Seminarian brings unique gift to ministryBorn deaf, Klusman plans to serve hearing impaired
By Karen MahoneySpecial to your Catholic Herald
MILWAUKEE — Christopher Klusman, a 30-year-old Milwaukee native who was born deaf, has never heard the crash of ocean waves barreling against the shoreline, the trumpets crisply blasting through Handel’s Messiah, or the hushed buzzing of a ruby throated hummingbird. However, the seminarian for the Milwaukee Archdiocese has heard the unmistakable voice of God calling him to serve.Klusman said his mission is to pass God’s word on to others like him. But while Klusman might not lift his voice, he will let his hands do the talking.He began his journey at Saint Francis Seminary two years ago at the encouragement of Msgr. Glenn Nelson of the Rockford, Ill., Diocese.“I went with a group of friends in 2004 to attend his Bible study,” Klusman said. “This monsignor began as an interpreter and a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. He felt called during his work to become a priest. I went up and talked to him after class and he asked me whether I had ever thought of becoming a priest.“Although it was the first time anyone asked me, everything became clear to me at that moment and I knew I was hearing the call,” said Klusman. “However, I told him that I didn’t think I could become a priest because I was deaf. He told me that it didn’t matter if I was deaf or not, that if I felt God was calling me then it was more important that I respond to his call.”
Seeks to serve deaf Catholics
After several meetings with Msgr. Nelson, Klusman realized that God was indeed calling him to the priesthood and he decided to enroll at Saint Francis Seminary. After becoming the first culturally deaf priest ordained in Wisconsin, he hopes to bring the church to the area’s deaf Catholics in an inclusive way.“It isn’t to say that the church isn’t inclusive in some areas,” Klusman said, adding, “But they will finally be able to see a priest privately for confession — one on one instead of feeling uncomfortable confessing in front of an interpreter, or to experience a homily in sign language without an interpreter.”Fluent in Cued Speech, Signed English, American Sign Language and lip reading, Klusman is also able to speak audibly with those having no hearing loss. This versatility ensures that his ministry will be shared between the hearing and deaf communities.He is excited about beginning Bible studies and retreats for the laity, including everyone in the church.“My dream and hope is that the deaf will feel a part of the church and feel equal with everyone, which is how all people should feel — equal in the Body of Christ,” Klusman said.While parishes such as St. Andrew in Delavan, St. Matthias in Milwaukee and St. Peter in Kenosha have thriving deaf communities with interpreters on staff, including the deaf community in all aspects of parish life is difficult, according to Patricia Bronk, coordinator of deaf ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This is due to a lack of appropriately trained interpreters in southeast Wisconsin.
Greater outreach to deaf community
“The problem is when members of the deaf community request having interpreters at the church of their choice for personal reasons, it becomes a challenge to accommodate this request,” Bronk said. “Many interpreters are not comfortable interpreting the Bible without understanding it. Interpreting is not the same as translation for Spanish, Hmong, etc. They must convey the ideas and messages by using hands, facial expressions and body language. To understand the Bible, one must be familiar with the message that is being conveyed, not just using word for word. Therefore, the deaf ministry will be providing workshops and training for interpreters who are interested in religious interpreting.”The ordination of Klusman will help ease the workload of Deacon David Sommers, who is also deaf. According to Bronk, Deacon Sommers works primarily out of St. Matthias, but also attends St. Andrew in Delavan and provides services to those who are homebound.“Christopher would make a wonderful priest,” she said. “We are already seeing his work now as a seminarian. He is a very smart and kind man. Christopher is a very passionate teacher, he wants the deaf community to feel welcome to the church and be a part of the Catholic community.”
Credits family for strong faith
The youngest of four children, Klusman credits his family’s strong faith and dedication to Catholic education for leading him to holy orders. His early years were spent in the public school system where he was mainstreamed into regular classrooms.“I occasionally met with the deaf and hard of hearing teacher to clarify, expand and ask about materials that I may have missed due to my hearing loss,” he said. “I was fortunate that I was able to function well in the regular classroom and function pretty well on my own.”Due to his hearing disability, Klusman was unable to attend Catholic elementary schools as his siblings were. The schools did not have the resources to provide deaf teachers or interpreters for him, but in the back of his mind, he was drawn to Catholic schools and desired to be like the others in his family.“One of my dreams came true and I was accepted to Thomas More High School,” Klusman said. “That was what I wanted to do — to be able to have a Catholic education and to attend school close to home. It was a positive and rewarding experience.”Due to his experience in the classroom, Klusman wanted to share his love of education with others and attended the University of Wisconsin — Madison, where he earned his degree in elementary education.“This was a very good experience for me, because it was close to home, but far enough that I was able to learn how to be an adult and independent,” he said. “I am glad I went there because I met friends who were wonderful Christians as well as good Catholic people. They took me to young adult fellowships, Bible study fellowships and all of that made me more hungry for God’s word.”It was a college coed who ultimately led Klusman to attend the Bible study under Msgr. Nelson, and on the path to the priesthood.
No feelings of isolation in seminary
Some might expect a lonely life for Klusman, as he is the only deaf student in a class of hearing students, but that is not the case. He is grateful for the extra work put into ensuring his inclusion into the program and the daily lives of other seminarians.“I am usually the first deaf person that they have met or am around the most,” he said. “It is a learning experience for them to know how to communicate with me, and many of the guys have done a wonderful job to ensure that I am not isolated.”Although at times Klusman longs to speak with other deaf adults, he is content to attend the annual Deaf Diocesan Seminarian Seminar each year in June.“It is like a spiritual uplifting battery charge for me. I wish I could meet them more often,” he added.As part of his ministry, Klusman wants to help other deaf adults discern possible calls to priesthood and religious life.“These are wonderful men and we have a limited number of deaf religious, so I would like to be available to encourage others who might be hearing God’s call. Being deaf is such a blessing to me,” he said. “I do not consider it a handicap at all; it is a different culture and I feel God put me here for a reason.“I hope that I can continue to grow and learn as much as I can and have more practical knowledge and experience to help me minister with people to help them find God,” added Klusman. “I know Scripture well and can pray well, but I guess I hope I can make it through the seminary and to be involved with people because they teach me so much. And I hope I can do the same for them.”