When Jesus was in the region of the Decapolis, a deaf man with a speech difficulty was brought to him. After the man’s friends begged Jesus to lay his hand on him, Jesus took the man away from the crowd, put his fingers in the man’s ears, spit and touched the man’s tongue. Jesus looked up to heaven, sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha!” which means, “Be opened!” Immediately his ears were opened and his speech difficulty was removed. The people were astonished and said, “He has done everything well! He even makes deaf people hear, and people unable to speak, talk!” (This event is recorded in Mark 7:31-37.)
Helen Keller was born both blind and deaf and said that of the two conditions, the latter was worse. This is perhaps true because blindness cuts you off from things, whereas deafness cuts you off from people. An individual can live without things; the ability to communicate with people is essential.
When I was a boy, my father was a printer. In those days there were schools for the deaf that would teach the deaf a trade. One trade that was very popular was to become a Linotype operator. There was a deaf operator in the print shop where my father worked and through him, my father learned some sign language.
There was also a barber shop in our neighborhood run by a man named Mr. Roberson. Whenever we would go in for a haircut, my father would always ask how Mr. Roberson’s nephew was doing at the deaf school in Staunton, Virginia, USA. The nephew had become deaf through a childhood illness. I didn’t think much about it at the time and I don’t think I even knew his name. Only the Lord knew that one day this man’s nephew and I would be doing deaf ministry side-by-side.
Simultaneous Ministry through Art
For thirty years I was a chalk artist evangelist and shared the gospel through “Sermons in Art.” The evangelistic crusades were held in local churches where each evening I would present the gospel through a message in art. While I drew the illustration in chalk using ultra-violet ray lighting, the good news would be heard in stereo sound. In churches with a deaf ministry, a video monitor would be placed next to the easel. The message had been prerecorded in sign language. Both the hearing and the deaf received the message simultaneously.
It was through this visual media that a multi-media ministry began which now shares Christ through weekly Sunday School Bible studies in American Sign Language on videocassettes and DVD disks. Sign language is the second largest language group in America and churches today use the lessons on Sunday morning to reach the deaf for Christ and train them in discipleship.
Bible lessons are designed to be twenty minutes and conclude with three questions to get the deaf involved in class discussion. The teacher, Ray Bearden, had two deaf parents. Though he does have hearing, Ray learned sign language before he could talk. After graduating from college and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he pastored deaf ministries in several states. Though Ray now pastors a hearing church, he still has a vital ministry to the deaf through the weekly studies that are used by almost a hundred churches that have deaf ministries. Twice a year Ray comes to the small video studio at Multi-Media Evangelism in Richmond, Virginia, USA to record the Bible studies. Twenty-six lessons are recorded in one day.
Bearden was not the first teacher of the weekly Bible study. They began with Clifford Bruffey, the Baptist chaplain at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C, USA. Bruffey had been deaf from childhood. Because of this, he could identify with others who were deaf and could understand the many difficulties deaf people face everyday. For twenty years he taught the weekly Bible studies. In none of his studies did he speak. George Joslin and Ray were the interpreters for the hearing audience. Off camera they would read the signs and voice them into a microphone as both audio and video were recorded on tape.
One day while Clifford and I were at lunch, he signed that he was going to visit his aunt while he was in Richmond. I asked what her name was and he answered, “Mrs. Roberson.” Could this be the nephew of the barber? I asked if Mr. Roberson ran the Star Barber shop on Cary Street. Clifford said that he did. After years of working together, I found that Clifford was the same nephew I had heard about years ago. The Lord had brought us together to share the good news.
The JESUS Film and Deaf Ministry
The JESUS Film has become a great tool for evangelism, especially for the deaf. An interpreter signs the audio, which is then inserted into the film in a cameo. One of the many languages the film has been translated into is Russian. We were able to go to Moscow, find a dedicated Christian deaf interpreter and videotape them signing the Russian audio into Russian sign language. While there we also worked with a deaf ministry in a church that reached out to deaf schools and clubs. When they saw the JESUS Film in their own Russian sign language, a way was opened for them to know who Christ was and to receive him into their hearts and lives.
The JESUS Film in Russian sign language was so well received that it was reported that the head of all government deaf work in Russia had the video also captioned in Russian. This ministry reaches both those who are hard of hearing and those who are completely deaf.
In Costa Rica we worked with missionaries who were reaching out to the deaf. They needed a video of “Religious Signs,” a presentation which covers important religious symbols in sign language. During the taping we also taped the JESUS Film in the sign language of Costa Rica.
Expansion of Multi-Media Evangelism
During the Amsterdam 1986 World Conference for Itinerant Evangelists, we caught a vision of providing the “Messages in Art” (a ministry that uses art to share the gospel) with people in other countries. We wrote to missionaries and told them that if they would translate the message into their language and record the narratives, then we would dub the language onto the video and send them a master video free of charge to copy and distribute in their mission field. Many did this and to date the “Messages in Art” have been used in twenty-five different languages. Each message is about eighteen to twenty minutes long and is ideal for home meetings, fellowships, worship services and youth meeting. Themes include The Praying Hands, Christ at the Door, the Good Shepherd, Who is Jesus? and The Road to Emmaus. In Spanish the messages are closed-captioned. On a recent evangelistic partnership mission to Odessa, Ukraine, we distributed one hundred DVD copies of three of the “Messages in Art” in Russian.
Video has come a long way over the past thirty years. We started with black and white and later progressed to color. In order to make a quality video, in the past one had to have expensive studio equipment, big cameras and high-powered lights. After a day of recording, the teacher was literally red from the powerful lights. Today, camcorders and digital video offer far better results than could have ever been achieved previously. If a picture is worth a thousand words for hearing people, think of what it means for the deaf!
Helping Others Experience Their Faith
In 1989 we organized a special tour to the Holy Land for the deaf. We videotaped the experience and put it together in a production entitled “Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus.” The video is signed by Clifford Bruffey, Ray Bearden and Liz Bearden. This opened the door for those who could not go to experience a new understanding of the Holy Land through the eyes of other deaf Christians.
“The Life of Christ” and “The Old Testament Bible Stories” have been interpreted by Vesta Souter using flannelgraph. The Life of Christ is ideal for teaching Bible and Sunday School classes to children. It contains four hours (divided into fifty segments total) of Bible stories. One of the keys to effective teaching is the interpreter. Vesta is hearing but she is the daughter of deaf parents and was an art major in college. She and her husband now serve as missionaries to the deaf throughout Europe with the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.
Missionaries in Moscow are also working to reach the deaf. They have been working on a project that will put the scriptures in story form on video in Russian sign language using deaf Russian Christians. With a laptop computer and simple editing programs such as iMovie or Final Cut Pro, the video can be edited simply and effectively.
Training in Deaf Ministry
Interpreters need training in sign language. This is especially true for dedicated interpreters in local churches. Multi-Media Evangelism has put together a video Dictionary (which includes both English and Spanish words listed below the signs) of over 2,800 American Sign Language words. Deaf who come from other countries bring sign language which is different from American Sign Language. Sign language is not universal. There is always much to be learned.
“Conversational Sign Language” is a one-hour course taught by Ray Bearden and is ideal for beginners. It gives the manual alphabet and ninety sentences that are used in everyday conversation.
Isaiah 29:18-19 says, “And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the Book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” Without Christ we are all spiritually deaf to God. Deaf people need the gospel. God opens deaf spiritual ears through total communication for the deaf. Pray that this will be the day that they will hear the words of the Book and will come to know the author.