Seeing Is Believing
If those who are deaf don’t “see” the gospel, how can they believe it?
BY LISA POIRIER WITH JEFF AND MELISSA JORDAN
All my life I have lived in my own personal bubble—same house, same city, same church, and same school—from preschool through high school graduation. Living the same routine for my first 18 years allowed me to become “comfortable,” as well as afraid to try something new. I didn’t realize until recently how little I knew of the world and people who were different from me, or that I was concerned mostly with my own needs. A language course I took as part of my undergraduate requirements, however, changed all that.
A Life-changing Class
I wanted to enroll in a class that was unique, one that would benefit my music education degree, so I chose American Sign Language (ASL). I thought I could use it to teach my future elementary students how to use signing in songs.
My professor was Jeff Jordan, who was born deaf and grew up in California in a hearing family. I was amazed at how easily he bridged the gap for his hearing students so they could understand what he was communicating.
Part of the class requirements was to attend five events for those who are hearing-impaired and write a report about our experience. One of the five was attending a local church for deaf people—Southern Deaf Fellowship in Collegedale, Tennessee. 1
I was nervous about going, and my heart was pounding as I found a seat in the back row. I was surprised to see that my professor was the pastor of the church, and also that there was a hearing interpreter so hearing members could participate. The members were so kind and friendly. Having a language barrier didn’t stop them from smiling and welcoming me, and the longer the service continued, the more I found a smile forming on my own face. I had entered the building feeling nervous, but I left smiling and with a desire to return.
And I did return. I wanted to learn more, so I spent time talking with Pastor Jordan and his wife, Melissa. Their love for this ministry was evident. I find my own words inadequate to grasp their passion, so allow me to mix my words with theirs and give the Deaf “their own voice.”
Before entering through the classroom door of ASL 101 for the first time, I was aware of only the things that affected my own personal life. I knew very little about the Deaf community, and didn’t know what to expect when I went to their church. What I found was a congregation of people who were eager to worship, a wife devoted to helping her pastor husband and supporting his ministry, and a pastor passionate about leading his overlooked culture toward Christ.
The Deaf have needs and wants like any church congregation, but they are mostly forgotten. Hearing Pastor Jordan and Melissa’s story has changed me. Not only were my eyes opened, but my ears as well.
The Deaf do have a voice. Can you hear it?
A Conversation With the Jordans
Jeff: I think the church at large needs to see that there are deaf people out there, a whole people group that, for whatever reason, is overlooked. Jesus told us to reach every people group—the Deaf are one of those. We have our own culture and our own language. Who is reaching us?
In 1997 the Georgia-Cumberland Conference asked Pastor Jordan to plant a Seventh-day Adventist church for the Deaf. After eight years and much hard work, the church was officially organized in Atlanta in 2005.
Jeff: We started with nothing. There are many deaf people in Atlanta, but it took a lot of work to find friends, and friends who knew friends, and to provide social activities. It took four years to go from zero to 12 members. By 2005 we had 34 charter members. We now have 66 members. Hearing members are also included; it’s not just limited to deaf people.
Jeff Jordan, now a professor in the Modern Languages Department at Southern Adventist University and pastor of Southern Deaf Fellowship, doesn’t pastor alone. His wife, Melissa, also plays an important role. Graduating with a degree in sign language interpretation, Melissa felt the Lord calling her to be involved in ministry for the Deaf. She currently interprets the church services at Southern Deaf Fellowship so the hearing will feel included.
A DIFFERENT WORLD: Southern Deaf Fellowship pastor Jeff Jordan discusses the challenges of ministry with those who are deaf.
PARTNERS IN MINISTRY: Article author Lisa Poirier talks with Pastor Jeff Jordan (front right) and his wife, Melissa.
PLATFORM PARTICIPANTS: Members of Southern Deaf Fellowship help lead out during worship service.
INTERPRETING: Melissa Jordan interprets her husband’s sermons for the hearing in the congregation.
FELLOWSHIPPING: Pastor Jeff Jordan (right) talks with church members through signing following church service.
FAMILY PHOTO: Pastor Jeff Jordan, his wife, Melissa, and their four boys
Melissa: Even though preaching as an interpreter every Sabbath is a privilege that I now embrace, at first it was challenging for me to be willing to do that. I didn’t want to preach. But the Lord has been working through me on a very personal level to reach out to the Deaf. “You are My voice” is a calling you can’t turn down or deny. I believe I’m called too. Pastors—husbands and wives both—are called to work together. There’s always something we spouses can do, even if it’s just a smile or our presence. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m happy that the Lord can use me in this way.
