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International Missionary Work: How we are walking on holy ground when entering Deaf communities

Dr. Kirk VanGilder explains many points about how we are walking on holy ground when entering Deaf communities in another country.
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[DESCRIPTION: A white male with brown hair and glasses, wearing a blue pullover sitting facing the camera signing with a green background behind him. He signs the following paragraphs.]

Hello! I’m Kirk Van Gilder. I’m an Associate Professor of Religion at Gallaudet University. I wanted to share ideas about international missionary work and how to interact with deaf people with you today. The first concept, in Latin language, is “Missio Dei”. What does it mean in English? “Mission of God” It means we do not go and “spread the Gospel”. God is already there doing the work in their lives. We are simply joining in the work that God is already doing. That is the idea behind Missio Dei. It’s not about bringing and spreading the Gospel. They already have God working there. We join in with them. It’s an important concept to keep in mind. When you are planning to go to another country and work with deaf people. We do not bring. We join in with what’s happening there.

Now with the concept of Missio Dei in the back of your mind, I want to mention three points for you to consider when you prepare to go to another county. The first is cultural understanding. The second is planning the use of time. And the third is language. So the first point, cultural understanding, it’s learning as much as possible about the culture before you go. Just to let you know, it will help to plan and prepare for better interactions with people. For example, one time I went to Kenya working with the deaf community at a school, planning a holiday Bible school activities with deaf children. They asked us to lead something like that. So we’re preparing a lesson on Jesus’s birth, the Christmas story of God’s gift of love to us. That’s the gist of the lesson we were thinking. We started thinking about crafts children could make. We thought, oh perfect, birthday cards! So we planned, collected money, gathered all materials. We taught and acted out the story, but during the craft activity, the kids were puzzled. We tried again, “Oh it’s birthday cards!” but the children still were puzzled. The teacher came over to us and informed us “We do not really celebrate birthdays annually here. Nor do we do parties and give gifts.” Oh whoops! We had to change our plans. We gave kids a drawing to copy, the birth picture, all was well. Having cards and a birthday party did not make sense in their culture.

We had to toss our plan and adapt to fit in their culture. If we had known before, we could have avoided that and planned better. It’s really important to know as the first point the culture of the place you are visiting before you go. Also, for the first item, cultural understanding, it may also help to observe how hearing and deaf people interact with each other, so you can prepare yourself. It may be different than how hearing and deaf people interact in America. It may have a great inequality, but you may be surprised it may also have more equality. It’s really interesting.

I have two stories. How to observe how hearing and deaf people interact, I grew up hard of hearing, as I grew older, my hearing declined. I entered the deaf signing world. Typically I am aware I have a lot of privilege. I understand the “hearing way”, socialize well with hearing people, especially with my hearing aid and my speaking skills. It’s different for those who’ve grown up fully deaf here in America. Can you expect the same kind of socialization in other countries? No. Because maybe for example they do not have access to the same kind of technology or hearing aids or others. So how deaf people may interact with other hearing people can be different. For example, when I arrived I started teaching and leading a lesson with children. Many of the kids, maybe around 6 years old, are raised by hearing families. They were new to sign language, trying to sign. I tried my best to gesture, and to use their sign language, but they seemed to not understand and not very responsive when I tried to interact with them. I was not sure what to do, then a hearing teacher approached me and repeated my comment. Then that person kept taking over and pushing me aside. I respected their working with the kids, and the kids were responsive. But I was conflicted because a hearing person had took over, Kind of taking over and pushing me aside. It made a great impact on me, a first time in my life. I seriously felt how it was like to be as a deaf person dismissed and oppressed in society, because in America I did not experience that feeling despite seeing it happen often to others. I did not experience such a discrimination often but there, wow, I definitely felt it.

Another time, I had a meeting with the head of a school, so we prepared and discussed comments. Sometimes my interpreter would have the information that we needed to share so they would add it in and help me look like I know everything. The goal was to show deaf leadership. But still, the head of the school would talk directly to the interpreter and ignore me. I’d try to speak but they’d ignore it. Another hearing person would say the same thing, they’d agree. They made me feel not equal. Prepare yourself to understand the circumstances, and work gently with understanding of the culture. Don’t take over as if you’re the expert, but how to recognize and support the deaf leadership. The deaf people out there are just like ourselves. Be aware with that.

