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Envisioning deaf churches across Uruguay

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year’s theme is “GO TELL the story of Jesus”; the national offering goal is $170 million.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (BP)–As the bus moves farther away from Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo, the scene outside the window changes from seaboard to rolling fields dotted with sheep.

It’s almost a four-hour bus ride to the town of Treinta y Tres, but International Mission Board missionary Mary Swanner has become accustomed to the trip.

Originally from North Carolina, Mary lives in Montevideo with her husband Charles but ventures all over the Iowa-sized country to work with the deaf. She has been involved in deaf-related ministries there since her appointment by the IMB in 1984.

Seated next to Mary on the bus is Lorena, a 20-year-old native of Treinta y Tres. Lorena recently moved to Montevideo to attend the missionary school where Mary teaches.

The school offers a variety of classes, including a two-year sign language course that Mary teaches. Each student is required to have at least one deaf friend and encouraged to have many.

“You learn more when you have someone to practice with,” Mary says.

Lorena attends Mary’s sign classes but began taking sign before moving to the city. She was fluent within six months. She and Mary agree that her quick learning is a gifting from God.

In fact, Lorena was instrumental in starting the first deaf church in Treinta y Tres when she was a teenager. The group first met in homes and later moved into their own building.

And for the 20 or so people attending the Baptist church, it has become an integral part of their lives. Most Uruguayan deaf aren’t familiar with Jesus or the Bible. They have grown up in a society without any Christian influence.

This deaf congregation is trying to change that trend by reaching out to a community that knows nothing about God’s love. The message on the church’s front door says: No hay ninguna persona en la tierra a quien Dios no ame (There is not a single person on earth that God doesn’t love).

To accomplish this task, Mary organized a cooperative team of workers — some hearing, some deaf. The hearing group is called Manos Inspiradas en el Apoyo al Sordo (Inspired Hands in Support of the Deaf). The other group is made up of deaf leaders from existing churches. Members are assigned areas of the country where they plant deaf churches similar to the one in Treinta y Tres.

The hearing workers “have a clear vision that their role is only support, and the goal is to equip deaf to reach deaf, deaf to lead deaf, allowing the deaf to be full participants in the body of Christ and not just spectators,” Mary says.

In 2002, Mary and her team began to plant churches completely led by the deaf. “We started with one church — today there are [many]. Others have deaf Christians [who] are … waiting to be baptized to form a church.

“We are training others to reach deaf and plant churches,” she says. But it’s an uphill challenge in a country where eight of the 19 provinces have no deaf churches.

“It is my prayer that the Lord will raise up bold deaf leaders to continue [spreading] His Word throughout Uruguay.”
Emilee Brandon is a writer for the International Mission Board. To learn more about ministries in Uruguay and South America visit samregion.org. Visit going.imb.org for general volunteer opportunities. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering can be made at www.imb.org/offering to support the International Mission Board’s more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including Mary and Charles Swanner in Uruguay.

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  • Emilee Brandon