PRAGUE, Czech Republic (BP)--Never underestimate the difference one person can make.
Mark and Vesta Sauter came to the Czech Republic to start churches among the nation's deaf. But the Indiana- and Texas-born missionaries weren't having much success until God brought them an unlikely volunteer -- 90-year-old Lillian Beard.
Beard, from Fort Worth, Texas, was a pioneer for deaf work among Southern Baptists and a lifelong mentor to Vesta. The women shared a common bond; as hearing children of deaf parents, both learned to sign as their first language.
Serving through the International Mission Board, the Sauters spent three years telling deaf Czechs about Jesus. They'd made deaf friends, dined in deaf homes, spoken at deaf gatherings, even taught in deaf schools. But despite their efforts, they hadn't seen a single deaf person come to Christ, and the stakes were too high to fail.
Nearly 50,000 deaf live in the Czech Republic. When the Sauters first arrived in 1996, there were no deaf churches and few, if any, deaf Christians. Worse, the country's hearing congregations weren't doing much to change that.
"The church can be one of the most oppressive and disheartening experiences for deaf people," Vesta says. "None of them has an open door.... Even if a deaf person said, 'I'm going to get into that church, I'm going to find a way,' ... they would be ostracized or sidelined. They would only be objects of somebody's ministry."
The Sauters shared their struggles with Beard, who told them she was no longer content to simply pray for their ministry; she wanted to come to the Czech Republic to help. Beard's friends thought the 90-year-old was crazy.
"I can die there just as easily as I can here," she told them. And if that happened, "They can put me in a box and send me home.... Serving Him is all I want to do."
Though she loved Beard dearly, Vesta wasn't keen on the idea. "I was very apprehensive; she's 90, in a wheelchair and doesn't know Czech sign language. I thought, 'What am I going to do with her?'" Vesta says.
But Beard was determined.
Reluctantly agreeing to the visit, the Sauters used their connections to arrange a luncheon at the Prague deaf club where Beard would be a guest speaker. What they didn't know was how deeply Beard's story would touch Anna Smolkova, a particularly hardhearted deaf Czech woman.
Smolkova is the matriarch of a large deaf family (more than 60 members) that is well-connected within the country's deaf circles. Vesta knew Smolkova's conversion could catalyze the efforts to plant the Czech Republic's first deaf church, but Smolkova had been very resistant -- even hostile -- to the Gospel.
"I want to make very clear to you that I don't want anyone in my family to know about Jesus or God," Vesta recalls Smolkova warning her.
But Smolkova had never met Lillian Beard.
The Prague deaf club was packed the day she spoke because people were so intrigued that a 90-year-old American would cross the Atlantic just to talk to them. The crowd demanded to see Beard's passport as proof of her age, passing it around the room for all to see.
Beard shared her life story -- a hearing person immersed in a deaf world. Orphaned and then adopted by deaf parents, she became a skilled interpreter for the deaf, helping found the Texas Society of the Deaf, the National Registry of Interpreters and the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf. But Beard's accomplishments weren't what impressed Smolkova.
"I didn't believe this woman was 90.... I was amazed at how beautiful she was, how she radiated. Something touched me inside about her," Smolkova says.
"I had a very hard heart -- an atheist. I really didn't know or believe anything about God.... was so foreign, so new, like nothing I'd ever heard about.... Something began knocking at my heart ... and wouldn't release me."
Taken with Beard's testimony, Smolkova peppered her with questions after the luncheon, kneeling at Beard's wheelchair so their eyes met.
"What is it? Why are you so beautiful? Why do you radiate?" Smolkova remembers asking. "And she signed to me, 'It's the love of Jesus.' ... That struck a chord in my heart and a conviction, and I couldn't run from it."
With Vesta's guidance, Smolkova asked Christ into her life that day. The change was dramatic.
ALCOHOLIC TO EVANGELIST
"I was a gossip, an alcoholic. I loved to get drunk," Smolkova says. "I can remember the first sip I took after Jesus came and it was just horrible.... I started looking back on my life, how I acted and how I talked and how I behaved, and I was so grateful ... to no longer have those things control my life."
