“Now is the time to reach all Deaf people everywhere”
Both in the United States and abroad, Deaf people are an unreached and mostly unengaged population. There are nearly 70 million Deaf people around the world, and nearly 98% of them have never been reached with the gospel. We chatted with Missy, a Converge global worker and member of Converge’s Deaf Ministry team, to learn about her faith journey, the potential impact of the newly-released ASLV Bible and Converge’s ministry to Deaf people.
Missy, as we begin, will you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from, what was your life like growing up and how did you come to know Jesus?
I grew up in Ohio. I am the only Deaf person in my family. Much of the reason that Deaf people have not been reached with the gospel in general is due to a lack of access. More than 90% of Deaf kids are born into hearing families. Some Deaf people like me were raised with the mindset that if they could learn to lip-read, they’d be fine. I did not begin learning sign language until my late teen years and many families, like my own, although sweet and caring, don’t often learn to communicate in Sign Language. One thing you may not realize is the number of things you pick up in life through the sense of sound. For example: I never knew until later in life why my mom would always run to the phone, pick it up and start talking. It finally made sense when I learned that phones made a ringing sound when someone would call and that’s why she hurried to the phone.
My parents even took me to the Catholic Church when I was growing up but without an interpreter, I simply had to watch and try to understand the significance of things like a man hanging on a cross. I had questions like Who was this man, and why a cross? Why is his blood emphasized? Why are certain days like Christmas and Easter more important than others?
It was not until I was 12 years old when I was invited to Camp CHOF (in Ohio, where I grew up) that I was first introduced to John 14 where Jesus said he would prepare a place for us. Mind you, at this point I was still not using Sign Language and there was a group of us Deaf girls attending among hearing kids.
I remember one night, our counselor (my Deaf friend’s mom) pulled me aside and she tried to explain more to me about the gospel, although I didn’t know what she was doing at the time. Each day there was this guy who would stand up in front of all of us kids and talk ― and usually he was quite animated! I didn’t know he was preaching; my frame of reference for that was the Catholic church, of course, and he did not have a robe on when he spoke.
Without an interpreter, I simply had to watch and try to understand the significance of things like a man hanging on a cross. I had questions like Who was this man, and why a cross? Why is his blood emphasized? Why are certain days like Christmas and Easter more important than others?
At the end of the week, my friend’s mom motioned for all of us to stand up, so we did. The crowd started clapping for us and as we were excited people came by to congratulate us. I didn’t know why but I could read some of their lips and they were saying, “I’m happy you’re saved.” I could tell this was an important sentence.
When I got home from camp, I told my mom that they kept saying something about being saved. She was taken back, she didn’t, know how to react to that. I don’t think she could tell me what it was either.
Several weeks later I got something in the mail from the Mailbox Club. I was so excited to see a piece of mail with my name on it. I took it up to my room and began to read it. I realized it was a Bible study. Since I got home from camp, my mom had gotten me a Children’s Bible. It was blue and had an image of Jesus on front along with some children. The bible study took me to Genesis, where I first understood that God spoke and created the world. Later I began to understand that man had sinned and God sacrificed animals to cover them. Each time I completed one of the studies and sent it back, I’d get another one.
This progressed to the point where I got one talking about the real meaning of Christmas. I had seen images of angels and Mary, but not until the mailbox club introduced me to verses announcing Jesus birth did I truly understand. Later I began to study and learn about the reason for Jesus’ birth and what we call Easter ― that he died for my sins!
Bear in mind, I’m bilingual. I can read and write, but just because that is my story that doesn’t mean all Deaf people can read and write well. One of the reasons that I became a missionary was so I can use sign language ― the language that I process and most comfortably use to take in and give out information to tell others about Jesus. There are so many Deaf people out there like me in families that don’t know how to communicate with them, and some who may attend church but don’t know what it is about. It’s vital that we pray for laborers to go out who can tell Deaf people about Jesus ― in their language.
Recently, the ASLV Bible was released. Can you explain how important it is that the entire Bible is now available in American Sign Language?
My own journey is testimony of the fact that for me, it’s incredibly important. Sign language is a visual language with its own grammatical and sentence structures. In some ways it has similarities to Spanish in that we often note the object before any verb or adjective descriptions. Again, for some Deaf people reading English is manageable, but it’s likely similar to a foreigner who learns English as a Second language trying to read the Bible.
