The interesting thing about facts is, no matter who tells them, they remain true. I hereby invite you to catch the vision of reaching deaf people with the gospel, preferably while they’re young enough to be guided and guarded by it.
Once again, a blog article has been bouncing around in my mind, and I’ve come across increased motivation to get it posted. This time, it was being subjected to John Denver’s song ‘Rocky Mountain High’, sung by someone who most certainly is not John Denver. Just as the barista and I were closing our commiseration over covers and trial weeks of American Idol, the rendition took a turn for the worse. It couldn’t end soon enough.
The article I’ve had in mind is another one on perspective – helping hearing people, in the language of the hearing, to empathize with the experience of being Deaf in America. I’m hearing, if my sensitivity to acoustic folk music didn’t clue you in. I speak with Deaf Americans, not for them, in case you don’t know me well enough to be sure.
I know you’ve had experiences similar to the audio assault I addressed in the opening paragraph. Perhaps it was the slandering of your favorite celebrity or some still-budding artist’s impression of a cherished painting. To use a metaphor, it’s like nails on a chalkboard – runs down your spine and commands all your focus not to race for the nearest exit. This, by parallel, is what Deaf people go through when they are subjected to the mangling of their language, American Sign Language (ASL).
It could be the innocent error of signing ‘APOLOGY’ when you mean ‘GRIEF’ for the word ‘sorrow’. It could be the insistence on english-ifying ASL, as though ASL were not a whole and robust language in and of itself. Studies conducted since the 1960’s have verified what the Deaf Community already knew to be true – ASL is a real language with syntax rules and an infinite range of expressive features. As such, it is just as vulnerable to mangling and abuse as any other language people call foreign.
Unfortunately, while some groups were studying ASL to understand its place in the world community of languages, other groups were imposing strange paradigms on it. Imagine, for example, the term ‘butterfly’. You likely see in your mind’s eye a delicate creature resting on a flower or reed with gently moving wings. In one inorganic rendition of sign language, you would refer to that creature as BUTTER + FLY, generating the image of an elongated yellow cube of processed cream soaring through the air. No comparison, none whatsoever, but those are the official hand movements to reference that delicate insect, in that artificially ‘hearing’ version of a visually oriented language. The ASL version, by the way, is a crossing of the thumbs and waving of the fingers in a manner that actually suggests a winged creature with graceful movements.
Many more people, with a strong desire to be helpful and earnest intent to learn ASL, will seek out library books and video tapes. It’s a start, but a false one, fraught with unseen dangers. Take for instance the English word ‘light’… does it mean illumination of tangible objects, an object that illuminates, clear understanding of a concept, the opposite of heavy, or a gentle landing? Each of these definitions may (ok, will) be represented by different hand movements. It may be possible for someone to piece together the understanding, but it most likely will come out like the following:
“Eye knead too meat her at the store two bye sum meet four the party.”
See? Mangled. Manageable, but increasingly painful in large doses. Note that each word is produced correctly, there are no spelling errors, but the concept associated with the words presented does not match the idea that’s apparently being conveyed. It’s rather like listening to someone get all the lyrics right but the arrangement and expression off, to varying degrees of ‘ugh’.
If you are interested in learning sign language, start with your local Deaf community. Seek out community resources that may offer signing classes – perhaps a deaf services organization or a school. It’s ok to take your books and videos along, just remember that they may, for a variety of reasons, be less helpful than you expect. Above all, if your hands don’t know what they’re doing yet, take along a pencil and paper – it’s about communicating, not impressing (or depressing) others. Please also note, if you are met with suspicion, it’s because people may not be sure yet whether you will have respect for the language and community of people that use it. If there was a long history of your language being mangled, you’d be suspicious too.
Jesus loves me, this I know
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong –
they are weak, but He is strong.
Generations of mothers, fathers, babysitters and other caretakers have sung or hummed this song while rocking a small child. Many of us keep it in our ‘top ten’ list of resources by which we comfort ourselves in times of distress or defeat.
What if you had never heard it? What if your child cannot hear you sing it? If you’re among the millions of d/Deaf people, or if you are the parent of a deaf child, you don’t have to reach into your imagination to answer that question.
In the early 1990’s, Marshall and Terry Lawrence were faced with the reality of a deaf child and painfully few resources to tell her this simple truth: Jesus Loves You. Thus began Silent Blessings Deaf Ministries, a group of dedicated people creating resources to reach deaf children with the love of Jesus, most of whom are born to hearing families.
