By Marlene Butler
Almost all of us have heard the accounts from our missionaries of the wonders and miracles God is performing in foreign nations. We hear of great numbers of people receiving the Holy Ghost and being baptized, and churches being established. But while these capture our attention, in the excitement, we may be missing an opportunity in our own back yard.
In the U.S. we have many different cultures and ethnic groups, but there is one group that many people may not recognize as a distinct culture. This group functions well in our American culture and seems to “blend in” with their environment. However, differences exist. And, although they are often overlooked, their differences must be considered by those reaching out to our communities. I am speaking of the members of the deaf community in America. Not all people with a hearing loss are included in this group. I want to focus specifically on those who identify with and share the culture of a minority that is proud of their heritage.
For the members of the deaf culture, the inability to hear is often viewed as only an inconvenience, and then only when dealing with the hearing members of society. Most hearing individuals see the inability to hear as a flaw, a deviation from the “norm.” Many fee; that we should pray for all deaf people to receive their hearing, as if the inability to hear is a curse. Culturally deaf individuals, however, are quick to point out not all of them want to become hearing. They view their lives as happy and satisfying as they are. Ms. Ann Reifel, an instructor of American Sign Language at the Indiana School for the Deaf (and who is herself a member of the deaf community), has said, “Ministers and religious leaders should recognize minorities as diverse cultures and accept and facilitate these differences, not try to force all people into the same mold.”
In many countries, the thing we may notice first about people is their language (often not English). The same is true of the language used by the deaf community. Many hearing people have been confused about American Sign Language (ASL), thinking it is a form of English. Actually, it is a complete language of its own, as distinct from English as French or Russian. Recent linguistic research has found that ASL has its own rules of structure, syntax and semantics which conform to the language’s use of space, motion, hand shapes and facial grammar. If we are interested in reaching this group of people, we must take the time to learn their language and become fluent in it.
One way to begin this process is to find colleges offering classes in ASL, preferably ones that use deaf instructors, and enroll in them. Some research indicates that it takes approximately eight years to become fluent in a second language. While this is not always the case, we cannot expect people to take one or two “sign language” classes and become fluent in ASL. This does not teach ASL any more than buying an English/German dictionary can teach you German.
Videos are useful tools in learning to understand different styles of ASL, but there is no substitute for actual contact and association with deaf people. Without this knowledge and contact with the deaf community, hearing people will not be able to bridge the cultural gap and share the Gospel.
Interpreters must constantly strive to improve their signing skills and be able to convey the intent of preachers in our services. This requires knowledge of Scripture, the ability to convert King James English into ASL, and the ability to trust God to bless our efforts and touch deaf souls. “The interpreter chair” is not to be a place of self-glory. Neither should it be used as an “attention-getter,” but rather, those who occupy that chair must recognize that they are being used by God to convey His message to His people.
Establishing any new church ministry requires detailed planning. Two books that the pastor may find helpful are American Deaf Culture: An Anthology by Sherman Wilcox and The Mast of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community by Harlan Land. Also, retain your role as pastor to the deaf members of the congregation. This responsibility should not be delegated to lay ministers, as they are often not as qualified to handle deaf members’ personal problems as the pastor is.
And finally, pastors should use interpreters as necessary to work with and encourage deaf members to become ministers and pastors themselves. Missionaries know the value of “Nationals,” people native to their country and culture who become ministers. These people can reach people and areas that no outsider will ever reach. We must encourage the licensed deaf ministers that the UPC already has, and work to increase their numbers by making our Bible Colleges and other facilities accessible to our deaf constituents.
The challenges to reaching the deaf culture are many, but the rewards are great to those who will “press toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God.”