An open letter to deaf Christians

  • by Rebecca Kelsall
Photos by Guy Gerrard

Sunlight flooded in through the transparent walls of the large open library that day in mid-November. I stared outside at falling snow as I waited for Jordan, a college freshman, to answer my question. He scrawled his answer quickly across the jagged-edged paper he’d torn from a notebook and handed it to me.

He wrote:

I’m the only deaf person in my whole family. I went to mainstream [hearing] schools. My family did learn ASL, but my mom actually learned signs before I was born, which is cool. My family isn’t that great at signing though, so sometimes I feel left out. Same thing in school.

Jordan was kind, open to share his story, loved the Lord and was deaf. He and others I met on his college campus have enriched not only my view of the deaf community, but also my view of the Lord. Although I have spent the months since last November crafting details into several stories on deaf ministry, I have one more left to write: I want to write to my deaf brothers and sisters in Christ. This is for you.

I want to say upfront that I am hearing. I had little knowledge of the deaf before last November when I spent a week with Cru’s partner deaf ministry at the Rochester Institute of Technology / National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The teaching assistant in my third grade class was deaf and taught us the alphabet. That was about the extent of my knowledge. But after spending a week with this group of passionate students, I was gripped in a new way I’m sure you within the deaf community and those who love you understand.

To my present embarrassment, when I first got this assignment I thought, “This makes sense. The gospel is about meeting people in their need, and the deaf have a disability, so deaf ministry is ministering to the disabled.”

This view was quickly shattered.

“It’s not a disability,” one leader of the ministry, Hands of Fire, signed our first night in Rochester. “It’s a language, a community. It’s a culture.”

I started seeing things through the eyes of the deaf community, and it was beautiful. Indeed, you are a culture, a people. You deeply value communication and relationships. You aren’t, from what I saw, glued to phone screens, because you want to look at – to communicate with – each other. You are visually inclined and many of you are excellent artists. The school’s community was humble and welcoming. And, after my week, several were friends.

The deaf are not simply a community that needs ministering to – although, like all communities, they do. They are a unique reflection of God, and they have something to contribute to His Kingdom.

“We need to teach each other how we can serve,” Jeanne Behm, adviser of the Hands of Fire ministry, said. “We need to serve. We are the church.”

You, my deaf brothers and sisters, have a distinct contribution.

The deaf are five times more likely to be abused than their hearing peers; you can care for these people in a way I never can.

Ninety-three percent of your community has no connection to a church; you can share the message of Christ’s death for us with them better than your hearing friends ever could.

Oftentimes, you can relate to people who have experienced loneliness on a level that others wouldn’t understand.

And you show me God’s creativity, kindness and communal nature in a way I can only experience in your culture.

Jordan, on our page of notebook paper, scribbled, Did you ever go on a summer mission?

I wrote that I went on a missions trip to share my faith in San Diego, Calif. two summers back and asked if he was interested in one.

I want to go to South Africa, he wrote. I remember watching a movie about a guy who helped kids in South Africa so I felt I want to do the same. This is an opportunity.

I was humbled by Jordan’s audacious faith, picturing him, as I heard described, enthusiastically writing back and forth on a white board to minister to people across the globe.

Dear friends in the deaf community, be who God has called you to for His glory and you will bless this world.

To hearing readers:

If you have a heart for the deaf community, there are several things you can do to minister to them:

  1. Cru staff and student leaders within the Hands of Fire ministry agree that the best step toward caring for the deaf community is to notice the community and engage with them.

  2. Find resources to share the Gospel in American Sign Language at JesusFilmMedia.org when you search American Sign Language.

  3. Give toward the deaf ministry at RIT/NTID specifying “deaf ministry” in the comment section.

  4. Connect with the deaf ministry at RIT/NTID by visiting their Facebook page.

“Such large numbers of people have been marginalized from the church, not on purpose, but because the hearing just don’t know what to do,” John Iamaio, Cru’s leader of the Rochester area, said. “Realizing that there is a deaf culture, one that needs to be reached with the Gospel, is very important.”