BATES COUNTY – Sounds that would normally accompany teenagers at camp were noticeably absent June 11-15 at Osage River Baptist Association’s Kamp Keirsey, but the gospel and discipleship were there, sound or not. That week was
Deaf Youth Camp for 32 deaf or hard-of-hearing students from across Missouri and Oklahoma.
Linda Whiggam, a deaf woman from St. Louis, helped found Deaf Youth Camp 29 years ago as a way to better communicate the gospel and the Bible with the younger deaf generation, and has been camp director for all but one of those years.
Through Vivian Crowley, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter out of Broadway Baptist Church in Springfield
and a co-camp director, Whiggam said the camp is in many ways similar to more common “hearing” camps.
“They wake up, go to breakfast, go to chapel, go to classes, etc,” she said.
In many ways, however, it is different. The music in the chapel is very loud and very heavy on the bass, so campers can better feel the rhythm. Rap is a particularly favorite genre, because of its clear beat. And of course the camp pastor preaches using signs. There are inflatable games, swimming and smiles, but there is no shouting or yelling. Dinner is silent except for the sounds of 30-plus forks and knives on plates.
Deaf Youth Camp is a ministry of Missouri Baptist Conference of the Deaf, an autonomous group that works in harmony with the Missouri Baptist Convention. The annual youth camp is one its main ways of ministering to young people, many of whom may not have the background knowledge of faith and the Scripture that a hearing student might.
Deaf Youth Camp used Vacation Bible School material in the past, but it simply didn’t meet their needs. Now, the
camp uses “Story One” (a step-by-step visual method that originated in deaf ministries in Europe) where the campers
focus on a single passage of Scripture.
present it back home so that others in the deaf community can understand.”
This year, the campers learned about Peter and his brief moment of walking the water with Jesus. The students’ “ownership” became obvious late in the week when the students organized a skit to retell the story, including fans and flashing lights to simulate the storm.
Another aspect of the camp is leadership training, especially for some of the older campers who have been there several summers. After three years of training, they may have the chance to be camp staff.
“We want them to be a Christian role model and to serve to the kids,” Whiggam said. “There are so little opportunities
for deaf leadership when they go home.”
An Unreached People Group
Contrary to what many believe about ASL, its use isn’t universal among the deaf and many – even in the same area – may not share the same signs or be considered fluent. Even different deaf teachers in different schools might have different vocabulary. Literacy isn’t as high among the deaf as some hearing people may think, and the written word follows English/hearing tradition and grammar, even though the closest spoken language to ASL grammatically is French.
“It’s not working,” said Crowley, who grew up in a home with deaf siblings. “The deaf culture is so much different than
the hearing culture. It’s overwhelming. If you ask a deaf person what the pastor talked about, they don’t remember. How can they apply the truths and change their lives is they don’t remember? The language is visual; it’s not written. Some deaf can read, and some can read better than others. It just depends. Even when they can ‘speak’ ASL, many times they are
two to three years behind.”
Some churches have an interpreter on Sunday morning to translate the sermons and songs into ASL, but she said that may not be enough in many cases.
“It’s not just signing what’s being said,” Crowley. “It’s not word for word. Things get lost during the sermon. I know
hearing people mean well, but learning signs from a book isn’t enough. It’s in the eyebrows and tilting of the head. If
you’re going to reach a people group, you have to immerse yourself into their culture. Just because you have someone that signs, that’s not a deaf ministry. It’s not getting up there and signing what’s being ‘sermon-ed;’ generally that’s too much information. It’s listening to what is being said and conveying it in a totally different way. The Holy Spirit is the only one that can help you meet those needs.”
Though they live in Missouri, Whiggam said the state’s deaf are as much an unreached people group as the most remote tribe in the African bush. She attends Friendship Baptist Chapel of the Deaf in St. Louis, but churches that focus directly on the deaf are few and far between. The North American Mission Board considers them to be an unreached people group.
“It just breaks your heart,” Crowley said. “If you took all the deaf and hard of hearing in the world and put them together, they would be the fourth largest nation. There are around 59,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in the state of Missouri and just a half percent profess to be Christians.”
Whiggam said that for many of the deaf campers, this week is their only opportunity to hear the seed of the gospel.
“They go back home, where’s their church?” she asked. “Who’s going to teach them and mentor them? My prayer is to reach them, because they’re starving for the gospel. They want camp to be two weeks, but we don’t have the money or the staff.”
Money would help, as would more churches or intentional deaf missionaries, Whiggam said. But an out-of-the-box idea – at least among the hearing – is if an association or church would build a camp that is designed for deaf students that could be adapted for hearing students instead of the other way around. Whiggam and Crowley cite things like speakers on the floor instead of suspended in the air so the sound’s vibrations are more easily transferred the floor.
“A lot of camps have concrete floors, but the deaf prefer wood because you can’t feel anything on a concrete floor,” Crowley said. “It would be easy to do, but no one is willing to do it.”
“I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” she said. “After I graduated from Missouri School for the Deaf, I went back to St. Louis and met a deaf lady who asked me if I was saved. I said, what do you mean ‘saved’? I had no concept of salvation. I explained that I’d been baptized, but I didn’t understand what she meant about being saved.”
Whiggam’s friend took her to First Baptist Church, Ferguson, where through an interpreter she finally realized she needed to recognize her sins and accept Jesus as her Lord and savior. As a new Christian, she soon became a Bible study leader for the deaf and 30 years later here she is doing the same thing, working to help the deaf understand the truth of God’s love, at home in St. Louis, in deaf communities in other countries and at Deaf Youth Camp.
The impact of Deaf Youth Camp is illustrated by an e-mail from a camper’s mother Whiggam received when she got home from camp. The camper accepted Jesus as his savior that week. The e-mail read in part:
“[My son] jumped off the bus and started signing to me nonstop! Yes, he knew some signs before he went, just enough to get by, but now he’s carrying on a ‘normal’ conversation. I had to hold back tears of joy when he said ‘Mom, I want to tell you a story they taught us’ and he started signing to me… a Bible story in ASL. He was so proud of his ability and so am I!”