Ignore Not the Deaf
by Tom Hudspeth
“They were completely ignored.”
In my office at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, I listened to the Rev. Willy Banza describe his first impression upon meeting Deaf people in his North Katanga Annual Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I had heard about Willy Banza several years earlier through my work on the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries (UM-DHM), but this was my first face-to-face meeting with him.
In 2003, while a student at Africa University, Banza encountered a mission team from Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Maryland. The team had come to Zimbabwe to serve at Nzeve Centre for the Deaf, which had started a Deaf community organization called Sanganai (“Let’s Meet” in the Shona language).
“When I came to Sanganai, I saw all this signing, which I had never seen before,” Banza told me. “As the interpreters (Carol Stevens and the Rev. Kirk VanGilder of the United States and Libby Foster of Zimbabwe) explained what was being signed, my impression of Deaf people changed completely,” he said. Though Sanganai was located in the city of Mutare, about nine miles from Africa University, it had taken a mission team traveling 8,000 miles to introduce Banza to his Deaf neighbors.
“I was inspired to learn sign language and to find and meet Deaf people in my home country,” Banza said. “And when I returned to Kamina, DRC, my hometown, in July 2005, I found the local Deaf school, Ephphatha.” The school had only two classrooms and the church had no engagement with the Deaf students. “The Deaf were completely ignored,” Banza continued, shaking his head, “and that had to change.”
Becoming an Advocate
With the assistance of Carol Stevens (who now heads Deaf ministry for the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference), Banza obtained two grants from the UM-DHM. With the fi rst, he purchased a motorized bicycle, which he used to find new Deaf students for the school and to build a Deaf church community. This congregation now has 125 members. “That is probably the largest Deaf church in The United Methodist Church!” I told him.
In 2008, Banza, then an ordained elder, secured a second grant for promoting HIV/AIDS prevention among the Deaf and for purchasing equipment for vocational training in woodworking and tailoring. “The Deaf were so grateful for the church’s attention,” Bamba said, “that the woodworking students built a beautiful chair for Bishop Ntambo Nkulu.”
Now in Dallas, Texas, completing his post-graduate studies at Perkins School of Theology, Rev. Banza continues to advocate for the Deaf in North Katanga. “I know there are Deaf in the rural areas who can’t get to Ephphatha,” he said. After his graduation next year, Banza plans to return to the DRC. Today, the Ephphatha School for the Deaf has grown from a primary school with only two classrooms to a K-10 campus with several buildings. “We asked the government to help expand our campus,” Banza said, “and we plan to keep adding additional grade levels until we complete the high school.”
“The church is now an advocate for the Deaf,” he said. “Even parents whose Deaf children are adults believe their children cannot support themselves. I tell them that the Deaf can learn skills enabling them to care for themselves and their families. Writing skills will help them communicate in text on phones. Some can earn an income by establishing internet cafes in their villages.” Currently, seven trained teachers serve the school, and more will be needed to cover the expansion. “The school’s principal is committed to the goal of employing trained Deaf teachers,” Banza told me, “ones able to teach in Congolese sign language.” (Though influenced by American Sign Language, Congolese sign language is becoming more indigenous.)
The wars and the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Congo have had tragic consequences for Deaf women. “I met a young Deaf woman who has eight children resulting from rape,” Banza told me. She had been shunned and banished to an isolated, unprotected hut. “I have talked to the local police,” he said, “to help change their attitudes about Deaf women’s being raped. They need security.”
After interviewing Rev. Banza, my mind traced through the web of connections among United Methodists and other Christians from Baltimore, Zimbabwe, and the DR Congo. Along with faithful givers to UMC offerings, these far-flung people had united in response to a divine call, mixed with righteous ire, to engage with and advocate for Deaf people.
