, deaf worshipers will be able to sense the vibration of musical performances through the soles of their shoes. “Now they’ll not only be able to see the words in American Sign Language, they’ll be able to feel them,” Craig said.
Adding to the experience, he said, is a system of LED lights that can change color and intensity as the need or mood warrant.
“A lighting system for the deaf is like a sound system for the hearing,” he said. “If the lighting system is poor, it’s difficult for them to follow the sermon.” Previously, the sanctuary was equipped with mercury vapor lamps, relics of its days as a gym.
To the casual visitor, Woodhaven services differ little from those found in other churches. While Craig, who can hear, preaches in sign language, an interpreter translates the sermon into spoken word for the roughly 35 percent of the congregation who are not hearing impaired. Musical worship also is directed to both hearing and non-hearing congregants.
Worship centers customized for the hearing-impaired are a relatively new concept. Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church, opened in 2003, is thought to have been the first to address such worshipers’ needs. Seats in the Tennessee worship center are raised to enable congregants to clearly see the signing pastor. Speakers are embedded in the floor. Brentwood Pastor Aric Randolph was the featured guest minister at Woodhaven’s Sunday service.
Woodhaven’s improvements were designed by Houston architect Michelle Carter, a principal at Merriman Holt Architects. While the firm specializes in church design, Carter admitted the Woodhaven project marked the firm’s first effort to design for the hearing-impaired.
In addition to the unique flooring and lighting systems, the renovation also provides new video screens on which worshippers can watch the pastor’s hands and improved podiums from which volunteer interpreters can translate hand motions into words. While most of the improvements were designed to enhance the worship experience, a few, Craig said, were more mundane. Included in the renovation package were a new roof and exterior paint job for the sanctuary.
Also significant was the installation of a tankless water heater for the church’s baptismal pool. Previously, Craig said, hoses were run to the tank from water heaters in adjoining buildings to boost water temperature to a humane level. “I’ve baptized many times in cold water,” said Craig. “It’s an experience that takes your breath away.”
Worth the wait
Renovations, likely the most extensive since the worship center opened 39 years ago, took 18 months to complete.
In addition to the Rev. Randolph’s sermon, Sunday’s service featured special choir and gospel performances and a video presentation chronicling the states of the church’s renovation.
The deaf church, which last year marked its 90th anniversary, was founded as a ministry of Houston’s First Baptist, with which it remains affiliated.
For decades, the deaf program was led by Lillian Beard, a woman who learned American Sign Language when, as an orphaned child, she was adopted by a deaf couple. Beard died in 2010 at age 101.
Since its founding, the ministry has expanded to operate a multiservice center for the deaf, conduct services for hearing-impaired state prisoners and support a missionary outpost in Ukraine.
Besides sound, lighting and plumbing improvements, the Woodhaven remodeling provides new changing rooms for those to be baptized. The remake improves facilities for the congregation’s Christmas and Easter presentations.
Capping the recently completed renovation was installation of the sanctuary’s primary decorative element – a small, Depression-era stained-glass window salvaged from First Baptist’s former downtown Houston home. The parent church left downtown for its current Loop campus on Interstate 10 in 1977.