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In 2020, Deaf people numbered nearly 70 million people around the world. Of those, 1,444 Deaf people die every day without Christ, according to IMB’s 2020 Annual Statistical Report. Most Deaf people around the world have none of the Bible in their heart sign language.
Those numbers should concern any Great Commission Christian, said IMB President Paul Chitwood in a June 15 gathering held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Nashville. Chitwood and Mike Glenn, senior pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee, celebrated the Bible translation work of Deaf Pathway Global, a non-profit venture of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church that offers sign language translations of Bible stories by Deaf translators.
“Knowing that many Deaf around the world die lost every day, we know there is not a moment to spare,” Chitwood said. “We must press forward as quickly as we can, and to be able to do so in a project like this is unprecedented.”
Vision realized for reaching the Deaf
Thirty years ago, the number of Deaf people without Christ in Middle Tennessee got the attention of Betty Stirsman, a member of Brentwood Baptist Church.
Glenn recalled, “Almost 30 years ago, Betty came to me with a long list of people who lived in the greater Middle Tennessee area — 60,000 Deaf and hard of hearing individuals who had no place to go to church. There were interpretative services but no Deaf churches …. This broke her heart, and it broke our hearts.”
In 1984, Stirsman began interpreting Brentwood’s worship services. By 1986, the church started a Deaf Sunday School class, and in 1995 the Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church began. Nearly 30 years later, Stirsman’s vision for the Deaf is literally reaching around the world through the Bible translation work of Deaf Pathway Global in cooperation with IMB.
13 sign languages, 300 Bible stories
Stirsman was on hand for the June 15 celebration. To date, Deaf translators with Deaf Pathway Global have translated some Bible stories in 13 languages — including Chinese, Czech, English, Polish and Thai, among others — with more languages planned or in process. These stories are available through the free Deafway Bible App in the iPhone App Store and through Google Play. As the first phase of Bible translation, Deaf Pathway has set a challenging goal for itself to translate 300 Bible stories in every sign language.
“So much of what the IMB is able to do among the Deaf around the world is the result of this work,” Chitwood said. “Church planting teams use the Bible stories that Deaf Pathway teams produce, and the church planting teams’ feedback to the translation teams helps them refine their translations. The first 300 Bible stories that Deaf Pathway teams translate in each sign language have been selected to communicate the key truths of the Bible. They also support the whole missionary task.”
‘Fulfillment of Pentecost’
Glenn also affirmed the importance of the work of Deaf Pathway Global to global evangelism among the Deaf.
“This is the fulfillment of Pentecost — the promise that everyone will hear the gospel in their own language,” Glenn said.
Vesta Sauter, who along with her husband, Mark, leads IMB’s work among Deaf peoples, believes this effort not only reaches the Deaf without Christ, but it also allows Deaf Christians to fulfill their missionary calling.
“By cooperating and partnering with Deaf Pathway Global, we are able to accelerate our work by Deaf missionaries among Deaf peoples using a process that is easily reproducible,” Sauter said. “What we see emerging are not just stories but tools and training to continue the process of translation in many different countries.”
Sauter, who is hearing but whose parents were Deaf, understands the transforming power of the gospel in the lives of Deaf people.
“My father was not a good man before he came to Christ,” Sauter said. “The gospel changed him, and when I was 8 years old, he had me signing stories to him from the Bible that he would share with his friends.”
Knowing how important the Bible was to her dad as a new believer, the ability to provide the Deaf with a Bible in their heart sign languages is especially meaningful to Sauter.
“I didn’t think I’d see this until heaven,” Sauter said.