FORT WAYNE, Ind. — To walk into the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne is to enter a serene space, with a vaulted ceiling supported by more than a dozen white columns flanking rows of wooden pews anchored to an unadorned a stone floor.
It's the kind of no-distractions place that would seem to facilitate communing with heaven - but frustrates the devil out of some hearing-impaired members.
Former First Presbyterian elder Will Clark walks about a third of the way up the center aisle and claps his hands together once.
"Hear that?" he says, as the concussion echoes around the room - one, two, three, four, five seconds - before beginning to fade away.
"That's it," he says. "Five seconds is a long time."
Such reverberations, Clark says, have left worshippers who have hearing loss, including his wife, Ginny, to struggle to understand the words of sermons, Bible readings and prayers.
That's why the Clarks persuaded the downtown congregation to install technology that allows users of most hearing aids to flick a switch on their devices and have crystal-clear reception.
The church installed a hearing loop, also called a magnetic induction loop. It's an invisible system that makes speech in large public spaces such as churches, theaters, auditoriums, public meeting rooms and courtrooms more understandable to the hearing-impaired.
Ginny, whose congenitally based hearing loss became an impediment in her early 40s, says the system makes it seem like anyone who speaks into the microphone at church is sitting on her shoulder and talking right into her head.
"It doesn't change the sound in the room. It doesn't have any effect on anybody who is not wearing a hearing aid," she says, explaining that the system works with a copper wire extended under the floor around the perimeter of the room and hooked into the existing amplification system.
When someone speaks into the mike, the sound goes directly to the wire instead of through the air, and then it's wirelessly picked up by a tiny device called a telecoil, or T-coil, present in about 70 percent of hearing aids.
"What happens is the only sound you get is what the speaker is saying into the system - no echoes, no people sneezing or coughing. That's what makes it so good," she says.
The Clarks say they became aware of hearing loops from a hearing-impaired friend. He gained experience with the devices while visiting a cathedral in Scotland. The loops have been used in Europe for 20 to 30 years, the Clarks say, but are just beginning to be known in the United States.
The couple are trying to change that, at least in Fort Wayne. They've contacted the mayor's office and had open houses at First Presbyterian to educate church and community leaders about installing the loops, calling their initiative "Loop Fort Wayne."
"Many communities around the country are doing it, and Fort Wayne would be the first in Indiana," Ginny Clark says, adding that two churches in southern Indiana are looped, as is the South Bend airport.
Sites in Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and ticket windows in New York City's subway system are looped, she says, and installing the systems nationwide has been a major initiative of Sertoma (Service to Mankind) clubs since 2010.
At First Presbyterian, the sanctuary is not the only place to have a hearing loop - its theater, chapel and McKay Hall gathering space all have loops, with signs notifying hearing-aid wearers to switch on their T-coils.
Bill Patterson, the church's facilities director, says the system replaces earlier devices.
"What we used to have, you plugged it into the pew and it had a telescopic wand and you put a little round hearing assistance (receiver) up to your ear .You had to be plugged in and that meant you were tethered to a pew," he explains, adding the church also has used a system requiring headphones.
"Now it's one step further. It goes right into your hearing aid," he says.
Will Clark says the entire system cost about $22,000, with money coming from a fund for capital improvements. An average-sized sanctuary could probably be looped for $5,000 to $6,000, he says.
He estimates 50 to 60 people who attend the church's Sunday services benefit from the loops.
Clark says there are American and German manufacturers of the systems and installers locally and in Michigan. He says the systems also can be placed in homes; he and his wife had a $500 loop installed in their family room so Ginny could watch television without subtitles.
Ginny Clark says the systems will help those constructing or remodeling buildings comply with new requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act at a lower cost than other systems, and she looks forward to the day when she can go virtually anywhere and not miss a thing.
"Hearing aids don't cut out the reverberations and other sounds that happen in a big room, so most of us have a much more difficult time hearing in that situation than we do in a small room with just a few people," she says.
"This is a slowly growing movement in pockets around the country, but I think you will be seeing it more."
Information from: The Journal Gazette, http://www.journalgazette.net