Attending a beginning sign language course as part of the deaf ministry at 38th Avenue Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1979, Howard Burkhart liked his teacher so much he married her.
Because of Tina McMillan (Burkhart) and her attentive pupil, Howard — both students at the University of Southern Mississippi at the time — untold hundreds of the hearing and hearing-impaired from Mississippi to California have not only been taught how to communicate, but how to receive Christ as their Savior.
Today, the Burkharts' ministry — based in Benicia, California, just north of San Francisco — extends far beyond the deaf community, although that remains their first love. Howard, 52, is a church planting strategist in the San Francisco Bay and San Diego areas and a missionary for the North American Mission Board.
The Burkharts recognize that the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering make everything possible. "[These} put missionaries on the field, provide ministry funds, provide Bibles, church planter training, support for new churches, and allow for special projects that are critical. [They are] our lifeblood, our lifeline, and our future," Burhart said.
After they both graduated from Southern Miss and enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the Burkharts became aware of the huge need for pastors and missionaries to work with deaf people.
Howard would later become missionary to the deaf in California, where the Burkharts have lived and ministered for the last twenty-seven years. From 1988-2000, Howard taught classes through Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary for the hearing-impaired so they could learn to be pastors, teachers, and other ministry leaders. It was the first opportunity for deaf people to get seminary education at the diploma level.
"Deafness is its own culture," he said. "It has its own language, its own grammar, its own social structure. Deaf people tend to marry other deaf people." At the same time, Burkhart says today's technology has empowered many deaf people, enabling them to become more part of mainstream society.
Why do the hearing-impaired need special ministries aimed at them and their needs?
"You'd think they could choose from a hundred different churches but they can't. They have to go to a church where there's either a pastor to the deaf or where there's a competent interpreter. And when deaf people need pastoral care, they call the interpreter, so the interpreter often becomes their pastor and advocate," according to Burkhart.
"For hearing-impaired Americans, English is their second language. Sign language is their first language," he said. "For deaf people from other countries, English is their third or fourth language."
And not only does Burkhart work with hearing-impaired Anglos, he also ministers to the deaf in other people groups, such as Hispanics, Asians, and Koreans. It's not commonly known that each nationality has its own unique deaf signing language-for instance, Koreans have their own. So signing is different across different cultures and languages.
Burkhart says one of his "joys" is to return to churches he helped start years ago, and one of his favorites is New Hope Community Church in El Monte, California.
"Going back there and knowing that probably more than fifty deaf people there now have a relationship with Jesus — and many of them are serving and leading in the church — makes for an exciting day," he said.
Burkhart said the deaf ministry at New Hope is very multi-ethnic, with nine or ten countries represented. Out of thirty or so deaf people in attendance, only three or four are Anglo or Caucasian.
"Deafness trumps ethnicity, so if you ask a hearing-impaired Indonesian, they're going to say they are deaf first and Indonesian second."
Steve Lucero, pastor to the deaf at New Hope, is the father of a deaf son, Leo, who pulled him into deaf ministry. "When Leo was born, I asked, 'Well, Lord, why did you give me a deaf son?' It was a big question in my heart and mind."
At the time of Leo's birth, Lucero and his wife, Linda, already had a hearing son. And although Lucero was successfully climbing up the career ladder with Safeway, he would later leave the business world and go into deaf ministry — partly because of Leo and partly because of Howard Burkhart.
"We were going to Howard's night class to learn religious signing," recalled Lucero. "He was very patient as he taught us. He also was an encourager and gave us the confidence we needed to do deaf ministry.
"If it weren't for Howard, we would have been stuck," admitted Lucero. "That was twenty-five years ago, and I still love him dearly and so do the deaf [at New Hope]."
Beyond the hearing-impaired, California — Burkhart's mission field — is home to some thirty-seven million people and if a country, it would be the thirty-fourth largest nation in the world. More than two hundred languages are spoken in the Golden State. About 40 percent of the population speaks another language or are bilingual at home.
"In several cases, California is home to a nation's largest ethnic population outside its home country," he said. "In other cases, we may have more people living here from a country than who actually live back in that country."
Burkhart strategizes and works with other church planters to start churches in the San Francisco and San Diego metro areas trying to reach a number of people groups — Indonesians, Romanians, Mongolians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russians, and Brazilians. He also coordinates and leads ten basic training events a year for sixty California church planting teams.
"Everybody needs Jesus. It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, where you came from, or where you live. Everybody needs Jesus, and it's our job to communicate that in a language they can understand.
"We would ask Southern Baptists to pray for us because we need to identify a Japanese church planter for San Diego and several Vietnamese church planters for ten churches that need to be planted in California. We also need partners for several new churches being planted in the San Francisco Bay area."
Miami-born Howard and Tina — a Jackson, Mississippi, native who grew up in Alabama — are the parents of two children, Nathan and Victoria. Howard also asks Baptists to pray especially for Victoria, only 18, who has been seriously ill with a rare, debilitating neurological disease, leaving her mostly homebound for the last six years.
"I grew up in Miami and if you'd told me growing up that I would be a missionary in California working among the Burmese and Korean, deaf people or the other language groups I work with, I would have said, 'Never in a million years.' But God had a work for me to do and He is completing it in me," said Burkhart.
"It's hard work. It takes people, money, mission teams, and partners. It takes a lot of people to reach a community for Christ."
Mickey Noah is a member of First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, and is a writer with the SBC North American Mission Board.