Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ministry among Deaf

I'm back from Kenya. (I got back Monday evening.) A whirlwind tour.

Maybe someday I will talk about the transportation. (It took from Tuesday afternoon Denver time till Thursday mid-morning Nairobi time [about 33 hours] for me to get there; and then from Sunday evening Nairobi time till Monday evening Denver time [about 32 hours] to get home.)

But I'd like to talk about what I saw and learned among the deaf people in Nairobi. But/and before I do that, I want you to understand some of what I was told about where the worldwide deaf community was just 13 years ago, when DOOR (Deaf Opportunity OutReach; first came into being. You need to understand these things in order to appreciate how dramatic the things were that I observed last Saturday and Sunday.

Thirteen years ago, if I understood what I was told (and if DOOR is to be believed),
  • There was no Bible in any Deaf (i.e., sign) language.
  • There was no Deaf fellowship anywhere in the world in which Deaf community members led their own worship, preached their own sermons, and/or taught their own Bible lessons.
  • There were no Deaf worship songs.
Please don't misunderstand what I am (or DOOR is) saying.
  • Historically, there have been quite a number of Christian churches with Deaf ministries. . . . But think how they have been organized.
    • They have been led by hearing people, not by any Deaf people themselves.
    • The (hearing) leaders generally view the people to whom they seek to minister—i.e., Deaf people—as handicapped.
    • The (hearing) leaders rarely (if ever?) enjoyed any kind of deep understanding of or knowledge about Deaf culture.
    • Deaf churchgoers themselves had little opportunity to develop forms of worship that reflected their own culture and experience.
    • Moreover Deaf churchgoers have been frustrated by
      • poor interpreting,
      • lack of access to the Bible in sign language,
      • lack of support services, and
      • a severe lack of Deaf people with whom to fellowship.
Now, if you're like me, you may feel that some of these “charges” are rather unfair—almost “fighting words.” I mean, they are so harsh, aren't they, against so many well-meaning and hard-working people who have tried to reach out to the (relatively very few) Deaf people around them. Wouldn't you say?

The whole notion of Deafness, for example, not being a handicap: Isn't that crazy? It’s like blindness, isn't it? It limits a person’s opportunities. It’s a limitation—and handicap upon the person’s abilities.

Look at the statistics. (Again, I'm relying on some of the things I heard while in Nairobi.) Deaf people are overwhelmingly un- or, at least, underemployed. How about numbers like 50% unemployed (minimum) to (more realistic/likely/common) numbers like 80% to 90% unemployed (generally "three times higher than the national average in the developing world" according to the book A Journey into the Deaf-World by Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister and Ben Bahan)?

If that kind of unemployment doesn't indicate handicap, I don't know what does!

But, as one of the leaders of the 1988 Gallaudet Revolution told a reporter for USA Today, "Hearing people sometimes call us handicapped. But most—maybe all Deaf people—feel that we're more of an ethnic group because we speak a different language. . . We also have our own culture. . . There's more of an ethnic difference than a handicap difference between us and hearing people."

And so, as one DOOR publication explains, "The members of the Deaf-World see themselves not as people with a disability, but as members of a language minority whose native language happens to be a signed language."

Really? Can such a thing be?

Well, consider. According to A Journey into the Deaf-World:
  • Unlike expectant mothers with disabilities, expectant Deaf parents, like those of any other language minority, commonly hope to have children just like themselves, with whom they can share their language, culture and unique experiences. That is why they hope to have Deaf children. (!!! –Emphasis added. –JAH)
  • Whenever two Deaf people meet, it seems that Sign Language develops naturally . . . which is one reason most observers believe that the Deaf culture is one that can never be totally assimilated or eradicated. Sign Language will never die out.
  • Members of the Deaf-World commonly refer to themselves as the Deaf, in conversation and in the names of their organizations. It seems right to speak of the Deaf as we speak of the French or the British. Notice that by speaking in this manner, we are not implying that all culturally Deaf people or French people are alike. Rather, we are merely noting that they have certain defining characteristic in common.
Okay. Enough propagandizing!

What I have just told you gives you some idea of "how things were" not that many years ago. --And due to some conversations with my host and as a result of some reading he had me do before I arrived in Nairobi, I was relatively aware of much of what I have just said as I walked into the Bethel Sanctuary of the Nairobi Baptist Church last Saturday afternoon for the dedication of the first 32 Bible stories translated into Kenyan Sign Language and reproduced on DVD. (NOTE: Next Saturday, January 30, DOOR is planning to celebrate the translation of the same first 32 stories in the Kerala (India) Sign Language Bible.) [2/10/10 UPDATE: I've now added a brief post about that celebration.]

First thing that "blew me away": There had to be 300 or more Deaf people in the congregation. I had never seen so many Deaf in one place before!

And the service was led by a number of Deaf people.


Rather than being the recipients of hearing people's "ministry," we, the hearing, became the recipients of spoken translations of what the Deaf were saying and singing.

And while we're on that subject, I should probably note: I was told that the wide variety and large number of speakers and singers who led in this service was actually far less than what the Deaf themselves would have enjoyed had they not had so many hearing guests. Only seven dancer/singers leading in worship? Why, that's nothing compared to a normal Deaf service! Normally you might see even 50 people up front!

