BENICIA, Calif. (BP)--At a beginning sign language course for a church's deaf ministry in the Deep South in 1979, Howard Burkhart III liked his teacher so much he married her.
Because of Tina McMillan (Burkhart) and her attentive pupil, untold hundreds of the hearing and hearing-impaired -- from California back to Mississippi -- have not only been taught how to communicate, but how to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Today, the Burkharts' ministry -- based in Benicia, Calif., just north of San Francisco -- extends far beyond the deaf community, although that remains their first love. Howard, 52, is a church planting strategist in the San Francisco Bay and San Diego areas and a jointly funded missionary for the North American Mission Board and the California Southern Baptist Convention.
Howard and Tina are among the 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13, 2011. With a theme of "Start Here," the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering's goal is $70 million to support missionaries like the Burkharts.
"The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering makes everything possible," Burkhart says. "It puts missionaries on the field, provides ministry funds, provides Bibles, church planter training, support for new churches and allows for special projects that are critical. AAEO is our lifeblood, our lifeline and our future."
After both graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi where they were involved in deaf ministry at 38th Avenue Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, they enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and soon became aware of the crucial need for pastors and missionaries to work with deaf people.
Howard later became a missionary to the deaf in California, where the Burkharts have lived and ministered for the last 27 years. From 1988-2000, Howard taught classes through Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary for the hearing-impaired so they could learn to be pastors, teachers and other ministry leaders. It was the first opportunity for deaf people to get seminary education at the diploma level.
"Deafness is its own culture," Burkhart said. "It has its own language, its own grammar, its own social structure. Deaf people tend to marry other deaf people." At the same time, he noted, today's technology has empowered many deaf people, enabling them to become more part of mainstream society.
Why do the hearing-impaired need special ministries aimed at their needs?
"You'd think they could choose from a hundred different churches, but they can't," Burkhart said. "They have to go to a church where there's either a pastor to the deaf or where there's a competent interpreter. And when deaf people need pastoral care, they call the interpreter, so the interpreter often becomes their pastor and advocate."
For hearing-impaired Americans, English is their second language. "Sign language is their first language," he said. "For deaf people from other countries, English is their third or fourth language."
Burkhart ministers to deaf in a number of people groups, such as Hispanics, Asians and Koreans. It's not commonly known that each nationality has its own unique deaf signing language -- Koreans, for instance -- have their own, so signing is different across different cultures and languages.
One of Burkhart's "joys" is to return to churches he helped start years ago, and New Hope Community Church in El Monte, Calif., is one of his favorites.
"Going back there and knowing that probably more than 50 deaf people there now have a relationship with Jesus -- and many of them are serving and leading in the church -- makes for an exciting day," he said.
Deaf ministry at New Hope is multi-ethnic, with nine or 10 countries represented. Out of 30 or so deaf people in attendance, only three or four are Caucasian.
"Deafness trumps ethnicity," Burkhart said, "so if you ask a hearing-impaired Indonesian, they're going to say they are deaf first and Indonesian second."
Steve Lucero, pastor to the deaf at New Hope, is the father of a deaf son, Leo, who pulled him into deaf ministry. "When Leo was born," Lucero recounted, "I asked, 'Well, Lord, why did you give me a deaf son?' It was a big question in my heart and mind."
At Leo's birth, Lucero and his wife Linda already had a hearing son. And although Lucero was successfully climbing up the career ladder with Safeway, he later left the business world to go into deaf ministry -- partly because of Leo and partly because of Howard Burkhart.
"We were going to Howard's night class to learn religious signing," Lucero recalled. "He was very patient as he taught us. He also was an encourager and gave us the confidence we needed to do deaf ministry.
"If it weren't for Howard, we would have been stuck," Lucero said. "That was 25 years ago and I still love him dearly and so do the deaf ."
Beyond the hearing-impaired, California -- Burkhart's mission field -- is home to some 37 million people. If it were a country, it would be the 34th largest nation in the world where 200-plus languages are spoken. About 40 percent of the population speaks another language or are bilingual at home.
"In several cases, California is home to a nation's largest ethnic population outside its home country," Burkhart said. "In other cases, we may have more people living here from a country than who actually live back in that country."
Burkhart strategizes and works with other church planters to start churches in the San Francisco and San Diego metro areas trying to reach a number of people groups -- Indonesians, Romanians, Mongolians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russians and Brazilians. He also coordinates and leads 10 basic training events a year for 60 California church planting teams.
"Everybody needs Jesus. It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, where you came from or where you live," Burkhart said. "Everybody needs Jesus and it's our job to communicate that in a language they can understand.
"We would ask Southern Baptists to pray for us because we need to identify a Japanese church planter for San Diego and several Vietnamese church planters for 10 churches that need to be planted in California. We also need partners for several new churches being planted in the San Francisco Bay area."
The Burkharts are parents of two children, Nathan and Victoria. Howard also asks Baptists to pray for 18-year-old Victoria, who has been seriously ill with a rare debilitating neurological disease, leaving her mostly homebound for the last six years.
"I grew up in Miami," Burkhart said, "and if you'd told me growing up that I would be a missionary in California working among the Burmese and Karen, deaf people or the other language groups I work with, I would have said, 'never in a million years.' But God had a work for me to do and He is completing it in me.
"It's hard work, it takes people, money, mission teams and partners. It takes a lot of people to reach a community for Christ."
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
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