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Signs from heaven

Po-Ai Sign Language Presbyterian Church (Handout)

Lifestyle

Signs from heaven

Churches for the deaf in China and Taiwan know how to preach the gospel without words

TAIPEI, Taiwan—In a dark suit and clerical collar, pastor Peter Wu stood at the pulpit and motioned for 50 congregants gathered in a basement sanctuary to join him in prayer. He prayed for wisdom and boldness for anyone returning to their hometowns that weekend to celebrate Tomb Sweeping festival, a Chinese holiday venerating one’s ancestors.

Yet congregants did not close their eyes or bow their heads as the prayer began and instead kept their eyes fixed on the pastor. When the door slammed shut with a bang, no one turned to see who had walked in, and as Wu preached, no heads ducked down to take notes. Instead they focused on Wu as he wove together stories with his hands.

Po-Ai Sign Language Presbyterian Church in Taipei is one of the six churches on the island catering solely to the deaf community. During the church service, everyone prayed, worshipped, conversed, and recited Scripture in sign language, as Wu’s son translated the sermon into Chinese for the hearing members of the church. Wu, who was born deaf, saw the great need in the deaf community and became the first (and only) deaf pastor ordained by the Presbyterian denomination.

Across the strait in mainland China, sign language churches similar to Po-Ai are growing rapidly as deaf Chinese find love and acceptance in Christianity. Missionaries are helping local deaf believers plant churches, train leaders, and create a sign language Bible to help them understand God’s Word. The marginalization of the deaf community in China actually helps it escape government scrutiny, allowing evangelism to occur in plain sight.

Sign language differs by country, sometimes even when two countries have the same national language. Although residents of Taiwan and China alike speak Mandarin, Taiwanese Sign Language is derived from Japanese Sign Language, and thus is completely different from Chinese Sign Language.

Sign language is visual storytelling: It can’t be written since nuances of the hand movements and the speaker’s facial expressions—a furrowed brow, a cracked smile—need to be seen to be understood.

Because of the significant differences between a country’s sign language and its spoken language, reading and writing are difficult for deaf people. This makes the Bible difficult for the deaf to understand.

Handout

Po-Ai Sign Language Presbyterian Church (Handout)

To address that problem, missionaries around the world are creating sign language Bibles composed of short videos that use sign language to tell Bible stories. Liv Reed, a former missionary to the deaf community in China, explained that sign language is more like a movie than a book. Rather than going verse by verse, preachers need to explain the context, setting, and characters before telling a Bible story, whether it’s the feeding of the 5,000 or Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

In one video created for deaf Chinese believers, a man stands in front of a dark background signing the parable of the house built on sand. An onscreen graphic compares the sturdy foundation of the house built on the rock with the shifting foundation of sand. Without captions or sound, the videos are difficult for those unfamiliar with sign language to understand—a benefit that allows the videos to get past government censors. Currently the teams in China have created 300 video stories, uploaded to social media sites like WeChat and accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

As Liv Reed and her husband Peter (their names are changed for security reasons) ministered in China, they saw that many Chinese deaf people struggled with feelings of worthlessness. Under the long-standing one-child policy, which the government recently revised to a two-child policy, parents with one shot at producing an heir desired only healthy children. Because deafness is not observable until age 2, deaf babies are not aborted. But if the parents bring the deaf child to the family planning bureau, they are allowed to apply for permission to have another child since “this isn’t the child I ordered,” Liv explained sarcastically.

Yet she believes God redeems the rejection of the deaf community. Because Chinese officials don’t value the deaf, she said, “the gospel can really travel unpersecuted among these people.”

The Reeds remember one sunny Sunday when they held a church service at a local park. As Peter signed a message to the attendees, a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch. A few police officers came to observe, but as the church members were not holding Bibles and the officers couldn’t understand sign language, they seemed more amused than concerned. They soon left, and the deaf church continued to preach the gospel in the most public space in the city.

The official Three-Self churches in China have interpreted services for deaf people, but the sermon structure is not intuitive to the deaf, and deaf believers are unable to communicate with the rest of the church body. It’s also difficult for these types of groups to replicate: Missionaries like the Reeds encourage the creation of deaf churches led by deaf pastors who go on to plant new churches.

“We seek to have the deaf church stand on its own, separate and independent from hearing churches,” said Amy Dixon, a deaf missionary who has been in China since 2011. I spoke to her over the FaceTime video app with Liv interpreting. Dixon said deaf people connect and communicate best with other deaf people: “When hearing people are placed in proximity to deaf people, they take over by default.”

Dixon (not her real name) helped plant a church with four leaders and eight core attendees that has gone on to plant other churches. Deaf Christians are eager to evangelize others in their tight-knit deaf communities, leading to the growing need for more pastors, she said.

“In China, deaf people are very rejected, looked down upon, and thought of as worthless,” Dixon signed. “Deaf people need love, and they need the message of hope found in the gospel that God does not discriminate, that you are as valuable as a hearing person, and that the gospel is available to you regardless.”

Comments

  • Janet S
    Posted: Thu, 08/10/2017 08:47 am

    Praise God!  Jesus came for the least of us.

     

  • CT
    Posted: Thu, 09/14/2017 09:01 am

    We lived in Taiwan in the 80's as Missionaries, and the Lord led us to become acquinted with Peter and his 2 sisters who are deaf when they were teenagers, then met their whole family.  We were last privileged to see them a few years ago. Peter and his wife are true servants of God! Praise the Lord for His work in their lives, and for His work through their lives to the very active congregation there and beyond!