Something else that blew me away (and, I will confess, not very positively . . . until I had someone explain some of the reason why things were/are the way they are): During the Saturday service, they repeated the same story--the story of Jesus healing the paralytic who was let down through the roof of the house by his four friends-- . . . They repeated that story five times over without a break . . . except to get a different person or group to come up front and re-tell it.

Oh, there was some slight variation in the telling. One time it was told straight by one person. The next telling involved a group more re-enacting it. I don't remember how the telling may have differed the other three times. I just remember thinking, at the time, "How boring! How can they stand this?"

But then, when I asked about it, my sources explained:
  • Remember that the only way the Deaf can master their Bible stories is if they memorize them. Repetition helps solidify their memories.
  • Remember that most hearing people have heard these stories over and over throughout their lives. For many Deaf, this is the first time they have ever heard the story.
  • The details of a story are very important for the Deaf—more important than for hearing people.
  • Normally, in a Deaf service, there is actually much more interaction. Members of the "audience" or "congregation" will ask questions. The leader may say, "The men came to the house." And someone in the audience will ask, "Why?" And there will be a great give-and-take between story-teller and story-listeners.
  • The Deaf "talk" (i.e., "sign") for hours on end. Since so few have employment, it is very common to find them staying up all night telling stories and sucking the marrow out of each narrative. They find significance in tiny details that [hearing people] would never think to talk about.
. . . And so forth.

So they repeated the same story five times over.

And their worship songs, by and large, consisted of just a few words repeated endlessly--fifteen times or more per phrase, sometimes, before moving on. And while the monotone interpretation and virtually identical expression drove me to distraction, the Deaf themselves appeared in ecstacy:
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Praise the Lord.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Hallelujah. Jesus.
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord. . . .
I will confess, there was one song they sang--and I attempted to join in singing/signing--on Sunday that I really enjoyed. I think it had to do not only with the meaning, but with the motions:
Higher, higher, higher, higher.
Jesus higher.
Lower lower, lower, lower.
Satan lower. . . .
And on the "highers," we raised our hands progressively higher over our heads, and on the "lowers," we brought our hands down until they almost touched the ground, and then stomped our feet as if smashing Satan into the ground.

I look forward to the day when someone in the Deaf community begins to write significantly more complex and spiritually and intellectually deeper songs.

One note, however: As I tried to debrief on this subject as well, my sources noted that until a few years ago, there were no Deaf songs of any type. And when Mike Buus, president of DOOR, urged the Deaf to write their own songs (rather than attempt to translate standard "hearing" songs into sign language), the Deaf protested: "We can't do that! God can't hear us! He doesn't know our language!"

--It was (and is) the same story missionaries and Bible translators have told many times before: Until the Scriptures are translated into a people's heart language, they figure it is impossible for God to talk with them and impossible for them to talk with God.

But today the Deaf are beginning to enjoy their own hymnody, despite whatever limitations there may be in complexity and depth of understanding or expression.

Some more observations:

"Funny": The fundamental Deaf worship experience involves two things that any upstanding conservative Baptist or fundamentalist Christian church in the United States would likely find appalling. The one and only musical instrument (used for every song): Drums.

(This photo is from the Sunday morning worship at the new DOOR ministry center being constructed on the far outskirts of Nairobi in the Ongata Rongai District, a few hundred yards from the Africa Nazarene University. If you look above, at the second photo in the series illustrating the diversity of deaf leaders, toward the left of the photo, in the background, you'll see the drum set used on Saturday.)

The drum is the only instrument that creates such a sharp physical sensation that the Deaf can feel the vibration through their bodies. I was impressed with how the drum could keep the entire multi-hundred-person congregation in perfect time.

Besides feeling the drumbeat, the members of the congregation themselves often clapped vigorously in time with one another.

But then, secondly, song leaders and congregants, both, could hardly sit still while singing! No sounds emanated from most of their mouths. But their hands and arms and legs and bodies moved in beautiful movement to the beat. Or, to put it succinctly: they danced.

So two fundamental aspects of Deaf worship are drums and dance.

I wonder what kind of reception those behaviors would receive in the average fundamental Baptist church in America! ;-)

Well. I need to bring this post to a close!

Here are a few more, final pictures.

We were in Africa primarily to witness and participate in the dedication of the first 32 stories of the Kenya Sign Language Bible.

During the Saturday service, we were shown some short clips of how the Bible "works": a person signs the story while helpful graphics are displayed in the background (as shown below), or someone explains background information or provides additional explanatory material.

This photo was shot from one of the monitors in the sanctuary on Saturday afternoon.

After listening to explanations and watching samples, it finally came time to pray for, thank God for, and reveal the new translation.

Here Mike Buus (on far right) prays while the translation team and other key support personnel lay their hands on the materials about to be revealed.

The joyful reveal:

Mike explaining why there are not only DVDs, but printed storyboard books, too (to enable users to remind themselves how to retell each story accurately).

One of the deaf members of the translation team leading in a prayer of thanks to God for giving Deaf Kenyans the first Bible in their own heart language:

I'll stop here.

More later.

[NOTE: If you are reading this article on Facebook and can't use links or don't see photos, please realize it originally appeared and is still available on my personal blog.]

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