Another story, one time I went to Zimbabwe. I met a man very similar to me, growing up hard of hearing. He had a hearing aid for a while but it broke. He had no money to fix it so he just let it go. He could speak, enough to make himself understandable to hearing people, but he preferred to sign and turn his voice off. Because while trying to speak, he’d sound different – a “deaf voice”. He didn’t want them to judge him based on his voice so he’d choose not to speak unless he really needed it. So in his interactions, he was on the fence with that, but what’s really interesting is the way he interacted with hearing people was different than mine. Usually I’d work hard to listen and adapt to them. He was a lot more comfortable with letting them adapt to him. I observed and I learned from him how to interact and encourage hearing people to adapt to me, instead of me trying to adapt to them. You can learn from them, their strategies and techniques, the way hearing and deaf people interact and try to fit in. Wow!

One more story that also fits. It’s interesting, I went to Zimbabwe. The deaf club there, after we flew out, they established the club themselves and they also decided to have their own worship service on Sundays. No, excuse me, on Sundays they’d go to a hearing church and on Saturdays they would gather at the deaf club and have a worship service. We thought it would be similar to in America where deaf people would gather at a deaf church, separately from a hearing church. No. No they didn’t want that. They’d have a worship service on Saturdays with deaf people and still go to the hearing church on Sundays. They went regardless if an sign language interpreter were available or not. They’d sit and observe, stand and sit, stand and sit, just going along with the service. Then the church started to recognize their attendance. They decided they wanted to start providing an interpreter. Wow, it was amazing to see their stubbornness and persistence. They didn’t want to just have a deaf gathering, they wanted that yes, but they didn’t want only a deaf gathering but to also integrate with the hearing society. We recognized their desires , hopes and dreams of what they want, which was not just to only set up a deaf church but to also be involved with the hearing church. They wanted both. We had to disregard our ideas and support their goals.

So, watch how the deaf and hearing people interact with each other. Observe, understand and learn from them. We can. Planning your time while you are in another country, is very important as the second goal. Consider understanding their culture, how they perceive time as flexible or strict. Take more time to do introductions and mingle and take tea breaks throughout the day. Importantly, as social customs happen, follow their culture, then I’d want to prepare how to do things with their schedule, their time for interactions and planning. Think ahead, learn from them as much as possible. But when you first arrive, take the time to observe. It’s not a waste of time. Observe and learn how they interact with each other. how they set their time and how they set their lessons, learning, teaching, interacting and communicating. Learn as much as I can then adapt my plans to fit how they do things. Have the time to exchange information during informal tea time. Take advantage of that informal time to share information and ideas about deaf education.

For example, with teachers, if they set up their classroom to be orderly in time, set up your lessons to be also orderly in time to fit with their style. The children will be able to understand better. They are used to how it’s run. If you arrive and do things a completely different way, it can be confusing, and they may not able to understand. Take care to take the time from the start of arrival to observe how in their culture they do things then follow and adapt your plan to fit. You might notice with the second point also, maybe you’d want to lead activities and have them look up to you as the expert and valued as a visitor, especially if the country was formally colonized. Resist letting them fawn over you as a visitor and let them lead, let them grow. It applies to time management and planning as well as the third point, language, too.

The third point, language, it’s important to know that many Americans bring to another countries ASL (American Sign Language), thinking it’s comfortable and easy, without realizing that their sign language may be different. Sometimes it’s very different, it’s important to learn their sign language. My group would go to Kenya and we’d go to Zimbabwe. First we’d go and film, learn their signs, look for anything on the www (world wide web), for any videos that deaf people may have created and uploaded to the internet, and learn as much as possible their sign language. Learn and then you put away your ASL, immerse as much as possible. Meaning when you arrive, it’s important to set up socializing time with deaf people. That’s the first step, socializing and learning, interacting and learning signs. If you have a plan, things you plan to preach, or lesson plans or others, you can ask them for the signs. Gather as much as you can from the local deaf community then you can adapt, be more clear, and improve your sign vocabulary in their sign language. Why is doing this important? It’s because when you bring ASL from America, it takes over and oppresses other people’s local sign language. You don’t want to do that. you’d want to empower the local leadership including deaf people’s culture and sign language.

