Do you remember those Verizon commercials with the man in dark framed glasses holding a phone up to his ear? He’d be standing in different locations, asking that same annoying question, “Can you hear me now?” Over and over again. I get it, Verizon. You have lots of really big cell towers that allow for fewer dropped calls. But what if I can’t hear you and what if it has nothing to do with my cell phone carrier?
When I was in high school, I was required to take two years of a foreign language. French, Spanish, and American Sign Language were offered. French seemed too hard, I thought I would never need or use Spanish, so that left American Sign Language. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with the language, the culture and the people! Plus, as a highschooler, it was handy to be able to silently communicate with friends while in class. I’m sure my teachers really loved that. I grew such a passion for the Deaf community, their language and culture, that after college I became an Educational Sign Language Interpreter. But to be honest, before taking a sign language class I had never really noticed any Deaf people. And that is exactly my point...
While it is difficult to track, estimates suggest that between 2-5% of the world’s population is deaf or hard of hearing. And of those 250-300 million people, only 2-7% are estimated to be followers of Christ. That suggests that as many as 98% of deaf people, roughly 240 million, around the world are lost! This is the reason Deaf people are considered to be the least reached people groups in the United States. They are overlooked. Passed by. Excluded. Marginalized. Stereotyped. Labeled. Avoided.
People who are deaf and hard of hearing are not limited to any one ethnicity, economic status, geographic land border, or age group. Deafness is not selective or biased to any specific people group or culture. What does this mean? It means that if we’re thinking about ministry to Deaf people, it should look similar to how we do cross-cultural ministry. Because unless you are Deaf, it IS cross-cultural. We live in a hearing world. It is our job as hearing people to go out of our way, to push out of our comfort zone, and to understand someone else’s culture, language, and perspective.
Remember how earlier I said that I didn’t take Spanish as a foreign language because I thought I would never need it? Well, ironically my husband and I have spent the last five years in Latin America where, you guessed it, they speak Spanish. Living internationally has taught me invaluable lessons in learning a culture that is different from mine. I’ve learned to ask good questions and how to be slow to speak. I’ve learned to adapt to “norms” that are not natural to me. I’ve learned that effective ministry looks different based on culture. I’ve learned to be comfortable as the outsider.
While we were living in Mexico I started taking Mexican Sign Language classes (that’s right, sign language is not universal) because I missed being involved in the Deaf community. I was the only American and the only person taking the class “for pleasure.” Every other student in my class had a child or family member that was deaf or hard of hearing. It was a foreign concept to my fellow classmates that I would be learning Mexican Sign Language based solely on the fact that I am passionate about Deaf people. For everyone else, they were there out of necessity, desperate to communicate with their loved one. This is when the dots connected for me. My passion for the Deaf collided with my missionary heart. Was it possible for me to be a missionary to the Deaf? Could this even be a thing?
My husband and I have decided that our next season of ministry will be pursuing this passion for Deaf people. We are thankful that God has begun to clarify that initiating ministry to the Deaf is what is next for us. We are pioneering into the wide unknown of how we, with Envision and the entire Alliance family, can have a meaningful and impactful presence in the Deaf community for the sake of the gospel.
So what does starting a ministry to the Deaf look like? That is a good question… My answer isn’t complete. I am doing all the research and networking I can to formulate an answer. The answer I do have for you is what I see my role being during this brainstorming and fact-finding season. I want to be a learner. I want to ask good questions. I want to be a patient listener, by being slow to speak and insert my opinions. I want to learn from Deaf people of all ages and different stages of life, what they see as valuable and necessary for a ministry to the Deaf. They are the experts in their own culture and language and I want to learn all that I can from them. Secondly, I want to be an advocate. It’s a hearing man’s world. And it will require us (yes, I am including you) advocating for the needs of Deaf people. We will need to help others become aware of the unmet needs, the cultural differences, and the need for Deaf leaders and pastors in our communities. And finally, I see myself being a unifier. My hope is that as I learn more, I can be a better advocate, which will launch me into a position of unifying our Alliance churches with a vision of reaching the Deaf for Christ.
Maybe you are reading this and, like me a year ago, you are realizing for the first time that your passion for Deaf people and your heart for ministry can work hand-in-hand. Maybe you are reading this and you are now aware that there are many deaf people who lack gospel access. Maybe you are reading this and your heart for the overlooked, oppressed, and unreached has been engaged. We need you, all of you, to join! The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Let’s pioneer this together.
Aleah Nishizaki works as an International Worker with Envision and has served with her husband in both the Dominican Republic and Mexico. She is passionate about empowering and mobilizing the overlooked and undervalued to places of influence and leadership. In her free time Aleah likes to play with her sweet dog, knit and eat as much chips and salsa as she can. And a combination of all three of those things at one time is preferred.