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American Sign Language: "Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Deaf"
By Alyssa Potter
Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Deaf
Religion has been a part of human culture since the dawn of civilization and nearly all cultures to ever exist have shared in it in some way. Religion is something that shapes and forms people's lives and personalities. It has influenced governments in good and bad ways throughout history. However, there is a group of people who that is not being reached with religion, more specifically Christianity*: These who are Deaf or hard of hearing. These people are often very misunderstood in mainstream culture. For many years the Deaf were regarded as the "deaf and dumb". In reality the Deaf just interact in a different way with the world than hearing people do ,and it is not inferior to the way hearing people interact with the world. This fact is slowly being realized in hearing culture. As a result there are more resources for the Deaf to learn and lead the happy, successful lives they deserve. Yet these people are still being left out of an integral part of many societies. Only two percent of Deaf people are Christians (Entinger, 2014). Why are the Deaf being left out? What is being done to help the Deaf learn abut God, his word, and his son?
Why are the Deaf being left out of Christianity?
There a number of barriers between the Deaf and religion today. To start with, the Deaf do not have a long history of being involved in Christianity. This is because for a long time it was believed that people who could not hear could not learn (Sign, 2013). No one was going to try to educate the Deaf in anything, let alone the complex ideas of a creator and faith. It was also believed that the Deaf were mentally insane or that they or their parents were being cursed by God (Sign 2013). No one was going to try to teach a person who was (supposedly) cursed by God. Nearly all of society accepted these ideas up until the 1500's when attempts were beginning to be made to educate the Deaf (Sign 2013).
There have since been institutions established to educate the Deaf and ASL has been recognized as an official language. In the twenty-first century deafness is understood medically and people know it is not a curse from God. Yet, the Deaf are still being left out of Christianity. This occurs for a number of reasons. One of the largest is that when the Deaf go to a place of worship there are often no interpreters provided. The Deaf are able to understand only what they see. One source explains that "[a Deaf person's] impression from the church, while growing up, was that the preacher's main job was to make money from church" (Entinger 2014). The reason for this was that the Deaf person could not understand the words being spoken or sung, but only what he saw. This was the plate being passed around to collect donations and the preacher being very happy when he received it.
A third reason the Deaf are being left out of Christianity is that even if there is someone hearing who knows sign language or even a Deaf person that wants to teach others about God, there are many challenges. Deaf people are scattered across the globe. It certainly is not a traditional ministry. For example "it would not be like having a Chinese ministry and going to China to reach Chinese people" (Entinger, 201,). You also cannot identify a Deaf person by their name as you would be able to do with many groups of people who speak different world languages. Even once one found a Deaf person it would be hard to teach them the way you would a hearing person ,because English is often a second language and is not understood as well. It would be like going to China to teach Chinese people but then still speaking to them in English. It would make a lot more sense to speak to them in Chinese. Therefore to reach Deaf people in a ministry teachers should use ASL or the sign language the Deaf person uses.
Who are Jehovah's Witnesses?
Many have heard of the religious group who call themselves Jehovah's Witnesses ,but do not know who they are, what they believe or where their name comes from. The official website of Jehovah's witnesses says that
Above all, we want to honor Jehovah, the God of the Bible and the Creator of all things. We do our best to imitate Jesus Christ and are proud to be called Christians. Each of us regularly spends time helping people learn about the Bible and God's Kingdom. Because we witness, or talk, about Jehovah God and his Kingdom, we are known as Jehovah's Witnesses (Watchtower, 2016b).
They believe that Jehovah is the name of God as revealed in the Bible. Jehovah's Witnesses try their best to live by the standards set forth in the Bible and to remain morally clean in all of their conduct. They also follow Jesus' command to preach because it is "...fine and acceptable in the sight of our Savior, God, whose will is that all sorts of people should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth" (1 Timothy 2:3,4).
What is being done by Jehovah's Witnesses to teach the Deaf about God?
To witness to the Deaf about God, Jehovah's Witnesses must first find the Deaf. As mentioned this can be hard to do as the Deaf cannot be identified by their names like people who speak other languages can. One way Jehovah's Witness find Deaf people is by asking their friends, family, and neighbors if they know anyone who is Deaf. Another way is by going to places where the Deaf may socialize together or places where Deaf people can go in the community to find resources.. A third way Witnesses reach out to the Deaf is by leaving sign language DVD's with businesses to give to any Deaf customers who may come in (Watchtower, 2012).
As Jehovah's Witnesses believe everyone should be able to benefit from God's word in their mother tongue, their website can be translated into ASL and 84 other sign languages. Publications can then be viewed in video format. They also have an app that can be downloaded. On the app Deaf people can download and view the entire Bible in ASL. The app also includes publications for their ministry, publications studied at meetings, and videos for children and teenagers.
In addition to these publications, Jehovah's Witnesses have congregations that have been organized and conduct meetings in entirely sign language. Korean Sign Language was the first Sign Language to have its own meetings. There are now over four thousand sign language congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide (Watchtower, 2016a). They also conduct assemblies and conventions and exclusively in Sign
Language for the benefit of the Deaf.
*Although the Deaf are excluded from other religions this paper will discuss just Christianity for simplicity purposes.
[Article submitted 5/23/2016]
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