ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (BP) -- Mason Barrett sits wide-eyed in a tiny, crowded living room in Madagascar's capital city, trying desperately to understand what anyone around him is saying. Hands fly in a flurry of conversation, mostly get-to-know-you type questions: What's your name? Are you married?
Were you born deaf?
That last question might sound strange if this wasn't one of the thousands of Deaf communities that Barrett has come to serve. The real estate agent is part of a team from Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., that's traveled more than 9,000 miles for a single purpose: sharing Jesus with the Deaf Malagasy.
Tucked away off Africa's eastern coast, Madagascar is home to roughly 110,000 Deaf, less than 1 percent of whom are disciples of Jesus Christ. Most follow a centuries-old tradition of ancestor worship. There may be a "veneer of Christianity," says missionary Matt Spann, a Texas native who leads the IMB's Madagascar team, but "they fear their ancestors more than they fear God." That's what Warren Baptist has come to change.
Sending a hearing church to evangelize the Deaf may seem foolish to some, especially since the church has no experience with Deaf ministry. Roger Henderson, Warren Baptist's missions pastor, said the decision left many scratching their heads -- including the very people he tasked with choosing which unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG) the church would embrace.
Cue a young men's discipleship group Henderson affectionately refers to as the "Ten Angry Men." They were "angry" because of the lack of Christ-centered leadership they saw in many of today's Christian men.
Sorting through the more than 3,800 UUPGs identified by the IMB, the Ten Angry Men researched and prayed through their top picks, eventually voting on their selection in Madagascar. The process went smoothly, but there was a "slight hiccup" -- they didn't realize the UUPG was Deaf.
"All throughout the Bible, God uses our weaknesses to display His strength -- from Moses to David to Paul," says Vesta Sauter, who leads IMB's global Deaf work with her husband, Mark. "I think He knew exactly what He was doing when He chose Warren Baptist to bring the Gospel to the Deaf of Madagascar."
Warren Baptist also has benefited from Phillip Easterling's help.
Easterling is a pastor and church planter from Asheville, N.C. He's also Warren Baptist's way of gaining access to Madagascar's Deaf community, a job Sauter says is notoriously difficult for the hearing. Easterling was born deaf. He started Asheville Deaf Church, which he currently pastors, and has helped Southern Baptists plant Deaf congregations all over the world.
Sauter says Easterling was a critical addition because the Deaf are used to being ignored, abused and marginalized by the hearing. But Easterling's intimacy with Deaf culture instantly breaks down those walls, lending acceptance to the hearing members of Warren Baptist's team.
"It's such a blessing that Warren had foresight and sensitive to God's plan," Easterling says. "They don't know about deafness or Deaf culture … but they basically adopted me so that I could be a liaison, a bridge, and begin to share the story of His love and salvation."
Mind the gap
Back in the tiny, crowded living room in Antananarivo, Easterling watches as Barrett and the rest of Warren Baptist's team struggle to communicate with their hosts, a middle-aged couple named Didi and Jeannette. News about their American guests has spread quickly, and the couple's house is overflowing with more than 20 visitors.
Easterling tries to translate both sides of several conversations. But after 20 minutes, he stands abruptly and leaves Warren's team members to fend for themselves.
"He walked out on us so we would be forced to communicate with them," Barrett says. "We are starting to be able to connect. If anything, it's inspiring. You want to learn more."
But the team quickly learns there is a huge language gap between small talk and explaining why Jesus died on the cross. The team gets a taste of just how big that gap is while visiting one of Antananarivo's three Deaf schools.
Henderson has challenged each member of Warren Baptist's team to tell a Bible story using Malagasy sign. Some of them, like John Stevenson, stayed up late the night before crafting and rehearsing their story.
Stevenson looks nervous but smiles as he steps in front of his audience, a group of 18 students ranging from elementary to high school. It's an intimidating crowd. Most of the students already know Malagasy sign well enough to determine whether they'll listen to -- or laugh at -- Stevenson after the first few signs.
His introduction is flawless, signing his newly adopted sign name, "Dimples," by pointing to his cheek with an index finger, then curling the finger like the letter "J." But it's downhill from there. Stevenson bravely stumbles through Luke 6:48-49, Jesus' parable about anchoring one's faith like a house built on solid rock.
The students are patient and courteous, trying their best to understand Stevenson's broken signs. Some nod or smile while others stare blankly; a few giggle. But Stevenson takes it all in stride. It may be embarrassing, but this is what he's come here to do.
The rest of Warren's team struggle through their stories, too, and are rewarded with polite applause. "It's very, um -- spontaneous!" the school's director says with an impish smile when asked about Warren's performance.
By the time Easterling steps up, the students' eyes are glazing over. But they immediately snap to attention when Easterling launches into his own Bible story. It's a payoff that comes from a deep understanding of sign.
Henderson believes God will equip Warren Baptist to overcome these kinds of barriers. He says this first trip is just the beginning, a litmus test of sorts. In a week, the team has managed to learn a surprising amount of Malagasy sign and forge genuine relationships. This is confirmation to them that God can use a hearing congregation to share Jesus with the Deaf.
Besides, Warren Baptist won't be making the journey alone. That's because the church is supported by ministry partners like Easterling, the Sauters and Matt Spann. Intimate with Malagasy society and language, Spann is helping the church navigate cultural nuances and church-planting pitfalls, not to mention providing logistical support for incoming teams.
"In our preparation for embracing the Deaf Malagasy, Matt Spann stepped forward and helped us understand the culture of Madagascar and the history of evangelical work there," Henderson says. "Matt also arranged our transportation and hotels, even told us how to navigate the airport and handle visas -- all the things that you don't know when you've never been there before. It was very reassuring to know that whatever happened, there was a base of support from a Southern Baptist missionary."
It is Warren Baptist and thousands of other Southern Baptist congregations across the United States that make this support possible with their giving through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
"Warren's support for Lottie Moon not only is directed toward an area like Madagascar, but to all IMB missionaries throughout the world who are reaching the lost," Henderson explains. "When you go out there and meet them face-to-face, it puts a real, live person to the offering. And that tangible connection is just so gratifying, especially when you're trying to evangelize a UUPG!"
Henderson says he has high hopes for what God will do through Warren Baptist's generosity -- in Madagascar and around the world.
"It was an unimaginable challenge that a church that does not have a Deaf ministry, a church that does not have Deaf members, that we would choose to embrace the Deaf Malagasy," he says. "But there was no doubt … that is where God was leading us."
Through IMB's Embrace initiative, you and your church can take the Gospel to an unevangelized people group. To learn more, go to call2embrace.org.
Don Graham is the International Mission Board's senior writer.
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