What About the Deaf?
by Sue Thomas÷ as told to John Hohmann
Deaf people. In the United States alone there are 21 million of them. In India, over 50 million. Worldwide, over 250 million, and quite possibly, if India and the United States are any indication, more than 400 million ÷somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of the world's population. Deaf people make up a large enough population that if they were to band together and form their own country, theirs would be third largest in the world behind China and India.
Imagine walking down the street one day and passing a store window. Inside, you see a group of people laughing and talking. You don't know what they're talking about or what is being said, but they look like they are having a good time, so you go in. The moment you open the door and walk through, you are able to join the conversation. You can understand what is being said. To a deaf person, there are no doors. He will always be on the outside looking in. He is alienated from the world.
I am deaf. I'm also a skilled lip-reader. I worked for awhile for the FBI as a professional lip-reader. Skilled as I am, however, I am often left out. My First Sunday in Los Angeles I went to church. When the pastor started speaking, I immediately realized I was in trouble. He did not enunciate clearly and, worse, he quoted extensively from his notes, so he was always looking down. Every time he looked down, I was lost. I couldn't read his lips. I had to give up trying to understand. I missed too much of the sermon to make any sense of it.
If you were to speak to me, depending upon your articulation, I might be able to read your lips and understand what you are saying. If four or five others join the conversation, however, I will soon be lost. I can only watch one person at a time. When he stops speaking, I know someone else is going to start, but I have no idea who that will be. It takes me a moment to Find the next speaker. By the time I discover who he is and am able to focus on his mouth to figure out what he is saying, I have missed a chunk of the conversation÷at least a few words, and possibly a sentence or more. When that person stops speaking, my scramble to catch the next portion of the conversation starts all over again.
That's my situation. Though I can usually keep up in a one-on-one situation, when I get in a group, I am always alienated. Being alienated, I often fight feelings of bitterness, frustration, and despair. I always fight loneliness.
Helen Keller once said that blindness separates an individual from things and objects; deafness separates an individual from people. It is this very alienation, however, that makes me believe that the deaf, out of all the people in the world, may be the most open to the Gospel. They are waiting for something that they can cling to, something to take away their alienation. I believe that "something" is Jesus Christ.
Sadly, the very thing that alienates deaf people from others is also what keeps them from knowing Jesus. In America, as long as you can hear, you have the opportunity to hear the gospel÷every second of your life, if you choose to. You have radio and television. You have the "big hearing aid"÷the Walkman-style tape players. You can mow your lawn, run a marathon, do whatever you want, and still listen to the gospel. As long as you have an ear to hear, you can hear the gospel÷no matter what situation you may be in or what other handicap you have. You can turn it on. You can even turn it off.
Deaf people, however, can't turn the gospel on or off. They don't know enough even to want to turn it on or off. And unless the church, which represents the hearing people, takes it to them, stands in front of them, and presents it to them so they can see it, they'll never have the opportunity.
Many people have challenged me saying, "But I know of some churches with ministries to the deaf."
Yes. There are churches with ministries to the deaf. But despite all their good intentions and their good attempts to break through the barriers, all of these churches and all of these ministries speak foreign languages and utilize cultural forms that deaf people can't readily understand. They are not indigenous to the deaf community.
English, French, German, Italian÷all spoken languages÷are foreign to a deaf person. A word-for-word, signed interpretation of any spoken language is as foreign to most deaf people as a transliteration of the Greek New Testament is to most English speakers. There has to be a complete, new translation of spoken messages if deaf people are to understand. A word-for-word signed interpretation is not enough.
"But I know deaf people who are very pleased that we offer signed interpretation of our pastor's sermons," people say.
Yes. And I know some English-speakers who are glad they can read the Greek New Testament. That doesn't mean we should demand that all English-speakers read the Greek New Testament before we allow them to hear the gospel.
Consider if the average deaf person were able to get as much out of a signed interpretation of a sermon as the average hearing person is able to get out of the spoken sermon itself, then congregations with ministries to the deaf should be composed of at least eight to 10 percent deaf people. Since deaf ministries are so rare, we should actually expect that the proportion of deaf people in congregations with signed interpretation would be much higher than the proportion of deaf people in the American population as a whole.