Think of the word “wind.” As you read it in a given context, you would know instantly whether it is referring to air that moves or what one might do to a toy car or an antique clock. For Deaf people who read, we don’t always naturally pick up the context. We don’t “hear” the difference in the word in our minds as we read it. The most important reason for us to have the Bible in sign language is because now we know that God desires to speak to us and not through an interpreter or just through the preacher on Sunday morning.
How does this change the way Christians will be able to share the gospel with Deaf people?
First, let me encourage my hearing brothers and sisters in this area. As you pray for the lost around you and around the world, pray Matthew 24:14, which says, “When the good news about the kingdom is preached among all the nations, then the end will come.”
Now is the time for us to reach out to all Deaf people, everywhere. Pray for the Deaf person you work with or the one who lives down the street or who has faithfully been sitting in the chair across the auditorium from you for years. Then, approach that person. I promise, we don’t bite! Waive and smile, and if that’s all you can do ― it will mean more than you know. If you can learn a few signs, even better.
Ask God to give you an opportunity to invest in the life of a Deaf believer or unbeliever in some way. He’ll make a way! The fact that anyone with a smart phone or a computer can access the ASLV (along with portions of scripture in several dozen other Sign Languages, too) is a huge deal. My friends and fellow believers, YOU can, even without knowing one sign share the gospel with a Deaf person by downloading the ASLV Bible on your phone and showing it to the Deaf person you work with, or the one who lives down the street from you.
Do you know approximately how many other sign languages are commonly used around the world? Are there are plans to write Bibles in any of those languages?
There are approximately 400 different sign language people groups comprised of 70 million Deaf people. Of which, 98% of them are unreached.
Some Deaf people groups do have believers and those believers desire to have God’s word in their language, but the problem so often is funding and training in the task. Our dear friends and partners at DOOR are doing amazing work in this arena. They have done Chronological Bible stories in at least 27 sign languages. We praise God for their work, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Missy, you previously helped translate several Old Testament books into ASL. Can you explain the process?
Sure! As time has gone on, the process has certainly gotten easier in some ways. Back in the days when the process of translating the ASLV began, they had to reference printed Commentaries and study tools.
Of the 12-person team I was on, 10 of us were Deaf, so there was only two hearing people. The translation process for us was easier because of software called LOGOS. We had access to an exhaustive library of tools that helped us in our translation work of the final 13 books of the OT that were remaining at the time. I served in the role of consultant, working alongside the senior consultant. Our team was broken down and each team focused on three books over the course of four years.
At certain intervals we would have peer accountability checks and provide feedback. Each team would take that feedback and make edits accordingly. This was not a matter of just highlighting, deleting and replacing text. When edits had to be made, we had to re-film entire sections of Scripture. After several layers of peer and consultant checks and edits, the next step was to take it to the community for a check. We reviewed an average of 140 verses (roughly a month’s worth of work) per community check.
Sometimes we would be encouraged to consider a different sign or sign concept. Although it is called American Sign Language, we have varying accents or signs in different regions, just like English. For example, the word, “soon” has 3-4 different signs depending on where you are in the country. The goal here was to make sure it was something that the Deaf community would engage with and use.
Over time the process of translation has gotten easier, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. We hope to see the New Testament and those Old Testament books that were translated longer ago be revised. The sad reality is that English readers have dozens of versions and revisions of God’s word to choose from while ASL users currently have one verse-by-verse translation. I pray that funding will be allotted for revisions to be completed.
Deaf Missions, a Converge ministry partner, is in the final stages of funding a movie about Jesus’ life that uses ASL. What could the impact of this movie be, and how do you anticipate it being used?
It is going to be amazing. It will be a full feature film that is filmed and produced by Deaf people for Deaf people. You can learn more, and even see the pilot, here. In addition to creating this full feature film in American Sign Language, they are also working on the technology to do what they’re calling “Sign-dubbing.” Just as the Jesus film by Cru has been audio-dubbed into different spoken languages, they are going to be able to dub out/in different signers using various sign languages from around the world to make the film relevant to the different Deaf people groups around the world.
How is Converge playing a leading role in bringing the gospel to Deaf people?
As our team is in the early stages of forming, one of the greatest ways is creating awareness among hearing believers that there areDeaf people out there that need Jesus. With awareness comes responsibility. Jesus himself pointed out the “…distressed and downcast…” (Mt. 9:36, NASB) to his disciples.
