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Moscow: God’s love transcends their ears

MOSCOW (BP)–For years, Valera Zhadan searched for someone to share his dream: a church for the Deaf in Moscow.

His search ended the day he met Southern Baptist missionaries Kris and Frances Courson. Today, Valera stands as the third ordained Deaf pastor in all of Russia, his church born in the crowded living room of the Coursons’ Moscow apartment.

Deaf since childhood, Valera experienced all the frustrations of a group that has long suffered second-class status in Russia -– and in the church. The Deaf number about 42,000 in Moscow and some 800,000 nationwide, yet only a handful are evangelical believers. Little wonder, since few Deaf Russians have a chance to “hear” the Gospel in a form they can understand.

Attending hearing churches, “we felt there were two sets of rules: one for the hearing and one for the Deaf,” Valera explains.

“The Deaf had to be passive participants in worship and the whole church experience. They would be falling asleep in the service because they might not understand. Music meant nothing to the Deaf, and then there was three hours of preaching.”

Nor were they allowed to teach or become leaders. Many Deaf, hampered by a Russian educational system designed for the hearing, also struggle with reading. The Bible, in its classical Russian translation, presents a daunting challenge.

The deepest problem is a Russian society -– including Christians -– that sees the Deaf as “invalids” rather than what they are: a people group with their own culture, language, needs and gifts.

The Coursons, however, arrived in Moscow in 2002 with a very different mindset. Both are hearing, yet both sensed a call as young people to ministry among the Deaf. They met while serving as summer missionaries in the United States doing just that. Later, they served together as Mission Service Corps volunteers among the Deaf and, after getting married, as ministry staff members of Deaf churches.

Already fluent in American Sign Language, they tackled both Russian and Russian Sign Language (very different from its American counterpart) as new missionaries. They’re still learning. But they wasted little time getting started on their ministry of encouraging Deaf believers -– and they were quickly embraced.

The Deaf worship service that began in their apartment quickly outgrew the space and now meets in a Moscow Baptist church led by a supportive hearing pastor. It attracts 80 or more people each week, many of whom are non-Christian seekers.

“This has been Deaf-led from day one,” Kris points out. “We were just there to encourage, to help, to provide whatever training we could. They just needed someone to come in and say, ‘Yes, you can do this. We’re going to help you do what God has called you to do.'”

On the joyful day Valera was ordained by the sponsoring Russian Baptist church, he baptized six Deaf believers in a river.

That’s just the beginning. Valera and the Coursons are working together to videotape 150 key Bible stories in Russian Sign Language to spread the Word to Deaf seekers across Russia -– and beyond.

“We’re looking for at least 10 churches in the city of Moscow,” Kris says. “But we believe every church needs to reproduce itself. With 42,000 Deaf people, there will never be a building large enough to hold all the [potential] believers in Moscow. We hope these churches will begin home groups, meet in local McDonald’s restaurants, even in metro stations.

“With the video translation project, we have a target audience of 800,000 in Russia, but also Deaf people in Belarus, where the signing is very similar, in Ukraine and in the ‘Stans’ (formerly Soviet Central Asia). We’re looking at over 1 million people with no access to the Gospel in their own language.”

Valera, who knows what it’s like to get around major barriers, agrees.

“With the help of God,” he promises, “we’ll be able to do it.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges