Richard Kunene, a Deaf church leader in South Africa, yearns for the Deaf in his country to be able to experience God’s word as intimately as hearing people.
“I see that the hearing churches are happy, and I worry about the Deaf,” Richard says. “They suffer. Many Deaf suffer. They struggle. For a long time, they’ve been struggling, and I’ve been praying to God, ‘How can the Deaf understand?’”
Although specific numbers are difficult to identify, by the best accounts there are hundreds of sign languages around the world, used by as many as 70 million people. However, only one sign language has a New Testament, and no Scriptures exist in the vast majority of these languages. Correspondingly, only 1-2% of Deaf globally are Christians.
“For 2,000 years the church has neglected the Deaf world. It’s just been off the radar screen,” says sign language Bible translation consultant Jim Dowsett.
A vision for the Deaf in South Africa
In South Africa more than 600,000 Deaf people use South African Sign Language (SASL), but no Scripture has been available in this language. Hands with Words, founded by Lisa Craye in 2006 to minister to and with South African Deaf, began a Bible translation project in SASL in 2013 to address this need.
Lisa first became interested in ministry to the Deaf in South Africa while working as a teacher at a local school for the Deaf. She found her passion in using sign language to share with the Deaf about Christ.
“I discovered that when I interpreted the Gospel for the Deaf in sign language, something was happening in me that I couldn’t explain,” Lisa says. “I sensed that the Holy Spirit was really working through me to tell the Gospel to the Deaf.”
It was at this school where she first met Richard’s wife, Agnes, who was working as a teacher’s assistant. During this time Lisa went on a short-term mission trip to Namibia. She thought she was going to be ministering to hearing people, but the team discovered a school for the Deaf. Lisa acted as the interpreter as the group interacted with children at the school.
In subsequent years Lisa made more short trips to the school for the Deaf in Namibia with a growing team which included Agnes, Richard and their daughter, Happiness. When they returned home from one of their trips Richard asked Lisa, “What are you going to do for the Deaf in South Africa?”
This challenged Lisa to start a ministry for the Deaf people in South Africa as well as in neighbouring countries. As the ministry developed, her vision for how to best work alongside the Deaf community evolved.
“The DEAF don't have a Bible?”
A critical point in this evolution came in October 2010 when Lisa and Agnes attended Cape Town 2010: the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism. During the conference a list of languages without translated Scriptures was distributed. They noticed that Deaf sign languages were included.
“I said, ‘The Deaf [in South Africa] don’t have a Bible?’ The Bible is written in different languages [in South Africa], but there’s nothing for the Deaf!” explains Agnes. “We need the Bible to be translated into the heart language of the Deaf, so that they can be excited and understand.”
Soon after, Agnes and Lisa met a woman who was involved with a sign language Bible translation in Asia. She encouraged Agnes and Lisa to contact her colleague Jim Dowsett because he worked in Sign Language translation in Africa. Agnes and Lisa left the Lausanne Congress encouraged and convinced to pursue a Bible translation project for SASL.
Seven months later, Agnes and Lisa met Jim at DOOR International’s training center in Nairobi, Kenya. DOOR is an organization dedicated to facilitating Bible translation into sign languages, as well as promoting the growth of the Deaf church around the world. Jim and staff from DOOR helped Lisa and Agnes lay the foundation for an SASL Bible translation project.