The fact is, deaf people aren't going to church. They are not being reached with the Gospel. In Broward County, Florida, where D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Presbyterian church is located, there are 21,000 deaf people. In that entire county, no more than 100 deaf people attend church. In John MacArthur's 8,000-member Grace Community Church, a congregation with a specific ministry to deaf people, regular attendance among the deaf amounts to no more than 20.
Those are ministries here in the United States, a country that is saturated with Christian teaching, and a country with one of the most highly-educated deaf populations in the world. In other countries it's worse. Something isn't working. It seems that signing is not as effective as it should be. Operation SOUND is seeking a better way. Not just a way, but the best way.
When I was in Florida recently, I spoke with Dr. Kennedy at Coral Ridge. He asked me why scripture portions and tracts couldn't do the job. "Can't deaf people read?" he asked. No, on the average, deaf people can't read. Even here in the United States, the average deaf person has the reading skill of about the fourth grade. And, as with signing, in other countries it's much worse.
Consider the barriers a deaf person must overcome if he is to learn to read. When I was being taught to read, I was told there are vowels and consonants. All I had to do was "sound out" the letters in order to make words. Then I'd be able to read the text in front of me. Imagine a deaf person "sounding out" words and letters he's never heard!
If the deaf are ever going to "hear" the Good News, missionaries will have to overcome basic language problems. Deaf people in most cultures have no communication skills whatsoever; they don't even have sign language. Part of the reason is that in many places they're not even considered human. In many parts of the world deaf people are treated as demon-possessed; elsewhere they are thought to be mindless. "Deaf and dumb" is an appropriate description. Ours is one of the few societies in which deaf people are not social outcasts in every sense of the word.
Before they can preach the gospel, missionaries to the deaf will have to break through social barriers far worse than those encountered by almost any hearing person. Not only that, but they will have to create whole new language systems. I believe that this task÷reaching the deaf÷is by far the most difficult the church has ever faced.
It's 1987. The job is not done. Actually, it has hardly even been started. We have not seriously begun to seek the deaf in order to find them so we can tell them the Good News!
Today, in 1987, there is not one major mission group that is recruiting or sending missionaries to the deaf. There are a few small agencies focused on ministry to the deaf. Most of them are young. None have more than a dozen people at most on their staffs. Certainly, none of the agencies that have been around for 100 years; none of the agencies with a hundred missionaries on the field; none of the agencies with budgets in the million-dollar range are sending missionaries to the deaf.
Imagine! A population greater than that of the United States or the Soviet Union, and virtually no one is sending missionaries to them; no one is even targeting them!
That's where Operation SOUND comes in. Our puipose is to help churches and mission boards focus an appropriate amount of attention on the needs of the deaf.
If the deaf make up almost 10 percent of the world's population, doesn't it make sense that about 10 percent of mission giving should be devoted to reaching them? That would be $100 million annually, and some 8,000 missionaries worldwide. Since the deaf can be found in virtually every people group, doesn't it make sense that every mission team should devote at least a portion of its time and effort to the needs of the deaf?
Worldwide, deaf people have needs that are unique yet common. It seems reasonable that each major mission might begin a deaf division to focus on reaching the deaf. Operation SOUND is devoted to seeing this happen.
I pray constantly that the church will begin to understand its responsibilities toward the deaf. You who are working with Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists÷remember that there are deaf in every one of these groups.
If you know that you are going, or you know someone else who is going, start spreading the word. Ask: What about the deaf?
"to establish a research and strategy department to mobilize and equip missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission among the deaf.
To help meet the spiritual, mental, and physical needs of the deaf and thus break the barriers created by the inability to hear sounds÷-the sound barrier.
Goals for the next year
1. Collect information concerning existing deaf programs within the structure of the church.
4. Develop strategies, based on the data we have collected, to mobilize qualified missionaries to reach the deaf worldwide.