Rev. Banza’s observation that the church in the DRC was “completely ignoring the Deaf” is true in many parts of the world, though there have been attempts to engage the Deaf community in the United States and abroad. In the past, things were different. In 1892, for example, the largest Deaf congregation in the United States met in what is now First United Methodist Church in Chicago, Illinois (the Temple). Led by an ordained Deaf pastor, the Rev. Philip Hasenstab, the Chicago Mission for the Deaf averaged 150 to 200 people in worship. For the next 40 years, this church sent Deaf missionaries—including a Deaf deaconess, Vina Smith—throughout the Midwest and Florida. During the Great Depression, the Deaf sent funds to support the Chefoo School for the Deaf in China. But after Rev. Hasenstab’s death in 1940, there were not enough sufficiently trained Deaf leaders to continue the work—nor did there seem to be supportive hearing leaders in the Methodist connection to advocate training and leadership development among the Deaf. (“Deaf America’s Encounter with Methodism: A Brief Look at a Culture and a Church,” by Kirk VanGilder, in Methodist History 36, July 1998.)
Today, the largest all-Deaf UMC in the United States is Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, established in 1896 by a Deaf man, Daniel Moylan. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Christ Church struggled with declining attendance and a lost sense of mission. A turnabout began when the congregation, led by the Rev. Peggy Johnson (now Bishop Johnson), took Deaf mission teams to Kenya and Zimbabwe in the late 1990s. As a result, new Deaf leaders for Christ Church and for Kenya were identified. And, after Margaret Mukami, a Deaf Kenyan sewing instructor at the Kaaga School for the Deaf, answered a call to ministry, in 2005, she became the first Deaf woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in Kenya.
Today, the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries strives to provide resources and encouragement for new initiatives in ministry and mission with, by, and for the Deaf. The leadership for this 10-member committee was drawn from the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf (UMCD), which was organized in 1977 as a grassroots group of laity and clergy who were in ministry with the Deaf, late-deafened, hard of hearing, or Deaf-Blind. In contrast, the UM-DHM has become the funding and equipping arm of The United Methodist Church’s efforts to engage the Deaf community locally and globally.
August 2013 marked the culmination of a major funding effort by the UM-DHM in Nairobi, Kenya, where the third Global Methodist Missions Conference of the Deaf was held. The event was hosted by the World Federation of Deaf Methodists, sponsored by the Methodist Church in Kenya, and planned by an ecumenical committee chaired by the Rev. Margaret Mukami and Dr. Sam Kabue, General Secretary of the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocates Network of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi. This conference drew 154 Deaf and hearing delegates from 12 countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Kenya.
A week before the conference, a mission team from the United States sent 17 Deaf, hearing, and hard of hearing people to Meru, Kenya, to teach Bible stories to 300 Deaf children, to provide continuing education for the teachers at two Deaf schools, and to bring educational supplies and funding for capital improvements. Two members of that team from Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas had been taught how to sign the Good Samaritan story in Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) by a Deaf Kenyan who is the Deaf ministry intern at Lovers Lane, Paul Aseka. Their witness of signing in KSL was a subtle encouragement to hearing Kenyans, implying that they too could learn the language of their Deaf neighbors. Before Rev. Banza left my office, I told him of my hope that United Methodist churches in the United States would partner with Deaf missions in Africa. The Gospel of Jesus Christ thrives on mission, as the Holy Spirit sends creative synergy—rewarding the giving, sending, and receiving partners with gifts of wonderment and praise.
May we ignore not the Deaf.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas H. Hudspeth is executive pastor and pastor of Deaf Ministries at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. He also serves as consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries, as general secretary for the World Federation of Deaf Methodists, and as a board member of Providence Place in San Antonio, Texas. This article was originally published in the May-June 2014 issue of New World Outlook magazine.
A Deaf tailoring student at Njia Special School, Meru District, Kenya. Photo: Tom Hudspeth
The author, the Rev. Dr. Tom Hudspeth, meets with Deaf young adults before worship at Kaaga Methodist Church, Meru, Kenya. Photo: Courtesy Tom Hudspeth
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