Family and friends noticed Smolkova's change as well. She couldn't keep it to herself. Working with the Sauters, she hatched a plan to witness to her entire extended family, simultaneously, by being baptized at her 50th birthday party.
"The most incredible thing happened during my baptism. Here I had an auditorium full of my lost relatives, and when I went into the water and came out, a ray of light flooded through the ceiling and just covered me.... It was miraculous," Smolkova says.
"There's one skylight in the auditorium of this Czech Baptist church that has stained glass in it," remembers Vesta's husband Mark, who baptized Smolkova. "Somehow, at that moment in time, the sun broke through and, just like 'Star Trek,' this cylinder of light came down and surrounded her.... Everybody saw it, and she looked at us ... like 'Does that always happen?!'"
Lenka Wienersova was there that day. She'd become friends with Smolkova years earlier at a hotel where they worked as maids. Wienersova was struck by her friend's public display of faith -- something she found both strange and attractive.
"I really didn't understand about those who were following Jesus," Wienersova says. "I saw a change in her, yes. I saw within Anna this joy that she'd never had before and a sense of peace."
Eventually, Wienersova couldn't escape the truth she found in the stories that Vesta and Smolkova shared from the Bible.
"I didn't want to carry those sins anymore. I didn't want to carry the shame anymore," she says. "And I turned to Christ. From that point on, life was different. And then I began to understand why their lives had been different -- why Anna's life was different."
Smolkova became increasingly enthusiastic as Vesta discipled her about sharing her faith with other deaf Czechs. They met almost daily so Smolkova could learn new Bible stories to use for evangelism, making Scripture "come alive" through her hands.
"The deaf people that I encounter ... are like me -- they have a very, very difficult time reading the Bible. The written word is not their first language," Smolkova explains. "When they see the story on their hands, then in their heart, there comes conviction and in their minds comes understanding."
Smolkova helped lead her three daughters to the Lord, followed by her daughters' husbands, baptizing one of them in her bathtub.
"Anna's filling up the bathtub, and I'm looking at her son-in-law and the bathtub's probably half his size, but she is so excited," Vesta remembers.
"We took the door off of the bathroom so everybody could see.... They get in the bathtub and she baptizes half of him, and then baptizes the other half of him."
And Smolkova didn't stop with her family and friends. She started traveling with Vesta to cities outside Prague, starting churches in a hotel room in Brno and in a deaf home in Valasske Mezirici. She helped start house churches in her daughters' homes and in her own home. Smolkova was so passionate about sharing Jesus with the deaf that she quit her job to work with Vesta full time, cleaning houses on the side to support herself while serving as the Sauters' primary church-planting partner.
Above all, Vesta believes Smolkova's biggest impact has been on her 14 grandchildren, many of whom she's led to Christ. Her desire for reaching children even spurred her to start a Christian summer camp where deaf Czech youth can learn about Jesus.
"So many deaf people are 'blind' ... there's a new openness, an awakening to who He is," Smolkova says. "I know it's nothing I did, but it's what God can do through one person who is willing to say that they'll believe and follow Him."
THEN AND NOW
Today, 10 years after Beard's visit, Smolkova continues to share Christ among deaf Czechs and speaks fondly of her American friend who led her to Jesus. Beard remained an active advocate for the deaf and for her Savior until her death in June 2010. She was 101. God has since broadened the scope of the Sauters' work -- they now lead the International Mission Board's global efforts to reach the deaf around the world.
"God really showed me one volunteer -- one woman, 90 years old -- was willing to come across the ocean in a wheelchair. That one woman penetrated a barrier I'd been trying to penetrate for years.... Why that spoke so strongly to Anna and why Lillian's story broke down all of Anna's defenses, I don't know -- but I know that one woman reached that one woman who has now reached a nation," Vesta says.
"It was a beautiful, wonderful experience," Beard said of her encounter with Smolkova. "Why did God send me? ... God can always use anyone who is willing to give of their life, and say, 'Lord, here I am.'"
Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. See Anna and Lillian in "The power of silence" on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering DVD-ROM, available from imbresources.org.
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