So the goal here is to put aside ASL and approach and socialize with people and encourage local sign language. It’s even more important when you’re interacting with hearing people in other countries. Specifically why? Because many times they’re learning sign language. They don’t know the concept, so they’d be asking what’s the sign for this or that. Refer them to the local deaf person. They know the local sign language. We’re not using ASL. We do not need ASL. Let’s ask the people what the signs are. Introduce them and let them meet. Sometimes maybe you’re not fluent in their local sign language, and you’re trying to lead something, invite someone to team up with you. Be co-leaders. You do not only achieve communication in their sign language. You also empower the local experts and the local deaf leaders’ values. Then hearing people will look at them and say Oh! Our deaf people can do this and that too! This creates connections. Because when we fly home, they’re still there and they need to continue working together. They cannot depend on us. We return home.

So the goal here is to learn and support the the language, the local language and leaders to be empowered, and to build up the relationship. Put away your ASL the best you can. I know it’s tough but I encourage you to learn their signs and immerse yourself with their sign language. It’s awesome! With the second point, let’s see how it’s important. I’ll share a story as an example of what I mean. I remember the first time I went to Zimbabwe [the country sign]. I visited and interacted with the deaf community there. I noticed there were areas with deaf schools but there’s no deaf schools in the city where I’ve been going. They’d integrate in hearing classrooms then realize it’s better to have a deaf classroom among all the classrooms in a hearing school. So in that classroom, I’d work with the kids for about a week. They’d have a big ceremony, welcoming visitors from America, prancing us along, in front of a large audience. I’d look around and wonder where the deaf students were. They were sitting way in the back of the hall with the teacher signing small. We felt uncomfortable with that but trying to observe how the culture is with the audience honoring visitors. Yet the deaf students are all the way in the back. I thought about it all week while working with deaf students and the teacher in the classroom. Then Friday during the closing ceremony we informed the school headmaster that we’d like to have an audience again for the closing ceremony. We’d like to demonstrate what the deaf students have learned so far They agreed and thought it was a good idea. So we started planning for a large audience. We had deaf students ready with an interpreter. The teacher was ready to interpret visibly. Last time they were in the back but this time they were in the front. Then we called the deaf students to come up on the stage, wanting them to teach the audience the A-B-Cs in sign language. [it was different from America’s A-B-C in ASL] We wanted to teach their A-B-Cs. So we called forth the deaf students and they all came up on stage. We announced “these students will teach you the A-B-Cs”. Those deaf kids were really thrilled to lead in front of the audience. We’d see them signing the A, B, C, D, E, F, G in their sign language. It was so sweet. The kids were so proud standing up there in front of their peers, finally teaching them. The kids in the audience were excited to learn. The teachers also learned from them. After the ceremony ended, we saw the hearing kids approach the deaf kids trying to sign and practice spelling their name with the deaf kids. They started to interact. While in the past they were isolated and in the back of the audience. Everyone would be facing forward and not notice the deaf kids, they wouldn’t know. Now they are interacting.

So it’s also important to see how they arrange the school assembly, honoring the leaders, but take the advantage to include the local deaf people and letting them lead. So the others can see and create a connection. I have another great story, also related to observation. It’s also in Zimbabwe. I went to a deaf classroom. I noticed about 8 kids in the room, from the range of about 6 to 12 years old in the same classroom with one teacher. I noticed the teacher would teach one group then teach the second group. Teach the younger kids one lesson or give them an activity. Then teach the older kids something and give them an activity, back and forth, taking turns throughout the day. I copied that methodology, going along with that approach to make the lesson efficient. But then when we all gathered together to do an activity with different color crayons laid out. There was a big picture with trees and animals. The kids would color in the picture. There was one boy sitting really close to the picture, almost face down to the drawing, coloring. I took a look at him, wondering what’s up. Seeing him sitting so close to the picture and coloring. One of the team members from America, one of the poorer men, sitting and observing the kids. He didn’t have great access to education in America. He was from a black school where they did not know how to accommodate a deaf student and educate him. There were many American deaf there standing, sitting and observing then this man took a look at this boy and said he needs glasses. That became his goal. He observed while other Americans were busy planning, leading and discussing. We overlooked seeing what the boy needed. The man noticed and knew the boy needed glasses. It took some time but he was successful in getting glasses for the boy. By the end of the week, he was able to arrange getting new glasses. Wow. We might overlook that need, being so busy because we were so busy planning and teaching. We overlooked what people needed. This man took the time to watch and notice the boy needed glasses. Wow. It’s really important to observe and see first before starting the activity.

