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Georgia church reaching Deaf Malagasy

 

Joann Bradberry/IMB

Genetics are most likely responsible for the stunning color variance, known as heterochromia iridis, in the eyes of this Deaf Malagasy student in Antsirabe, Madagascar. The physical characteristics of many of the island's people groups deviate from the rest of East Africa: Malagasy skin tones tend to be lighter and many have facial features that hint at European, Asian or Pacific-islander ancestry, including bright blue eyes.

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (BP) — It’s like learning to swim by being pushed off the high dive – and Mason Barrett just got shoved. The 33-year-old real estate agent 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. He’s part of a team from Warren Baptist Church in Augusta 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 International Mission Board’s Madagascar team, but “they fear their ancestors more than they fear God.”

Roger Henderson, Warren’s missions pastor, said the decision for a hearing church to evangelize the Deaf left many scratching their heads.

 

Blessed mistake

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 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) identified by IMB, the Ten Angry Men researched and prayed through their top picks, eventually voting on their selection in Madagascar. The process went smoothly, save for 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.”

And just like God gave Aaron to his tongue-tied brother when He ordered Moses before Pharaoh, He gave Warren Baptist a man named Phillip Easterling.

Easterling, 51, is a pastor and church planter from Asheville, NC. He’s also Warren’s way of gaining access to Madagascar’s Deaf community. 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.

Joann Bradberry/IMB

Phillip Easterling, left, challenges Leon Rabeson, the owner of a Deaf wood shop in Antananarivo, Madagascar, with New Testament Scripture that he believes proves Jesus' divine nature. Members of Warren Baptist's missions team watch the debate intently, trying to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation. "I didn't think we'd be communicating nearly as much as we are," says Roger Henderson, Warren's missions pastor.

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.
Give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions through your local Southern Baptist church or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering.

“It’s such a blessing that Warren had foresight and [was] 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’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 there is a huge language gap between small talk and explaining why Jesus died on the cross.

Henderson has challenged each member of Warren’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, 32, looks nervous but smiles as he steps in front of his audience, a group of 18 students ranging from elementary to high school. 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.

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.

 

Digging in

Henderson believes God will equip Warren to overcome these kinds of barriers. He says this first trip is just the beginning, a litmus test of sorts. In a week, Warren’s team has managed to learn a surprising amount of Malagasy sign and forge genuine relationships – confirmation that Henderson and the Ten Angry Men aren’t crazy. God can use a hearing church to share Jesus with the Deaf.