Many well meaning people over the decades have made honest attempts at communicating the gospel, most by signing messages delivered in a hearing church. Their desire is to deliver the message in an accessible way, but the result is too often hand-babble and a helper paradigm that leaves d/Deaf people confused and feeling ‘less than’. An interpreted church service, if there’s no fellowship with the rest of the body of believers, leaves a d/Deaf person feeling as welcome as an eleventh toe. This is why less than 2% of d/Deaf Americans report having a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, and only 4% are associated with a church.
Progress in technology has made it possible to produce and distribute materials from d/Deaf people for d/Deaf people, communicating ideas in their language (ASL) and culture (Deaf/Visual). Several ministries, such as Deaf Missions, DOOR, and Deaf Video Communications have been presenting the gospel, Bible translations, sermons, and other materials to support adults in their Christian walk.
Over the last 15 years, thanks to Silent Blessings and their collaborative partnerships, the pool of resources for deaf children has grown exponentially. The initial hunt for material yielded less than 2 hours of video; now there’s over 26 hours of video available, and feedback of a world-wide impact. Their flagship has been Dr Wonder’s Workshop, a weekly TV variety show with per-episode themes presented in ASL with voice-overs and captioning. Deaf and hearing siblings can all enjoy and benefit from watching, and it can be engaging for adults, too. They are now looking to expand into VBS curriculum and making learning materials available online to reach not only deaf children, but others with conditions such as Autism and a variety of developmental disorders.
A favorite testimony is of a girl who appreciated having her mom sign during family prayer time, at least she could know what others were telling Jesus. She watched one of the children’s videos and saw a boy praying in American Sign Language. Discovering that she could talk to Jesus herself, in her language, changed her life dramatically. She now participates in family prayer time, as much more than an outside observer. She is developing her own relationship with Jesus, which is what each of us must do.
Jesus loves me, and Jesus knows my language. This is the missionary message, and the message that Silent Blessings seeks to deliver to children all over the US, and perhaps the world.
You can help. You can pray, raise awareness within your church and community, seek out resources and make them available in your church or personal library (or community library), extend your welcome to d/Deaf people in your community, and of course, you can donate funds toward the production and distribution of resources. See their website, www.SilentBlessings.org, for more information.
Jesus loves me, He who died
Heaven’s gates to open wide.
He will wash away my sins,
let His little child come in.
“Suffer the little children to come unto Me … for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.” –Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16
Competency in two languages does not an interpreter make.
Now, how do I explain that (quickly, effectively, politely) to sincere opportunists who need communication to take place in two languages, only one of which they know? I’ll start directing them to this article. 🙂 Or, perhaps, to the article in Psychology Today.
I am an opportunist – if I know of a need and the resources are nearby to satisfy it, I will try to put the two together. I’m embarrassed to say that I once asked my aunt to loan me fingernail clippers she had recently purchased as a Christmas gift. The need to deal with a snagged nail outweighed my recall of appropriate in that moment. The good news is, she still loves me and I now keep at least one set of clippers within immediate reach at all times. We all do that – momentarily lose our grip on what is proper to satisfy what is urgent, or seems to be. It’s understandable.
I am conversant in American Sign Language, so I have a measure of bilingual competency. In specific settings, I can help one person understand what another person is saying. In low stakes situations, like “where’s the bathroom”, “what’s the price”, and “how did you become friends”, I can support communication, or, ‘interpret’. The higher the stakes, the less I’m qualified, and it’s a steep correlation. Even professional interpreters have to know their boundaries, such as whether they have enough vocabulary and topical understanding to serve in a hospital or courtroom. One grows into that capability with experience and deliberate study, but there’s more…
A missionary friend once told me that she completely switches modes between English and French – her mind is in one language or the other when in conversation. This, she said, is the secret to fluency, and others have told me the same. I had a crash course in this one day when a native pastor asked me how I was enjoying my visit in his country. We struggled for some time with his simple question, until my friend finally said, “He’s speaking English”. Once I stepped across the linguistic border in my mind to the English side, I understood clearly what the man was asking.
That linguistic border, and the time & effort required to cross it, is what separates interpreters from those with bilingual competency. Interpreters are trained and skilled in minimizing that borderland down to the width of a pasture fence. For others, it might as well be the Berlin Wall, complete with guard stations and three car lengths on either side of the line of demarcation. For me, crossing that border takes a few full strides – I can do it, but there’s too much distance and clutter for me to keep pace with two people who are working in one language each. Again, with experience and deliberate training, the skill can be developed in minds with more agility and less clutter than mine.
There is yet another aspect to interpreting, commonly overlooked. Linguists and sociologists will quickly tell how language and culture are intertwined. There are patterns of thought, concepts, and associated vocabulary that have a “chicken-and-egg” relationship with the culture they are in. For example, there are cultures that hold cows in the highest regard, and would no more think of grilling up a hamburger than we would of boiling our dogs. Elsewhere, my family once heard from a butcher that white dog is premium meat, more tender than dark dogs. A less gruesome example is the Scrabble game I played with a foreign friend, and my attempt to explain “dill” to someone whose whole repertoire of pickles were the sweet varieties.
Beyond reference & vocabulary is the potential for cultural gaffes, which in certain settings could create huge messes. There is a culture somewhere that uses the right hand only for restroom purposes, so offering the right hand as a greeting is actually an insult. Comedy sketches abound where a mispronunciation of a word changes the entire sentence. In ASL, there are signs that mean something different based on the slightest movement or difference of location or angle. See “Horrible Homonyms” for more examples (link pending). One pair is ‘SHY’ vs ‘PROSTITUTE’ – you really don’t want to get that pair crossed.
For these reasons and more, it is somewhere between inappropriate and foolhardy to ask someone to serve as an interpreter on the basis of bilingual competency alone. There will be times and places where a person such as myself can support communication, and other times and places where we must decline. That decision point is a negotiation between the people of each language and the person in the middle. I have friends who, knowing my skills and integrity, will ask me to be helpful, or as in a recent situation, get me out of the hot spot quickly. I appreciate their trust and support, and will not squander it stepping into situations I’m not qualified to handle.
Think of the differences between the following:
— fast food burger-flipper vs top chef
— first aid assistance vs surgical care
— school crossing guard vs police officer
— bilingual competency vs interpreter
Honestly, when I think back on the missionary reports over my years of growing up in the church, I pretty much remember pictures and ‘blah blah…support…blah blah…new school…blah blah…thank you’. Other than the pictures and native songs & artifacts, it ranked right up there with the annual church business meeting for best time to tune out (sorry, Bren). Now, I’ve spent 4 years telling people I’m going to be a missionary to America’s deaf community, I’ve graduated, I’ve taken a major road trip that included a national deaf conference, and it’s past time for a report – inquiring minds want to know (at least, a few do). Now it’s my turn to make ‘blah blah’ sound, well, less ‘blah’.
I have no problem filling half an hour of conversation about the trip, what I’ve learned, who I met, hanging out with Murphy (famous for “if it can go wrong, it will”), and the really cool gospel presentation the Baptists came up with based on the Deaf Olympics souvenir pin from Taiwan. Yet, it still seems that I should have something else to present – something with a “wow” factor to it…something that shows hands down that I’m right where God wants me to be, and all things are falling into place in a way that only He can arrange. I am, and they will, but there’s nothing necessarily impressive to report right now. I can say, again, that God is still good, and we’ve had some interesting conversations, and He’ll do as He has promised in me and among those who haven’t gotten a fair opportunity to meet Him yet.
When I take the time to sit down and write, I’ll tell some neat stories, and a few to make you laugh and/or cringe. In the meantime, we’ll all have to be satisfied with the following:
- I ministered to a family in crisis, and was able to fix a technical problem, thanks to one of my contacts
- I found a deaf church near my family, and learned how one church is encouraging another in a tough situation
- I helped some hearing people understand a little more about deaf life in America
- I encouraged a few people that they were important, and worth the time to stop and adjust my schedule
- I shared an important insight with some people who felt unfairly abused – sometimes knowing another piece of the story can make all the difference
- I made some initial contacts that could grow into great things in the future of deaf ministry
- I shared in celebrating a new home, a new marriage, and (over texts) a new little person
I was able to minister to others in meaningful ways – therefore, I declare the journey a success. I’d like for that to be a valid summation of my life one of these days.
Next on my list, and thus some items you could pray for, are:
- The right job for income, ministry value, and health considerations
- The ‘Faith Stories’ video project, and the friend that’s partnering with me on that
- The Bible Walk-through blog, and the personal Bible studies (and Bible study partners) that go with it
- Monthly camping trips where I can build relationships and perhaps introduce a few people to Jesus
- The next housing arrangement & location (the current one is decided through October)
Thanks so much for your encouragement, prayer support, and your variety of gifts. I’ve received funds, food, shelter, gasoline, and gifts of time & heart that can’t be put on a tally sheet, and I appreciate them all.