I wasn’t involved when the children were very young. With four boys—a newborn, a 2-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a 7-year-old—it was about barring the sides of the pew so they didn’t escape while their dad was up there preaching! But now I feel it’s an honor to work with my husband in this way. I’m more blessed, I think, as I preach by interpreting and hear the Lord speaking through me; it’s very powerful. It’s also very humbling.
Jeff, however, is the only current full-time, denominationally employed deaf pastor in the North American Division. There’s such a need for more pastors, Bible workers, and leaders within the Deaf community, so a training center is a long-term goal.
Many members of Southern Deaf Fellowship are spread throughout the country. To reach these isolated deaf members the church services are streamed live on the Internet every Sabbath.
Melissa: We have so many nonlocal deaf members because they don’t have an interpreter or deaf pastor available to them. And, of course, it’s not just the Deaf that we reach via the Internet, but the hearing as well.
Southern Deaf Fellowship is a “mother church” with which other groups, cell groups, can come together and worship online. Right now we have two cell groups: one in Orlando, Florida, and the other in Marietta, Georgia. They meet together in a church and project our service on the screen. But we can connect with people all over the country through our Web site.
We also have resources—DVDs of sermons that are done in American Sign Language and archived videos online.
Jeff: I went to Brazil with six other North American Division representatives of Deaf ministries to attend a meeting, initiated by the General Conference Adventist Deaf Ministries International, for church leaders involved in work for the Deaf. About 170 delegates were there, including union and conference leaders from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. It really impressed us how keenly church leadership is recognizing this need. They have a heart for the Deaf. They’ve developed many materials in sign language, including Portuguese Sign Language. They have the Adult Bible Study Guide signed for the Deaf so they can watch it, as opposed to reading it. They have other really great ideas as well.
The North American Division has a Deaf ministries committee that meets once a year. It’s made up of both deaf and hearing, and they discuss ways we can improve this ministry.
One thing that caught my attention about the Southern Deaf Fellowship worship service was how the people were also ministering to the hearing. Why would deaf people in a deaf church service care about hearing people? I first thought it was because Pastor Jordan’s students were attending in order to complete their requirements for his class, but the reason goes beyond that.
Jeff: Hearing people have plenty of options for churches, but we want to be sensitive to the hearing when they come to our church by providing interpreting for them, which is giving them equal communication access. We want to meet their needs too. It’s also a good way to expose hearing people to the Deaf culture. For students who come as part of a course requirement, it opens their worldview. It gives them an opportunity to see another culture that is often overlooked and instills in their hearts sensitivity to the needs of the Deaf. It also models what we would like done for us when we go to hearing churches, which rarely have interpreters.
I then began wondering about Southern Deaf Fellowship’s future plans. Hearing their story and seeing their passion intrigued me. So what’s in store for them?
Jeff: We want to increase awareness that we’re here, so more people will connect to our Web site and to us. We’re hoping our Facebook presence will draw more of a crowd. It’s a little slow in growing, but we’re praying about that.
We’re also striving to get more media subtitled, and media produced by the church to be more friendly for the Deaf. The General Conference has developed a Web site called Adventist Deaf Ministries International,2 which connects all international Adventist Deaf ministries. Now, instead of feeling so isolated throughout the world field, we can feel part of the church family.
I would like to add, though, that a virtual
presence isn’t always the best. There’s a need for a physical connection with people. So we organize an annual five-day camp meeting each summer. It’s such a rich experience for our members. They travel far just to be there. We hold a special baptismal service in the lake. It’s a very high time for the Deaf.
As with every church, Southern Deaf Fellowship faces challenges. Not everything is smooth sailing. The Deaf community itself also faces challenges—many of them similar to those of a hearing congregation—but their needs are much greater.
Jeff: One of our greatest challenges locally is attracting a younger group of deaf people. The younger demographic within the community of deaf people doesn’t identify with the older generation. So that’s not unique to hearing churches—we’re also losing our youth. Anything that’s a struggle within the hearing church, we’re facing too.
The prejudices within the Deaf community are pretty high also, against anything that’s different, anything they weren’t raised with or know much about. We’re also finding trends overseas to be similar to those of the hearing, such as more conversions in regions that have less materialism. People here don’t feel as great a need for the Lord. So our challenges are very similar.
Another big concern is that we don’t have many Adventist interpreters in North America—that’s such a great need! Brazil has 500 Adventist interpreters! We might have 20 or 30 here. It’s amazing. So I would like to see an interpreter training program at one of our Adventist institutions.