NASHVILLE (BP) – John Blackmon’s father-in-law couldn’t hear the message, but its boldness and life-changing capability rang through loud and clear two weeks before he died.
Blackmon’s wife, Cheryl, had already been praying for and sharing the Gospel with her father before she and John married 12 years ago. Cheryl’s mother was a Christian, but her father had continued to reject Christ. John learned some American Sign Language (ASL) basics and joined the task with his wife, who could sign in ASL before she could talk. Ultimately, Cheryl’s father come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
Blackmon, pastor of Meansville Baptist Church in Meansville, Ga., cited the personal connection as one of the reasons he introduced a motion at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting last month that more resources for Deaf ministry be made available for Southern Baptists.
“The amount of lost people in this country who are Deaf is abysmal,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. We need to be doing all we can not only to reach Deaf people but resource and equip others to reach them as well.”
Blackmon’s motion called on Lifeway Christian Resources and the North American Mission Board “to research and report on the feasibility of a partnership to produce and provide access to resources for existing Deaf ministries and future work among Deaf people in the United States.” Messengers accepted the motion, which came to include the International Mission Board as well as NAMB. The two entities will produce a report for the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim.
Julie Smith is among those excited about the motion. As Julie Balthrop, she was a missionary at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary from 1983-85, jointly funded through the Home (now North American) Mission Board’s US-2 program, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and the New Orleans Baptist Association. At NOBTS, she served as an ASL interpreter for men studying to enter the ministry.
“There’s a great need within the Deaf community for access to the Bible,” said Smith, who met her future husband, Joey Smith, while he was an NOBTS student, though not one of the Deaf students she worked with. Joey is now pastor of East Thomaston Baptist Church in Thomaston, Ga.
“This is a tremendous need and something worthy of pursuing,” Julie Smith said. “I work with a Deaf woman who is 65 years old and didn’t know about many of these Bible stories. She’s so excited to learn about them.”
Blackmon developed another friendship while waiting at microphone No. 5 to deliver his motion. His turn had finally arrived at the microphone during the Tuesday (June 15) morning session when time ran out. After lunch, he was first in line at the microphone yet was still the last in the afternoon session to present his motion.
During that time Blackmon became acquainted with Joel Vancil, pastor of Turkey Branch Baptist Church in Springfield, Ga., who was serving as a page at the microphone. Vancil grew excited upon hearing the motion as his own mother, who was also attending the meeting, is Deaf.
“As someone with a Deaf parent, I have a heart for this,” he said. “My mom thought it was awesome, so I made it a point to introduce her to John afterwards.”
The motion was made even more special for Vancil, as it was the first annual meeting attended by his parents, who began attending Sunfield Baptist Church in Du Quoin, Ill., a few years ago and were encouraged by their son to come to the annual meeting and learn more about the SBC.
Blackmon gave two key motivations for his motion. The first had to do with the number of Deaf in the United States, which Gallaudet University places at 600,000. According to a 2011 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 11 million in the U.S. who consider themselves Deaf or have serious difficulty hearing.
The other regarded a lack of resources. Lifeway phased out its Explore the Bible: Deaf curriculum last November. In December 2019 NAMB honored longtime Southern Baptist Deaf ministry leader Carter Bearden, but since passage of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report in 2010 has focused primarily on church planting.
At this year’s annual meeting, IMB President Paul Chitwood spoke on the importance of Deaf ministry.
“Knowing that many Deaf around the world die lost every day, we know there is not a moment to spare,” Chitwood said at a June 15 gathering celebrating the work of Deaf Pathway Global, a ministry out of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. “We must press forward as quickly as we can, and to be able to do so in a project like this is unprecedented.”
Mark Sauter has worked alongside his wife Vesta with the IMB for the last 25 years in Deaf ministry. He credited the IMB’s work alongside those such as Brentwood Baptist and Union University in Jackson, Tenn., in providing more opportunities not only for Deaf Southern Baptists, but those wanting to reach the Deaf community.
“Pastor Blackmon affirmed those efforts … for international work,” Sauter said, “but his motion is timely in that it pushes forward a real need for access to training and resources by Deaf Americans, many of whom are seeking to follow God’s call on their lives to take the Gospel to the Deaf nations of the world.”
Another Georgia pastor, Jarrod Kinsey of First Baptist Church of Cave Spring, applauded the motion. Georgia School for the Deaf is located just a few miles from the church, and Kinsey sees the need for such resources on a consistent basis.
“With an average of 8-10 percent of our weekly attendance being from the Deaf community, I am keenly aware of this obstacle,” he said. “We have a tremendous team of translators, but actual tools for discipleship make cultivating Christian growth almost impossible. Our convention’s willingness to invest in significant ways in the Deaf community would serve as a great catalyst to the missionary cause in the unreached Deaf people groups around the world.
“Without a doubt, discipleship tools geared specifically to the Deaf community would help pastors like me make significant Great Commission inroads.”