Deaf people in some ways are no different than hearing people. We have challenges and frustrations in life. Without Christ, we are hopeless and in sin. The first thing we want to do is to help our churches and believers across the United States see Deaf people for who they are ― in need of Jesus.
The second thing we’re doing is what we see Jesus tell his disciples to do after he sees the crowds. Matthew 9 goes on to say in verses 37-38, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” Just as Jesus instructed, we are calling people to pray. Let’s pray that the Lord himself will send forth laborers into the harvest.
The sad reality is that well-meaning hearing people have oppressed and marginalized Deaf people. We need our hearing brothers and sisters in Christ to realize that Deaf believers are capable of being taught and empowered to also make disciples.
Finally, while our team works toward completing our partnership development, we hope to meet and spend time with each of our Converge global initiative leaders and their teams. We are praying that they, too, will become burdened for seeing the Deaf in their regions come to know Christ. We believe this, in conjunction with the work our friends from other Deaf partner organizations are doing, will allow us to discern where God would have us begin to invest our time and resources in sending Deaf global workers and training National Deaf leaders in gospel multiplication.
We need our hearing brothers and sisters in Christ to realize that Deaf believers are capable of being taught and empowered to also make disciples.
One example where we’re seeing God begin to work is with our 6° Initiative in Togo and Benin, Africa. One of our teammates there has been burdened for the Deaf community for some time and has recently met some Deaf people and begun learning Togolese Sign Language.
Are there parts of the world where you are seeing the growth of a gospel movement among Deaf people groups? Why do you think there is growth there?
This is a complicated question with many facets. There are certainly pockets of Deaf believers in America and in places like Europe where we see some Deaf churches. When compared with the explosive number of believers and discipleship that we’ve seen in history in some places, we haven’t really seen anything like that among the Deaf.
Obviously one reason we haven’t seen it is because Deaf people don’t generally process information the same way hearing people do. They can’t read a tract or turn on the radio and hear the gospel presented. They can’t just stumble into most churches where they can fully understand the gospel being preached (even in the U.S., as I shared in my own story).
The other factor is the reality that all too often, Deaf people are not seen as capable of leading like their hearing counterparts are. In the U.S., the sad reality is that even in churches with Deaf ministries, they’re often placed off to the side of the auditorium and most of the people within the church have never attempted to communicate or even recognize the Deaf person in their midst. Deaf people need to be discipled.
When we think globally, the reality is that although Deaf people are generally capable of work, and many are quite intelligent, they are given menial jobs. When you factor in the reality that in many countries becoming a Christian means being ostracized from your family, this would spell disaster for the Deaf person that could not afford to live on their own. Ultimately it is our belief that Deaf people, just as those trapped in false religions, are held in bondage by Satan and we are praying for breakthroughs.
How can we build partnerships and teams featuring Deaf believes and hearing believers?
Praise God, this has begun to take place! Out of the Finishing the Task Conference in 2019, we have seen the birth of the Deaf Ministry Coalition. Dozens of International organizations and well-known leaders are now asking Deaf leaders what they need and how they can support them in this task.
People like pastor Rick Warren are spending time asking questions of Deaf people, learning their story and praying together for gospel movements to take place in every unreached and unengaged Deaf people group. We need more hearing churches and leaders proactively asking, “What can we do to support you and equip Deaf people to make disciples?”
What does Converge need to do in the future to improve its work of reaching Deaf people with the gospel?
Pray! Ask God to direct you to a Deaf person in your community. Most likely wherever you are, there are Deaf people within reach. Ask God for boldness, don’t be afraid to interact.
The sad reality is that Deaf people are often the last in a community to learn about Jesus. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Deaf people are a part of God’s plan of redemption, so don’t pretend like we don’t exist. Step out in faith. Pray, then do something. If you need help, reach out to our team.
How can people pray specifically for Converge’s ministry to Deaf people?
Pray that Deaf believers will know that God has given them spiritual gifts and that he has good works for them to do (Eph. 2:10). Pray that they will obey the great commission and begin making disciples.
Also, pray for funding for Deaf global workers as God calls and people obey.
Mickey Seward, Contributing writer
Mickey Seward is a freelance writer and editor. He served as Converge's director of communications from 2017-23.