By Tonja Talley
My dad pulled my cousin from his bedroom window kicking and screaming as he tried to escape. His hands moved so fast even his mother couldn’t understand him. When my seven-year-old deaf cousin settled down, he said with his hands, “I don’t want to go to church.” Then he signed the word prison. He continued, “I don’t understand what the minister says. He moves around too much, and I can’t read his lips. The Bible is too hard to read. Mom, can you help me? I feel trapped.”
Leading the Way
That happened in 1967. Even though the Great Commission applies to all people, Christians are a minority among deaf people in America.
As www.storyrunners.com states, “When you consider the fact that deaf people use . . . American Sign Language (ASL) to tell each other stories in an artistic and flowing fashion, it only makes sense to use Bible [storytelling] as a strategic way to evangelize [and] disciple.”
With deaf Christians leading the way, Indianapolis area churches are coming alongside the deaf to support their efforts. Children and adults alike are grasping what those in the 1960s did not—the living water.
Teach Your Children Well
“Ninety-five percent of the 1.5 million deaf children in the nation are born to hearing parents, and only 10 percent of these parents will ever learn ASL,” said Marshall Lawrence, who founded Silent Blessings Ministries near Indianapolis in 1996 after realizing his 18-month-old daughter Rachel was deaf.
In partnership with Deaf Missions in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Deaf Video Communications in Chicago, Illinois, Silent Blessings began production of Dr. Wonder’s Workshop, a television program shown on such stations as TBN and Daystar. This upbeat, educational show revolves around a weekly Christian theme. “Drawing children in with animation, songs, and skits, each script imparts Bible and object lessons performed in ASL by a deaf cast. It also includes a full audio track with music, sound effects, and voice-overs in English, and captioning in English and Spanish. Seasons one through three are currently available on DVD as well,” said Lawrence.
”The Silent Blessings tapes have been a great tool and blessing to our children’s ministry,” stated Ron Neal of Creekside Ministries in Fishers, Indiana. “All the children learn about God together.”
A “Thank You, Jesus!” Moment
Ministries like these give adults the freedom to attend a variety of churches. “Because my husband and I are deaf, we need a church with an interpreter, while our hearing teens want their own hearing church activities,” said one mother. Crystal Beasley said, “I like going to a deaf church with a deaf minister. That way if I have a problem or question, I can immediately reach out to our minister who speaks my language.”
“The sermon structure is a little different in an all-deaf service; the sermon can be interrupted or stopped at any time,” said James Wines, deaf ministry minister at Southport Heights Christian Church in Indianapolis. “If a person is struggling with something, I draw a picture using an everyday example until everyone understands.”
Cheryl Latkowski, along with her husband, David, pioneered the way for a deaf ministry at Mount Pleasant Christian Church (MPCC) near Indianapolis. “I am so thankful the church gave us permission to establish a deaf ministry. Deaf believers grow spiritually when you provide interpreted services, in-home Bible studies with fellow deaf people, shared prayer, and laughter. Seeing my deaf and hearing friends being lifted up during one of minister Chris Philbeck’s sermons gives me a ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ moment!”
Encouraging One Another
Activities abound in many churches with deaf ministries, including Bible studies, Communion assistance, greeting, VBS assistance, weekend camping hikes, and bowling and baseball leagues.
“Sign language classes motivate students to learn our language. Not many deaf people have a relationship with Jesus Christ. With more people learning sign language, perhaps we can encourage more deaf people to follow Jesus,” said MPCC member Dan Kelly.
These deaf ministries seek to put Hebrews 10:24, 25 into practice: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Each month churches rotate as the host congregation for a potluck dinner, encouraging deaf participants to bring their non-Christian friends.
“Steve Dye, who serves with the deaf ministry at Southeast Christian Church and as a sign and music artist in Louisville, led one of the potluck programs, 212 Jam, by energetically signing several songs, punctuated by his bittersweet Christian testimony. I was touched and blessed by hearing it,” added MPCC administrative assis-tant for the deaf ministry, Lynn Albin.
After an MPCC sermon series about prayer, Dan Kelly coordinated an inaugural “Day of Prayer” celebrating Jesus Christ and his example of prayer. The group ended their service with Dye leading them in “Amazing Grace.” At the end of the song, more than 60 attendees followed Dye to their knees. As they raised their heads, the members in one flowing movement placed a hand on their wrists and then sent their hands heavenward, indicating they had been freed from their chains.
Tonja Talley is a freelance writer in Greenwood, Indiana.
Each deaf ministry includes hearing and deaf followers—all with testimonies about how God rescued them from isolation and placed them in a church family.
“My six-year-old daughter would not participate in our ASL family prayer—until she watched a young boy signing his prayers on a Silent Blessing DVD. My little girl ran to me signing, ‘Mommy, Jesus knows sign language!’” Her little girl thought Jesus wouldn’t understand her.
—Marshall Lawrence, founder of Silent Blessings
“I have been spiritually blessed by the depth of commitment to Christ I continue to witness in our deaf congregation. It’s the first ministry where Christians ask for the sermon in print to share with their friends. This deaf ministry is not simply a ministry for the deaf; it is a deaf-led ministry. The people in this ministry, and the opportunity to serve them, are among the greatest joys of my life.”
—Brenda Walde, MPCC interpreter, Greenwood, Indiana
“I stopped going to church as a child. Looking back I can see that God placed different events in my life to return me to Jesus’ arms. God placed a burden on my heart to serve the deaf. Now as a member, I teach Bible studies for those needing sign language.”
—Randy Brake, deaf minister of East 91st Street Christian Church, Fishers, Indiana
Examples and Resources
Silent Blessings | www.silentblessings.org
Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church
Ministry to the Blind
First Lutheran Church of Boston has an extensive ministry that brings fellowship and education to people with visual impairments in Boston and around the world.
Association of Christian Ministries to the Blind
Your Church and Visually Impaired People
Reaching the Less Able
First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio has a vibrant ministry for children and adults with developmental disabilities, including uniquely structured Sunday school classes, fellowship dinners, and holiday programs.
Southland Christian Church hosts a Jesus Prom for physically and mentally challenged adults.
Don’t Forget Those in Nursing Homes
Faithful Friends Nursing Home Ministry
God Cares Ministry