The Hands Reaching the Deaf in Southern California
By Brooke Biddle
The strum of a guitar, the beat of a drum, the chords of a piano, and the plucking of a ukulele, all create music for the ears. Jackson Brown artfully plays each of these instruments by simply feeling their vibrations and through learned music theory, because Jackson Brown is Deaf.
This instrumental prowess is one of many examples of the capabilities of the Deaf, and through many of their lives, Christ is evident.
“God chose me to be Deaf,” Brown says.
Currently a Professor at California Baptist University, where Brown teaches American Sign Language (ASL), he suffered from meningitis twice as an infant. The first episode was viral, and the second was bacterial, causing Brown’s deafness. “The meningitis didn’t work the first time, so I had to get it again. Clearly, God wanted me to be Deaf,” Brown says.
Brown quotes Exodus 4:11 with conviction, “The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’”
According to Larry Vollmar, Pastor of Deaf Ministry at The Grove Community Church in Riverside, out of the approximately 6 million Deaf people in North America, only 2 to 4 percent are Christians. Applying the same 2 to 4 percent ratio to approximately 5,000 Deaf people presently residing in the greater Riverside/San Bernardino area, it comes out to be about 160 – 200 Christians who are Deaf.
Deaf church groups are few and far between. In fact, there are only 10 known Deaf churches in Southern California. The majority of Inland Empire Deaf Christians attend only three ASL based churches, each having its own Pastor who is fluent in ASL. These three widely dispersed Deaf churches, one in Grand Terrace, another in Colton, and the third in southeast Riverside, have their own worship services, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, Bible study groups, and outreach programs.
The minimal amount of Deaf churches poses a great challenge to all other churches to reach the other 98% of the Deaf population with the Gospel.
Vollmar states that Deaf people tend to believe that deafness is not a disability or a handicap; rather, it is the quality that unites Deaf people into a cohesive, vibrant community. Thus, Deaf people prefer to be called “Deaf” rather than “Hearing Impaired”. Deaf people live in a world that is largely made for those people who can hear and speak. Their many responses to these situations may be a result of on-the-spot ingenuity, and this instills pride in them. Many Deaf people are proud to be Deaf and would not want it any other way.
The divide between Hearing communities and Deaf communities often exists due to a lack of understanding. Austin Cary, a Deaf senior liberal studies major at CBU says around, “93% of Deaf kids are born in hearing families.” Austin’s father made his Hearing family members wear earmuffs for a whole day. He said that they would never know what it’s like to be deaf, but this way they could still get a fraction of the experience.
“To be Deaf is to live in a world of silence,” Cary says. But seeing this act of understanding showed how much his dad cared for him.
While family is an influential part in the lives of Deaf individuals, the church plays a large role as well. Deaf individuals may choose to attend Deaf churches or Hearing churches, but either way many have found community in the body of Christ.
Brown currently attends Fellowship in the Pass, a Hearing church in Beaumont.
“Hearing church focuses on making your ears happy, but in Deaf churches you go through the eyes. They have worship, just not in the way you expect it to be. They focus on the preaching and the story, fellowship, critical values, and there is also more time during the week where everyone in the community comes together to have church,” says Brown.
Sarah Willis and Christine Rachuy have enriched the Deaf’s ability to experience Christ. Willis has been Interpreter Coordinator at Harvest Church in Riverside for three years. Rachuy has volunteered as an interpreter at Harvest since 2001 and is a Special Education Aid for kids at Canyon Springs High School. Both Willis and Rachuy have interpreted at the annual Harvest Crusades.
“I struggle with a chronic illness, so when I was finally able to do the Harvest Crusades, I just put it all aside, got up there, and did it,” Rachuy says. Last year she interpreted the rock band, Skillet, and in previous years she interpreted for Third Day, Phil Wickham, and NEEDTOBREATHE.
As a Deaf interpreter, one has to step outside of their comfort zone. “Standing up on the dugout at Harvest Crusades or on stage at church, serving Deaf people and learning from Deaf in foreign countries, in environments that would not come naturally to me, has taught me to have a heart that is willing to serve in every situation for the sake of Deaf people knowing Christ,” Willis says.
Willis now not only serves the Deaf but fell in love with one, who is currently her husband.
“Every time I interpret while a Deaf person makes a decision to follow Christ, a surge of joy comes over me,” Willis says.
However, just as in Hearing churches, the biblical literacy of the congregation has to be taken into consideration. “The Deaf community is at many different levels of biblical literacy. Some Deaf people who come to church have never read one verse in the Bible or heard one Bible story, while others have a firm grasp of the Scriptures. We are a very diverse group when it comes to background information that Hearing people take for granted,” Willis says.
As believers, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and reach the nations with the Gospel. Brown clearly expresses his passion of sharing the gospel.
“I tell my classes to just try, go and approach that person. When God gives an opportunity to share the Gospel, it could be the last time you see that person,” Brown says.
Even as a Deaf person himself, Davis Saavedra says, “I’m still learning how to reach out to Deaf people.”
Saavedra currently attends Riverside Community College (RCC) and serves as the only Deaf usher at Harvest church in Riverside. He knows many Deaf people at RCC and invites them to church.
“I think there was a calling from God for me to become Deaf so I can save people in a different way,” Saavedra says.
The Inland Empire Deaf Christian community is full of capable individuals, and by allowing their stories and lives to be used for the Lord, they are making a difference by reaching the unreached throughout Christ’s kingdom on Earth.
The Deaf Call to Christ