SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP)–The tightly twisted blonde curls topping Lee Kirby’s head jiggle in rhythm to his stride as he walks back to his pew. His smile reflects the affirmation he feels after receiving the biggest ovation he’s ever seen. He’s not real sure what hundreds of people clapping sounds like. Kirby, 16, is deaf. Meningitis took his hearing at age 3. He does, however, understand the smiles and the sea of nodded approvals.
Latrelle Pitts, 17, has her wavy golden locks pulled back into a short ponytail that bounces as she takes her seat. She can’t hear the applause either but feels the same pride as Kirby.
The all-American-looking boyfriend and girlfriend have been in the same class at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind (SCSDB) since kindergarten. On this particular night they’ve pledged to abstain from sexual relations until they marry. It’s the second most important decision of their lives.
Twenty-nine of their classmates made the same commitment.
The students from SCSDB were among the more than 100 teenagers who recently received rings to remind them of their public vows of abstinence made during a True Love Waits ceremony at First Baptist Church of Spartanburg. True Love Waits is a biblically based abstinence program developed by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. More than a million youth worldwide have made commitments to abstinence during the 10-year history of True Love Waits. Ninety-plus religious and secular organizations use True Love Waits to teach teens a biblical understanding of sex within marriage.
“A lot of times these kids from the school are overlooked and go unnoticed because of their deafness or blindness,” said Seth Buckley, youth minister at First Baptist. “With the way we did this ceremony, we wanted the emphasis to be on them. We want them to know we care about them.”
Experiencing the type of concern and unconditional love First Baptist’s youth ministry extends toward the SCSDB students may be foreign to many of them. The school, located in the northwest corner of South Carolina, houses more than 300 students of all ages from around the state. Journeys home on weekends are difficult and sometimes abusive. Parents of deaf children often struggle to communicate because their sign language skills are far below their children’s skills. Deaf and blind students often feel lonely and isolated. Even if their parents attend a church, it is unlikely the church has an interpreter.
Life in dormitories on campus also can lead to isolation. The state continues to cut funding for extracurricular activities, leaving few after-class programs in which the students can be involved, according to teachers at the school. Watching television and movies becomes the activity of choice by default, and that is where the problem begins.
“They see a lot of the shows geared toward teenagers,” said Shannon Fike, a teacher at the school and a member of First Baptist. “The programs show a lot of sexual interaction between characters. Since their TVs don’t have closed captioning, they can’t read the dialogue. Having sex looks like something that all teenagers do to have fun. They don’t understand that’s not the norm because they have so little contact with teenagers outside of the school. Reality to them is what they see on TV.”
Sexual intercourse on campus has escalated to the point where one teacher said that anywhere the students have an opportunity to test the limits, they will. The example of two teens having sexual contact in a lunch line near an ice machine makes the point.
Fike and Bill Spooner, also a teacher at the school and member of First Baptist, have a passion for improving the lives of the students. Prayer was the first expression of their passion, action the second.
Spooner developed a Christian club and initially had low attendance, but interest began picking up. Any questions regarding biblical teaching were fair game at the club and eventually questions turned to sex. The questions prompted a study on the biblical perspective of sex. Several students pledged abstinence.
“I’d heard about the Wednesday night program for youth here at First Baptist about the time we did the study,” Spooner said. “I wanted to find out more. I’m not a big fan of loud music, but what I found here was several hundred teenagers truly worshiping God. Seth was also teaching about abstinence so I asked him if he’d mind if I brought some students the following week.”
Buckley agreed but informed Spooner his group was nearing the end of its True Love Waits study. The next week the youth would be signing their pledge cards committing to abstinence. Fike quickly signed on as the interpreter for the event.
More than 300 students gathered in an old basement gymnasium for the event. The deaf and blind students clustered to the front right. Buckley taught the significance of a pledge to abstinence but cautioned the audience, “Without Jesus Christ in your life helping you with this commitment, it will be that much harder to keep. If you don’t have Jesus in your life, you need to take care of your commitment to Him first.”
As members of the youth group placed their pledge cards on a table near the front of the auditorium, students from SCSDB slowly approached Buckley — first one, then a couple, then a few more — to first accept Christ then slide their cards into the stack on the table. Eighteen SCSDB students received Christ, including Kirby and Pitts. They said it was the most important decision of their lives. A total of 20 made pledges to abstain from sex until after marriage.
“It is so evident that God is going before us in this,” Spooner said. “Isaiah 35 talks about the eyes of the blind being opened and the ears of the deaf being unstopped. I believe God spiritually did that for these children so that they could understand the Gospel.”
The youth received a visual reminder of their commitments the following week during the True Love Waits ring ceremony. “In the plans we make,” the students recited, “in the way we choose to dress, in our conversation, and in our time we commit to this goal of purity and abstinence before marriage.” Many sponsors from First Baptist slipped the rings on the students’ fingers since many of their parents could not attend.
“We prayed for God to expand our territory in reaching out to youth and He has,” Buckley said. “Six weeks ago we hadn’t seen any of these kids. The deaf are one of the world’s largest unreached people groups. When I think about the decisions they’ve made to follow Christ and to keep themselves sexually pure, I’m humbled because I feel like God is preparing them to go back to their families and communities from around the state to use them in a mighty way.”
Pitts experienced the affirmation of a loving church when the ring was slipped on his finger. He’s now setting his sites on more lofty affirmation.
“I want to follow Jesus and do what He wants me to do,” Pitts stated adamantly. “I won’t care what people say about me. [Latrelle and I] will look at these rings and remember the decision we made and not be tempted. I made a promise to God and I’m not going to sleep around.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: COMMITTED AS NEVER BEFORE, RINGING TRUE and VIVID MEMORY.