SOUTH ASIA (BP) -– Lights flicker on the bedroom ceiling, signaling to Matthew Davis* that someone is at the door. It’s Monday — his friends have come to learn a new Bible story.
Deaf students Ani Bi* and Pola Garo* greet Davis, rapidly signing and updating each other on happenings since they last met. It’s been only a little over five months since Davis arrived in South Asia, but the three young men have become close friends.
Like Bi and Garo, Davis is also a Deaf student. He can sign with them, using signs he’s learned from their language. They head to Davis’s dimly lit sitting area where they gather every week.
A college student from Georgia, Davis was born Deaf but grew up going to mainstream schools instead of a school for the Deaf. He attended a church where he had no interpreter. Other kids around him laughed and talked, but he grew bored. Eventually his parents let him stop going to church altogether.
Davis didn’t think much more about God until college, where a chance meeting with a girl from the local college ministry helped turn things around. “She invited me to the college ministry, and I went because she was trying to sign with me,” Davis said.
Davis began to learn about Jesus because he could understand the message in sign language through an interpreter. “I started paying attention,” he said. He soon realized the only relationship that could make him happy was with Jesus.
That epiphany changed Davis’ life and took him far away from his Georgia home.
Joining a team
After considering several options, Davis decided IMB’s Hands On program fit what he felt called to do — to share the Gospel with the Deaf and empower them to share with others. Hands On provides semester-long mission opportunities for college students and young adults to serve Christ with a missionary mentor. He served in South Asia for six months with IMB workers Cody and Carla Ridge,* who focus on reaching the Deaf.
“Davis was a real encouragement to us,” Cody said. “He helped me remember what youth is like and learn how to relate to college students.”
Going from America to South Asia — from cars to bicycle rickshaws, from grocery stores to open air markets — can be overwhelming. Yet Cody and Carla were with Davis as supervisors and mentors. They guided him and helped him become acclimated and thrive there.
Discipling through relationships
Davis met his first Deaf friend in South Asia through Cody and Carla. Ani Bi studied Bible storying with the couple before Davis arrived. Bi helped Davis learn the native sign language and introduced him to Pola Garo, making the trio complete.
Their discipleship group started after Davis shared the story of Pentecost with them from Acts 2. Bi and Garo wanted to learn how Davis, who shared their disability, was able to know and teach the Bible using sign language.
“When Davis shared with the Deaf, I could see that they could grasp it and understand,” Cody said. “It began to move from their head to their heart.”
Learning to sign Bible stories transformed Bi and Garo. Davis and the International Mission Board workers used an interactive teaching method. Davis first told Bi and Garo the story as they intently watched him sign, asking questions at the end for clarification. Then the three students acted out a different part of the story.
By the end of the storying session, Bi, Garo and Davis were all able to sign the story with confidence, even stopping each other with a wave of the hand to correct a part that was missed.
“Before I learned only a little from teachers,” Garo said. “But when I started learning through Davis’s teaching, I could really understand. I would like to take these stories to my Deaf friends.”
In South Asia, Davis also found opportunities to change perceptions the Deaf have about God.
“Muslims believe that you must read the Quran to go to heaven,” Davis said. Because the Quran is in Arabic, a language few Deaf can read, many Deaf believe they cannot go to heaven.
“[My Deaf friends] also believe that God can hear prayer but cannot see them, so there is no way for them to get into heaven,” Davis said.
Bi and Garo were already young believers when they first met Davis, but they too had questions he helped them answer through sign language. Davis eventually baptized the two men and trained them to share the Bible in sign language. “They were so excited!” Davis said.
Davis also taught them about prayer. “I told them that if we as Deaf have to kneel and close our eyes, how can we talk to God?” he said. “They began to say ‘We can talk to God! We can share Bible stories in our heart language!’ It was awesome.”
“I cannot stay forever,” Davis said as his time abroad came to a close. “I have tried to empower [Bi and Garo] to learn for themselves, not just give them the answers. I would like for each of them to start a Deaf storying group.”
Using 2 Timothy 2:2 model, Davis, Cody and Carla have sought to entrust the Gospel to faithful men, like Bi and Garo, who will tell others.
Term ending, ministry just beginning
Bi and Garo have already started sharing the stories that Davis taught them. Bi shares with his Muslim friends, and Garo takes stories to an association in a Muslim area of town. “The people are resistant,” Davis said. “But [Bi and Garo] don’t give up!”
Cody and Carla said they would love to see more students like Davis come to South Asia to reach the Deaf. They hope a team of Deaf will help transform the city.
*Name changed. Harper McKay is a writer for AsiaStories living in Southeast Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).