Sign language breaks barriers to gospel

Day 7: Week of Prayer for International Missions

International Mission Board missionary Paul Yount sits just outside a crowded cafeteria. Inside the room, chairs squeak across the floor. A cacophony of voices mixes. Forks scrape plates. The ice in the drink machine crashes to the bottom of an empty glass.  

Yet, for him, he hears nothing. Yount is not alone in that.  

More than 71 million people worldwide are Deaf, like him. Most culturally Deaf people have almost no access to Scripture in their heart language. Very few have ever had the gospel shared with them. Most of the Deaf around the world have never seen Jesus’ name signed. Often ignored and oppressed, the Deaf are some of the least evangelized people on earth.  

This IMB missionary connects easily with other Deaf. He shares the love of Jesus with them, and he is uniquely equipped to disciple them because he experiences the world in much the same way they do.  

For example, Yount said, he can walk into a room in Sub-Saharan Africa where he primarily works, and he can meet a Muslim, a Catholic and an animist. Immediately, though his white skin sticks out in the context where he serves, and their hearing counterparts might be naturally standoffish to his evangelical Christianity, he has a connection with the Deaf individual. Though they may not believe, his new Deaf friends are more apt to hear the gospel from someone like them.  

The commonalities between Yount and Joseph, a Senegalese believer, have helped Yount disciple him more effectively.  

He focuses on teaching stories, or “storying,” because as visual learners, that’s how the Deaf best learn the gospel, Yount explained.  

Joseph, a Deaf believer, learns how to present the gospel visually at StoryOne Camp. The IMB workshop brings West Africans together to translate Bible stories into their regional sign languages. IMB Photo

When Yount met Joseph, he was already a believer, but Joseph was hungry to know the Scriptures more. Joseph had grown up Catholic. He became a believer while attending a Deaf school run by local evangelical missionaries. And while he had a basic understanding of the gospel, he couldn’t fully connect with the truths of Scripture.  

As a Deaf student, he needed to see the Scripture, not just read it. That’s how he connects with the world. But, by the time he met Yount, he was hungry to grow and learn more. Yount saw this and began pouring into Joseph, discipling him each time he’d come into town.  

Yount uniquely understands this need to learn visually, and, along with StoryOne Camps, he teaches the Scriptures in a way Deaf can understand.  

StoryOne Camps are a ministry of Deaf Pathway Global. The IMB partners with Deaf Pathway Global to get the Scriptures in the heart language of the people IMB workers serve. 

As Yount discipled Joseph, he started with three sets of Bible stories that rely on sign language mnemonics that help the learner commit the stories to memory more effectively. This visual presentation of Scripture resonated with the new believer.  

The first set of five stories lays the foundation for who Jesus is. The second set represents church planting and what a healthy church looks like. The third set of seven stories focuses on a believer’s responsibilities.  

Joseph soaked up these stories, so Yount kept going, teaching him more of the Scripture through sign language. As they learned the stories, they discussed them in-depth, identifying things together, like where God is seen in each story, an understanding of the Trinity, a deeper understanding of good and bad, right and wrong and how the story can be applied to the believer’s life. 

As Joseph learned the stories, he committed them to heart with the mnemonic hand movements, making it so much simpler for him to replicate and share.  

“When I met him the first time, I shared a story in his natural heart language. That was the first time he had really seen God’s Word presented in a way he could really understand,” Yount said.  

Deaf West Africans workshop with IMB missionary Willie Brown to translate Bible stories into their regional sign languages. IMB Photo

After attending the first StoryOne Camp, Joseph was sold on this storying method. When another was held, he returned. “He felt so moved, and so inspired, and we were excited for him to experience that,” Yount said.  

Now, because Joseph was given access to the Scripture in his heart language, Francophone African Sign Language, he’s passionate about sharing the gospel with those like himself who need access to the gospel in a way they can understand.  

His faith has come at a great cost for him. When Joseph told his parents that he was a believer, they disowned him and ran him out of their home. He hasn’t backed down from proclaiming his faith. He’s now working in a Deaf church, discipling other believers through this mnemonic storying method.  

Leading out in a Bible translation project, in partnership with Yount and Deaf Pathway Global, is another way this growing disciple is fulfilling the Great Commission.  

Thank the Lord that He is using missionaries like Paul Yount and national believers like Joseph to reach the Deaf.  

Pray for Deaf Pathway Global as they work to translate the Scriptures and present them visually for the Deaf to have gospel access.  

Pray for Joseph to continue to grow as a disciple of Jesus.  

Some names may have been changed for security reasons.