When they sing the praises of the Lord, Mark and Beth Mitchum may touch the hearts of their hearers even though they can't hear the words of the music they perform. Yet, Mark says, "We're not disabled and we don't have disabilities. We just can't hear. People who are disabled are the ones who aren't willing to understand deaf people. God called us to minister to the deaf people." Which is why the Mitchums began Heartland Ministries as a way to communicate a simple fact: Jesus loves deaf people.
In the past few years God has expanded their ministry to include hearing audiences. Beth, referring to the effects of sin on a life, calls them "people who are crippled on the inside." The couple's sign language-singing is set to recorded tunes by Christian artists such as Steve Green, Babbie Mason and the Gaither Vocal Band. One song, recorded on a 44-minute music video, "Songs Alive in Chicago," asks the hearer to find peace for an "achy-breaky heart" in Jesus Christ.
The Mitchums also market "Music in the Church: Who Needs it?" a one-hour video workshop that introduces deaf music with emphasis on facial expressions, rhythm, and tips for translating English into American Sign Language. And their special brand of deaf music is starting to get national attention. In August of 1994, they performed a song with recording artist Twila Paris at the Christian Music Artists Seminar in Estes Park, Colorado.
Breaking through the silence of the lambs
To become a better pastor, Joe Blalock is learning a second language — and it's not New Testament Greek. Nearly one-quarter of his congregation at Emmanuel Baptist Church in suburban West Springfield, VT, is deaf, and he wants to better minister to them. Quoting from the preface of his sign language book, Blalock reports that 16 million Americans have "a hearing loss of some degree" and two million are considered deaf. This all came home to Blalock last spring when a group of deaf Christians decided to unite with Emmanuel Baptist after their congregation, Springfield Deaf Mission, disbanded.
Blalock calls his venture into the world of the deaf a "cross-cultural" experience that has been changing his ministry style. "It's more than not being able to hear. I'm learning that communications are much more than verbal. A handshake, a smile or a hug communicates where words don't."
He finds the deaf are usually the last to leave the church and at meetings they encourage their pastor to skip the use of an interpreter. Deaf people "have become a very important part of our church," Blalock notes. To deepen their spiritual growth, a deaf homemaker from Jamaica, Linda Maciolek, teaches Henry Blackaby's "Experiencing God" class for the deaf on Wednesday nights.
Despite the communications challenges, Blalock recommends ministry with deaf persons to anyone and everyone. "Anytime we can get out of our comfort zones and across our cultural divides, we are strengthened by those experiences," he concluded.
Where to Get Help
If you want to know more about ministry with deaf, blind, or other disabled persons, contact your Baptist state convention or any of these resources:
SBC Home Mission Board, 800-634-2462
• Working with Disabled Persons (Hope for Hurting Humanity)
• Working with Deaf People (Hope for Hurting Humanity)
SBC Sunday School Board, 800-458-2772
• How Accessible Is Your Church: A Survey to Determine the Openness and Accessibility of Your Church
• Special Education Today magazine (Premiere issue is October-December 1995)
• Special Education Bible Study quarterly
• Audiotaped Bible Study quarterlies and Open Windows devotional, etc.
National Organization on Disability, Religion and Disability Program, 202-293-5960
• That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities
• Loving Justice: The ADA and the Religious Community [ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990]
JAF Ministries, The Disability Outreach of Joni Eareckson Tada, 818-707-5664
• All God's Children: Ministry with Disabled Persons
• Friendship Unlimited: How You Can Help a Disabled Friend
Other organizations to contact:
• Gospel Association for the Blind, Inc., 407-274-9700
• Christian Education for the Blind, Inc., 817-923-0603
• Recording for the Blind, Inc., 609-452-0606
• Pathways to Promise: Interfaith Ministries and Prolonged Mental Illnesses, 314-644-8400
• Journal of Religion in Disability and Rehabilitation, 205-681-1457