Reaching the Hearts of Deaf Children
Into The Silence
With raised eyebrows, I stared at my computer screen. I had received an e-mail from a distant cousin, informing me that my dad’s uncle had married a woman whose immediate family had founded the Arkansas School for the Deaf in 1867. They had used their home as a dormitory and classrooms. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents..
Why? Because both of my parents are deaf. My father was a student at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, while my mother attended the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Three of their children, myself included, worked at the school in Arkansas. Both of the schools and American Sign Language were a big part of my family’s world.
I worked in the lower dorm in Arkansas, caring for girls between the ages of 9 and 11. I loved my job immensely and my girls even more. Keeping them disciplined, however, was quite a chore. And then there was a breakthrough. One evening, I noticed Rita lying on her bed reading a children’s Bible story book. I asked her if she would like for me to read a story to her. She was elated and quickly turned to her favorite story, “Baby Moses.” As I signed the story, the other girls protested that it was unfair. All children love stories, and Deaf children seem to especially love them. So I made a deal with them. If they were prepared for bed by a certain time, I would tell them a story. Getting them to bed each night was a real challenge. Every step was a struggle. However, that night things went rather smoothly. From that point on, I told them a Bible story each night.
Rita’s mother sent me a thank you note. A devoted Christian, she had prayed earnestly for her daughter away at school. How could Rita be raised to know and love Jesus so far away from home and in a public school? Rita’s mother expressed her joy and relief that God had answered her prayers. This experience reminded me that Deaf children have unique challenges when it comes to learning about God.
Imagine for a moment that you are a Deaf child. Once a week, you groan inwardly as your parents faithfully drag you to church. In the midst of greetings, hugging, and chatting, very few church members take notice of you as you arrive. In fact, they generally don’t take notice of you at all. That is, until you misbehave or make a strange sound. Then they give you scornful looks. Finally in the family pew, you look ahead and wonder what’s being said, by whom, and why everyone is at church in the first place. You follow the cues—kneeling, standing, sitting, and hoping you’re doing the right thing. Unaware of why everyone moves in unison to pray or sing, you’re grateful for at least a little bit of activity. Otherwise, your parents scold you if you wiggle too much.
In a world of silence, there’s little to keep your mind occupied, so you count the gray hairs of the aging lady sitting in front of you. Losing track, you decide to count the stained glass panels behind the pulpit, although the number remains the same from week to week. The minutes seem like an eternity. Is this what eternity in heaven will be like? You wonder if heaven is a place for Deaf children like yourself. After years of this boredom, you plan to break free as soon as you can, never to return.
Church leaders in every denomination wonder what to do about the drastic drop in membership among young people. Sadly, Deaf young people are leaving the church at an even more alarming rate, despite being raised in godly homes. Reaching children whose families do not attend church is another ballgame altogether.
My Deaf mother has no patience with today’s hearing youth who grumble about church being boring. She would roll her eyes and sign, “What do they have to complain about? At least they are aware of what is going on! I’m Deaf and I still go to church!”
“There is a missing generation of Christian Deaf young adults. We stand at the precipice of a completely secularized Deaf culture,” writes Bob Ayres, author of Deaf Diaspora. “They have simply decided that God is a ‘hearing God’ who doesn’t make sense to them.” It’s common for Deaf children to grow up attending church, living in godly homes, and yet knowing little about spiritual things— even simple Bible stories.
One day I met Jackie, a woman in her 70s, at a local Deaf school event. She thanked me profusely for The Deaf Messenger, an evangelistic magazine printed by Three Angels Deaf Ministries. She was especially thankful for the latest issue on the book of Daniel.
“Finally I understand!” she exclaimed. “When I was a little girl, we went over to my aunt’s house after church each Sunday. While everyone was talking, I studied the furnishings and decorations in the living room. There was a particular picture that always puzzled me. I remember wondering, Why is the man wearing a dress? And why is he surrounded by lions and an angel? Now I know!” While I delighted in her discovery, I was sad that her mystery went unsolved for so many years, while the story of Daniel and the lions’ den is one of the most common children’s stories.
One young Adventist lady told me that she had never even heard of the Ten Commandments until she was nearly grown. It had been difficult for her Godfearing family to convey spiritual concepts to her.
In my experience, Deaf people who have turned their backs on God have done so primarily due to their experiences as children. Not only was church a torture chamber for them, but many were put through confusing religious rituals to restore their hearing.
My own grandparents took my mother to a faith healer and gave him a generous donation. When healing didn’t come, my grandfather was told that he did not have enough faith. This news devastated him. He was known as one of the godliest men in his community.
Lalafay, a Deaf friend of mine, was taken to a faith healer. He spoke privately with her ahead of time and asked if she could read lips. She nodded yes. Then he asked her what color his tie was. She spoke her answer, “Red.” When she was called to the front during the meeting, the faith healer prayed and laid hands on her, then asked her the same question, to which she correctly replied, “Red.” The crowd erupted in praise to God for her healing, and she was sent back to her seat, still deaf. She decided then and there that anyone who believed in God was nuts.
As a hearing child, I witnessed firsthand the frustrations my parents experienced in attending church services. Despite the fact that they were Deaf, they took me to a small Adventist church each Sabbath where there were no other Deaf members and no interpreter. I was stricken with guilt that, unlike my parents, at least I could hear the humble plinking on the upright piano and the quavering voices of the elderly women as they raised their voices in praise. I could hear the children’s story and the Scripture reading and the sermon.
One Sabbath, I could stand it no longer, so I stood up at the end of our family pew to interpret the service for my parents. I was only seven years old and very shy. Big words such as “righteousness” and “sanctification” overwhelmed me, but I did my best.
What can you do if a Deaf child is attending your church? The answer is challenging, yet simple. In short, be loving, be creative, be patient, use visual aids, and do your best.
The entire church has a responsibility to reach out to a Deaf child. The parents have enough of a burden in raising the child and need other church members to assist. They shouldn’t be expected to teach and interpret each week. Others need to step in and help. Relationships need to be formed, demonstrating to the child that the church is a family—a body of believers.
Invite families with Deaf children to your home. Spend time playing with them and letting them pet the family dog. Show the child how to do things or how things work. Don’t know how to sign? That’s okay! Most people know how to gesture. Learn ASL and have your Pathfinders earn ASL honors.
Use visual aids in Sabbath school. Get out the flannel board and felts. Use pictures, stuffed animals, fruit, toy boats, anything that relates to the lesson. Consider acting out some of the Bible scenes. Use subtitled children’s Bible videos, such as Gracelink’s kindergarten animations, available on YouTube. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“There is a huge difference between ministry and providing interpreted services,” says Ayers. “Ministry involves relationships and investing one’s life into another person. Providing interpreted worship services is important but is no substitute for authentic Deaf worship and consistent relational ministry.”
I urge you not to miss the opportunity to let a Deaf child know that he or she is a precious treasure to the church, as well as to God. You may be surprised to discover that loving a Deaf child helps you to love God even more.