Now the third point, language, it’s also important to remember there may be a difference between if a hearing person asks for the sign of various words. Do not give ASL signs, refer to the local Deaf person and their signs. If a Deaf person asks what’s your sign, you can show them your sign, and share signs. It’s different because the deaf person already knows their sign language and we know our sign language, it becomes a cultural exchange. It becomes a equal partnership. It’s different than if person who does not know sign language and tries to ask for ASL signs. Just be aware of the difference between the two.

So I hope the three concepts of Mission Dei helps you think how work internationally. Just remember not to bring, bring, bring, but to join in what’s already happening there. God is already working there and we join in. Learn from them and support the local community. Remember we fly home and they continue the work. Make it possible for them to continue the work there. Thank you, I hope you’ve learned some good things!

So with the third part, language, be ready to laugh at yourself. Be ready to keep yourself humble. Because language misunderstandings will happen. Don’t worry, it’s very normal. They know that we do not know their language. We know that during the exchange there will be some miscommunication happening. Sometimes it can be silly and funny.

I have some stories for you with that. The second time I went to Kenya, the first time we were there, we met a deaf woman who wanted to become a Methodist church pastor. We connected her with some people, got her in a training program. So the next time [second time] we went, two years later. She was licensed to preach. Awesome! A local deaf female leader is ready to preach! It was her first Sunday and she was so excited. It was so inspiring to see her. She walked on stage wearing the robes looking so serious and ready to lead a formal church service. She took a look out in the audience and us Americans were in the first row, so happy to see this happening. On the other row were the deaf Kenyans sitting, watching their leader there up on the stage. So the pastor walked on, and she started signing. Everyone please stand up [in Kenya sign language]. The Americans looked and nudged at each other, wondering what that sign was. The Kenyans did not react, they just stood up. The Americans realized oh! That sign meant to stand up in their sign language. They were so embarrassed to assume otherwise. We were very happy we did not sing “Stand up! Stand up for Jesus” that day. [laughing]

Another funny story that also happened in Kenya. At the church service, our American interpreter was learning Kenyan sign language too and would sometimes mix up the two sign languages. We were aware of that. On Sunday, the bible story for that day Jesus sent two people by two to different villages to preach the gospel. So we’re signing that the Jesus sent [in ASL] sent [in Kenyan sign language] two by two to each village [using ASL sign] but! in their sign language the sign meant toilet. Oh no! What a misunderstanding! So they’ve been imagining that Jesus sent two by two to the bathroom. Whoops! Oh no, erase that thought! One of the American women brought up that maybe it meant the disciples were women and would go to the bathroom together? Oh ha ha! It helps to keep a good sense of humor Be ready for misunderstandings and understand each other. Maybe you’ll find a sign in their sign language that in our culture is a taboo. While maybe one of our signs in their culture may be a taboo. You’d have to figure out how to understand and learn to laugh at ourselves too. It’s important for the third part, language.

I have one more language story, less of a comedy but more of a strategic thinking. We went to visit Zimbabwe. We had some examples of ASL poetry even though we know some of their sign language. Some of the deaf leaders were curious and would watch on the internet some ASL poetry. They were really fascinated with the concept and imagery and pictural and visual of the poetry. They wondered if it was possible in their sign language so they were curious and asked us to teach them how. We thought about how we could make it work. We sat in a circle, discussing the signs, the hand shape, location, and movement as well as facial expressions as parts of sign language. They had different hand shapes. For example [demonstrates the hand shape] meant the letter H. We would use any hand shape. For example [number one] or [Zimbabwean sign for h] or [the letter o], we would take turns signing. I’d sign one word then the person next to me would add a word in sign using the same hand shape then the person next to that person would add a third word. Each of the words has to form a story. So going around the circle we would all tell a word to create a story using one hand shape. Sometimes it can be silly, funny, or creative. Sometimes it can be hard to come up with a word or just make a funny story like about a chicken hospital or something, using their sign language [demonstrates Zimbabwean signs] which means chicken hospital, using the same Zimbabwean H hand shape and taking turns. You can see them starting to pick up how to use their language, signing in a creative way. They would be excited because they were becoming more aware of their language and what they can do. Maybe in spoken language they could not. Their self confidence grew with their creative ideas. It’s great how you can use language in many ways to develop ideas and creativity for interaction and fun. Sometimes you can bring home really funny stories too.

