ROWDY, Ky. (BP)–Richie Noble is uniquely equipped to harvest some very special souls from the stony mountain soil of eastern Kentucky.
As one of four children born to a coal miner from the region, he understands Appalachian culture. As a graduate of Boyce College of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has the theological and practical training necessary to minister. And as a person deaf since birth, he knows firsthand the struggles of the approximately 1,500 deaf people who live in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
The 33-year-old Noble serves with the recently formed Eastern Kentucky Regional Deaf Ministry sponsored by the Pike, Enterprise and Three Forks Baptist associations. The purpose of the ministry is to identify, evangelize and disciple the deaf in the region so they can become autonomous Christians in their own culture. Noble’s ministry as a regional deaf missionary stretches over 11 Appalachian counties.
“The Lord has put this all together. It couldn’t have happened on our own energy,” said Ray Cooper, director of missions for the Three Forks Baptist Association. Cooper also serves as president of the ministry’s board, which is comprised of all the directors of missions and one member each from all three associations.
In addition to support from the three associations, nearly half the ministry’s support comes from Kentucky Baptist churches’ gifts through the Cooperative Program, which are used to purchase Bibles and other study materials, supply transportation and pay Noble’s salary.
“This money is used to show that all people, including deaf, need to know about Jesus and that caring for others who are different is important in any type of ministry,” Noble said. “Without the Cooperative Program funds, fewer deaf would be able to see what God can do when the right tools are used.”
While living as a deaf person is a challenge anywhere, the remote nature of mountain life may make the situation even more challenging.
“Many have forgotten the language they learned while attending the deaf school due to the lack of involvement with other deaf. Other deaf have never attended school and use home signs which change from family to family and can be quite frustrating,” Noble explained.
His ministry offers deaf eastern Kentuckians an opportunity to connect and communicate with other deaf people. Participating in Bible study and fellowships means both spiritual growth and the maintenance of valuable communication skills. Keeping sign language skills sharp may mean the difference between being able to communicate only with immediate family and being able to communicate with the entire deaf community.
“Part of the problem with a deaf fellowship is in transportation,” said Margie Wilson, who serves as secretary on the ministry’s board of directors. Where churches are generally composed of people from a geographic area, members of a deaf fellowship may be scattered over a large area.
Noble routinely spends hours driving a van or his truck around winding roads, gathering his far-flung flock for Bible studies held in different counties every week. Part of his time is invested in simply finding the deaf people in the region and establishing a relationship with them.
“You can’t just go down to the post office and find out who’s deaf and who isn’t,” Cooper said. Noble’s deep roots and network of family and friends afford him greater access to unreached members of the community.
Attendance at the Pike Baptist Association’s monthly Bible studies has doubled since Richie took over in January, noted Carl Boyd, director of missions. All three associations have a history of deaf ministry, some supported by Cooperative Program funds. Establishing consistent, native leadership has remained a challenge. Associational leaders are hoping that establishing the Eastern Kentucky Regional Deaf Ministry and supporting Noble will change that.
One of the blessings of Noble’s ministry is that the deaf in eastern Kentucky have a pastor who knows their language and culture rather than having an interpreter who may not understand the culture, Noble said. “Many are thrilled to have a deaf pastor because they have never experienced that before.”
“Some churches have interpreters, but no one ministers like a deaf person,” Boyd added.
Noble also is a discipler, taking deaf friends with him on ministry visits so they can get a sense of what he does. One of the goals of the Eastern Kentucky Regional Deaf Ministry is to develop Bible study leaders. Noble sees some leadership emerging, but does not see many moving yet to take on more responsibility.
“Having a person who knows what they are experiencing is also a blessing because they know me and the struggles I have faced as a deaf person. I get to meet different deaf people from various backgrounds and try to help them become more independent. I try to show them that a deaf person can do things that a hearing person can do.”
Noble is one of a handful of Baptist-supported ministers to the deaf in Kentucky. Deaf churches or missions have been established in Danville, Erlanger, Pikeville, Louisville and Lexington and more than two dozen ministries to the deaf are scattered across the state.
Kentucky Baptists who are deaf, their friends and families, and those who minister to the deaf also find training and fellowship through the Kentucky Baptist Conference of the Deaf. The KBCD, which is also supported by state Baptist churches’ Cooperative Program gifts, meets once a year for a weekend of fellowship, workshops, training and inspiration, said Tim Bender, Kentucky Baptist Convention deaf ministries consultant. This year’s KBCD will be Nov. 10-12 at Camp Nathanael in Knott County. A deaf camp is also planned for Aug. 7-9 at the same location.
For more information on Cooperative Program missions and ministries in Kentucky, call (502) 254-4731.