MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–“We prayed and wept and asked God to help us reach the deaf with the gospel,” Fay Osborne Lanham remembered about attending the first meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf in 1948.
Lanham and two other living SBCD charter members, Leonard and Doris Asbridge, were among more than 900 registrants from around the country who celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the organization of Southern Baptist deaf workers. The July 25-31 meeting, at the University of Memphis, returned to the city where the SBCD’s organizational meeting was held in December 1948.
Meeting at the same time was the Junior SBCD, an organization for youth ages 12 through 20.
In 1948, Lanham and the Asbridges were among the founding members of the first Southern Baptist conference for deaf people, with a dream of bringing deaf people together to worship and to discuss their common goals of winning people to Christ, and of helping Southern Baptist leadership catch the vision of working with deaf people.
With the encouragement of R. Paul Caudill, pastor of Memphis’ First Baptist Church, the group invited everyone they could think of to a meeting. Twenty-one people from eight states came together that first year. The group has met annually since 1950. Instrumental in the organization of the group was a missionary named J. W. Gardner, who had been a pastor in Texas until he lost his hearing — and took his deafness as a sign that God was moving him into a new area of work.
Asbridge was a printer with a Memphis newspaper but his heart was reaching other deaf people with the gospel. He had been converted at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville under the ministry of Laura Formwalt, a longtime worker with the deaf. Asbridge would work all week at his printing job but would then travel to any location where he felt the leadership of God to communicate the gospel to other deaf people.
Like a modern-day Apostle Paul, Asbridge put up with great inconvenience and dangers to take the message of Christ to those without hearing.
“Many times I would catch a train to my destination and end up sleeping in the train station because no one was there to meet me,” Asbridge, now in his 90s, recounted. “But I went to the church anyhow and talked to people about the Lord. Sometimes there were only one or two (deaf) people there for me to talk to.”
Once he was caught in a flooding river but managed to escape and make it to his destination.
Asbridge remains keenly interested in deaf ministry. When asked about his vision for the future he said without hesitation, “My hope is to have our Baptist work among the deaf grow in foreign countries, to have our work spread here at home and to help people look up to the Lord.” Asbridge said he has seen so many prayers already answered that he has faith to ask for more. “God answered our prayers,” he said, “and that gave us more faith.”
Asbridge and the others carry on a ministry with a long heritage. Southern Baptists have been involved in deaf ministry since 1905. Myrtle Morris was employed by the Home Mission Board that year to serve as a teacher of the deaf in Cuba. Morris, who was deaf, served only one year before returning to the United States. John Michaels was hired by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention to work with the deaf in 1905 and then by the Home Mission Board in 1906. Michaels was responsible for the spread of ministry to the deaf in the Southern Baptist Convention for nearly four decades.
In a soon-to-be published book on the history of the SBCD, Donnie Wiltshire, associate pastor with emphasis on deaf ministry at First Baptist, Memphis, writes of Michaels, “Everything that we are today as Deaf Southern Baptists originated in Michaels and his unsurpassed vision.”
Wiltshire’s book, titled, “A Celebration of 50 Years: The Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf — 1948-1998,” is a retrospective look at Baptist attempts to reach the deaf with the gospel. Wiltshire knows this history intimately. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on the work of Southern Baptists with the deaf. His dissertation has been published under the title, “In That Day: An Interpretative History of Southern Baptist Deaf Work.” He is also the editor of a book of memoirs from one of the early pioneers of deaf work, J. W. Gardner.
Officers of the SBCD are quick to point out that although ministry among the deaf has had an inspiring history, enormous work still needs to be done. Current SBCD President Larry White said the main task is to “bring the church back to God through prayer.” White is the deaf pastor at First Baptist Church, Del City, Okla., where he serves with the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Tom Elliff. ” We need to get our people praying, experiencing God, and knowing God,” White said.
In his travels as SBCD president, White has heard many concerns. “The spirit seems to be lacking. Many of the deaf churches seem to be pulled down. Pastors are quitting and the people are discouraged. They are losing their burden for people.”
In his presidential address to the conference, White quoted from Ephesians 5:18 and exhorted the gathering to be filled with the Spirit. Citing Acts 2, he also called them to seek a balance in their churches of fellowship, prayer, breaking bread and discipleship.
Others agree with White’s emphasis on keeping the spiritual vitality of the individual and the church in the forefront. J. Aric Randolph, pastor of New Life Deaf Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas, serves as the chairperson of the SBCD board of directors. When asked about the vision for the SBCD for the next five to 10 years, Randolph said, “That’s the problem. We need to establish a vision because we realize something is missing.” He went on to explain that the leadership does have a vision that he hopes others will catch.
The SBCD’s goals for the next year, White and Randolph said, include hiring an executive director who can lead the group into the future; keeping the emphasis on prayer; teaching people to tithe and share their time and talents through the church.
With deaf churches facing great challenges, White said they greatly desire the cooperation and support of Southern Baptist Convention leadership. “Don’t leave the deaf isolated,” he urged. “We are a ‘language’ church.” White also noted that the recent retirement of Carter Bearden from the North American Mission Board creates some anxiety. Bearden was the key NAMB staff member working with deaf churches in the United States. White and other SBCD officers said they hope someone else with Bearden’s heart for deaf ministry will be appointed by NAMB.
Wiltshire said he hopes for what he called a “big picture strategy” from NAMB. “In our estimation, one of the largest unreached people groups is the deaf,” he said. “Reaching them can’t be done unintentionally. It has to be done intentionally.” His request of Southern Baptist leadership: “Listen to us. We don’t have influence and power. We’re not the voices that are heard. We’ll take patience because we don’t easily fit.” Emphasizing the complex nature of deaf ministry, Wiltshire said, “Communication is hard. That’s even more true with the deaf.”
Randolph pointed to the growing work among the deaf in international mission fields with appreciation. But he cautioned against becoming complacent stateside. “God is blessing. He is opening doors in other countries. But let’s not forget our own homes.”
During the conference’s Wednesday business session, White was re-elected president. Phillip Easterling from South Carolina was elected first vice president. James Gregory from Tennessee was re-elected second vice president.
The SBCD’s next meeting will be on the campus of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., July 31-Aug. 6, 1999. To receive information on the books about the history of deaf ministry, contact Wiltshire at 3522 Thistle Valley Lane, Bartlett, TN 38135; phone, (901) 385-0447. Information on the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf can be obtained from Randolph at New Life Deaf Fellowship, 6801 Church St., Fort Worth, TX 76112.
Aycock is pastor of McLean Baptist Church, Memphis, Tenn., and author of 16 books, including the 1998 Broadman & Holman book, “Prayer 101” and the Kregel Publications release, “God’s Man: A Daily Devotional Guide to Christlike Character.”