Does Deaf Ministry Matter?
Being the 3rd trip I made to Guantánamo in the past year, I'm now greeted with expressions of "Hey! Mike's here!" as familiar faces of the Cuban Deaf shake my hand and give me hugs. They look happy. But I know its not just because I showed up, but rather, the transformation in their hearts that has been a long time coming.
This handful of folks comprise part of a group that make up the christian deaf community in Guantánamo, Cuba since the early days of their deaf ministry. I had a chance to interview them about their experiences growing up in Cuba as deaf people, and how their lives and relationships changed when a Deaf Ministry was started in their city 20 years ago. As I watched them tell their stories, I noticed many similarities they shared in common and how they slowly moved from being lonely and frustrated to becoming hopeful. Instead of expressions of pessimism that you can see in the faces of some people- you see genuine smiles, in spite of all the challenges they continue to face.
Each of them lives in a society that generally does not consider them as capable of being productive because of their deafness, as they did not get the same opportunities as other kids their age. Most of them have limited education or started out with little communication skills. They did not have any sign language interpreters in school back then. Some of them communicated in street signs, gestures or mimic actions to attempt to be understood by others.
Like many frustrated kids in other countries, some got in trouble- involved in fights, stealing, drinking and basically were up to no good. However, they didn't steal for fun- it was out of desperation to survive. Others, especially the girls- their families were over protective and kept them home to so they might not be taken advantage of. Their lives revolved around housework, chores and maybe going to Church with a family member where they sat in the pews not understanding anything. Some came from families whose only exposure to religion was in worshiping idols, which is still prevalent in Latin American countries.
Many of the folks in the picture above knew each other growing up and are now part of the 30 deaf members of Primera Iglesia Guantánamo (First Church of Guantánamo). But it was not until the Deaf Ministry got started, and volunteers learned Cuban Sign Language that outreach efforts began to invite these deaf individuals to Church. As those few deaf individuals learned about Christ and found happiness in the church community that actively supported and showed love to them... one by one, they reached out and invited unchurched deaf members of the community to come and see something that gave them hope in their lives.
Today they share that accepting Christ in their hearts and being connected with other people who can communicate with them has made a difference in how they feel about themselves and others. As the larger church community showed them love and acceptance, they learned to do the same. That is why, despite the communication challenges with hearing members of their church, they say they enjoy being part of that body of Christ because they feel accepted and cared for. In turn, they enjoy serving.
As each of them shared their story, one after another mentions that the ability to break out into their groups with other deaf christians to pray and learn about Christ together where communication flows with ease is a blessing. But when someone mentions the Deaf Camp... their expressions light up as they show how much they love those retreats they go on once a year... if funds permit. These camps are an opportunity to associate with other deaf christians from other churches. Not being able to afford to travel outside of their community, these Camps give them a chance to reconnect with other deaf brothers and sisters in Christ who share their beliefs and their life with in a more supportive way. These retreats are also a chance to learn more what Jesus taught and how to make it work in a life full of economic uncertainties.
So, does a Deaf Ministry make a difference for these people? Watching them tell their stories makes it clear that it does. Many of them have gotten to the point where they thirst for more growth in their faith walk. Some of the discipleship resources they have in their churches are designed more for hearing people in mind. They need something that can help them as Deaf Christians, to grow. There are resources out there. Help me collect them and join me in making it possible to encourage these Cuban Deaf to continue growing and sharing.