Pioneers often volunteer to go to a foreign mission field, where they endure great hardship and face many dangers in order to bring the gospel to an unreached people. It may take years for them to learn the language and become accepted in and acclimated to a radically new culture. But in order to fulfill the Great Commission, they gladly make such sacrifices.
Yet worldwide there is a hidden group of people that our church has hardly reached. Passing one of them on the street, or in a store, you would not see a difference. They may have your skin color and look like everyone else; and if you smile to them, they will smile back. But if you stop and speak, you may see a perplexed look come across his or her face. Or you may get a smile and a nod, nothing else. Who are they?
Worldwide there are an estimated 70 million hearing-impaired individuals.1 They have varying degrees of hearing loss, and many can be helped with a hearing aid if it’s fine-tuned to their kind of loss. Some churches provide earphones in front seats for the hearing-impaired, but this “one-kind-fits-all” approach may not be satisfactory. Some instruments work for those whose hearing loss occurred late in life and is not severe, but they will not do for those who were born deaf, or those whose loss is profound and happened later through an illness. These deaf people form distinct subcultures in any country, and they need the gospel too.
Facts about the deaf
Because they may have been snubbed, insulted, taken advantage of, or just plain ignored, most profoundly deaf people have a deep distrust of the hearing population in general and have tended to withdraw into a circle of friends who share their handicap and frustrations. When you bring one deaf person to Christ, you may have opened a door of access to many others, for that person will surely tell friends about his or her newfound faith.
Most churches are eager to use an interpreter for the deaf who might visit their church, but interpreted meetings are a distant second best. For one thing, the pastor usually talks too fast for the interpreter and uses many words that the interpreter cannot translate quickly. It is a rare interpreter who, in the best American Sign Language (ASL), can by facial expressions and body language transmit to the deaf all the feeling and tones of a dynamic preacher. Yet for many of the deaf in our churches, an interpreter is the only answer.
Therefore, the best method for the deaf is a Bible study by someone who knows the language; or even better yet, a church for the deaf, led by a pastor who signs. Because the deaf are visually oriented, they need pictures, displayed texts, and other visual aids. While accepting any signing teacher, they are excited to find one who is deaf as they are. Deaf members who are able and knowledgeable should be encouraged by the church to start Bible studies of their own.
Shortly after Latvia became independent, Kenneth Mittleider held meetings in Riga, Latvia. Among those baptized were about forty deaf people who got the message through an interpreter. Later the interpreter was also baptized. From that beginning, the message has grown among the deaf there, which shows what could happen if more attention were given to deaf people in evangelistic efforts. For these, trained sign language interpreters are needed.
In other countries, deaf groups have sprung up where God guided someone into this ministry. Mission2 carried a story of a deaf young man, Pavel, who turned his disability into an opportunity to preach the gospel to hundreds of hearing-impaired people in Tula, Russia.
Another time, in 1983, I went to Japan to assist in a camp meeting for the deaf that arose through the efforts of a hearing Adventist young attorney, who one day saw deaf people talking in signs. Fascinated, he persuaded one to teach him the language and won that deaf woman to Christ. With true missionary sacrifice, he sold his property and dedicated the proceeds to his new mission field, the deaf of Japan.
Years earlier, in the 1960s, we received in the mail a letter from a deaf Adventist layman in Thanjavur, South India, who was educated in England to be a tailor, and during his life he brought many Indian deaf to Christ. Just before his death, he had the honor of cutting the ribbon to open a church built especially for the deaf in South India. John Blake from the Alberta Conference of Seventh-day Adventists worked with Dorothy Watts in India and lay members in Canada to raise funds for this first Adventist church building for the deaf in Asia, and to our knowledge, in the world. Recently Blake stated that 100 deaf people were baptized when Pastor Jeff Jordan, deaf himself, held a series of evangelistic meetings in South India. Rose Caloroso, a lay worker from the United States, held revival meetings earlier with additional baptisms. This made a total of 150 for the year.
Reaching the deaf
In what ways can our church become the head and not the tail in ministering to deaf people? The young people are a great potential resource. They learn sign language quickly and remember it better than adults. If our own schools would encourage students to learn sign language, there might be many more potential workers for the deaf today, and deaf people would not feel so shut out from the hearing society.
It is not too late. The youth are also needed in a role in which they would excel, such as captioning Adventist videos so that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can profit from them. We have hardly any in our church libraries today. The point is simple. As a church, we can do much more to reach this important segment of our population. It’s great that we send missionaries all over the world to reach various groups. But we mustn’t forget those groups who are right here among us, and that includes the deaf.
Resources for deaf ministries
For anyone who wants to understand deaf people, there’s The Mask of Benevolence3 by Harlan Lane, a distinguished university professor at Northeastern University. This book will give deep insight into the situation deaf people still find them-selves in. The book in paperback can be purchased from <www.dawnsign.com>.
Very few of our ministers have ever investigated this mission field; yet other churches and organizations offer a very large amount of help to the deaf population. See <www.ohsoez.com>. This is just one area.
Moreover, various countries have a nationwide phone relay system that enables anyone to contact a deaf person who is equipped with a TTY (a device like a small typewriter). In this system, the deaf person reads on the screen the message the relay operator types in rapidly as you talk to her. These vary from country to country.
For pastors who are interested in doing something for deaf people, I recommend Edgar D. Lawrence’s book Ministering to the Silent Minority: How to Develop a Church Ministry for the Deaf.4 Though only 92 pages, it has a wealth of information. It may be obtained from: Gospel Publishing House, Springfield, Michigan <www.gospelpublishing.com>. This book exposes the hidden pitfalls to avoid and offers proven methods of building a deaf congregation.
In the United States, the deaf work is centered in Adventist Deaf Ministries (ADM) <www.deafadventist.org> and is directed by a deaf leader, Jim Hovey. ADM is a supporting ministry recognized by the Adventist Church in North America.
2 Charlotte Ishkanian, ed., Mission (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2001).
3 Harlan Lane, The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1992; DawnSignPress, 1999).
4 Edgar D. Lawrence, Ministering to the Silent Minority: How to Develop a Church Ministry for the Deaf (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1978).