I want to add a fourth tip. I’ve explained three so far and now here’s a fourth, related to money gifts. Sometimes it can be very sticky, with how to raise the money and giving things or money or other things. The decision can be sticky. How to make sure if you are given a gift, maybe an elderly poor deaf woman who’s been making money from sewing and selling things in order to earn money to give to deaf children in Africa or somewhere. We want to make sure it goes directly to them, to benefit the deaf lives there. How to be careful with the donations and at the same time giving directly to someone. They’re getting a gift from an American, the others may become jealous. It can and will happen. It can be sticky.

Similarly to giving money for work, what’s the best practices? Be smart about it, first, do not assume what they may need. Ask what they need. What are their goals? What are their dreams? How much will it cost? Honestly, it may not be possible to support all of them. You might be able to give to someone but not others. Secondly, be careful what you bring. Don’t bring random things especially if it’s things they can buy there. It takes away from their local economy. Imagine a deaf woman learning to sew clothes and selling them and you bring bags of free clothes. The deaf woman’s broke and out of work. Free versus selling? Would people buy from the deaf community? Giving free clothes takes away their income. So be careful not to overlap with their local economy or earning opportunities. Bringing just because it’s cheap or free? Hmm.

You want to make sure and observe how they may use it. Or sometimes play smart and just bring money and talk with the people there. Maybe fund a project or fund a specific thing. Go shopping with the local people. That can be a fun experience in itself. Shopping in another culture, seeing how the local people shop and negotiate prices. Finding the best deals. Plus, they know where to get things. They also know what they cannot get. So with what you bring with you, think about how you are contributing with it. Also, be willing to receive gifts too. Many cultures around the world give and receive gifts in an equal exchange. It’s important to respect and be honored. Be aware that they may be poorer than us or maybe they are not. But when you give something, they will give you something too. Be humble in how you receive it. Observe their culture how they receive gifts. So you can receive gifts in the same manner.

For example, we went to Zimbabwe, they are very traditional and honoring with their gifts. We would give and they would give us things. When they give gifts, they would kneel and walk while kneeling approaching the person and giving the gift. The person must receive the gift with both hands, thank them, and help them up. That was their customs, their traditional culture. When we learned how to do that, it really became helpful with smooth showing of respect of each other. Sometimes the gift could be major, something to cherish and keep forever or other times it can seem awkward or silly but it comes from the heart. One gift our team received we now pass it among each member and use it to surprise each other. We got a wood plaque with a painting on it with a bible verse and a picture. The bible verse was “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The picture was of a dung beetle pushing a big ball of poop. We started smirking and smiling and thought, “Really?” We received the gift and said “Thank you! This is so inspiring. It is our favorite bible verse.” But on the inside we were wondering. Ever since then, it’s become a welcome new members to the team. Maybe one of them will be unpacking and they’ll find that plaque, recalling the story and then hold it until the next trip. Or sometimes they’ll try to hide it under a pillow for someone else to find or maybe when they’re starting to pack, put on a jacket and they’ll find it. The plaque has been passed all around through our team all this time. It’s become a very precious travel item. It’s become a reminder to ourselves to keep humble and accept the gift as well as give.

Meet Rev. Kirk VanGilder.

Rev. Kirk VanGilder, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of religion at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Kirk was born hard of hearing before losing more hearing in late adolescence and transitioning into the Deaf world. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person and has served as a minister in Deaf churches in Baltimore and Pasadena, MD as well as campus minister to Gallaudet University from 1997-2002. Kirk has also traveled to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Turkey to work with Deaf community development and support. He is the author of Making Sadza With Deaf Zimbabwean Women: A Missiological Reorientation of Practical Theological Method, published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in 2012. Kirk hopes to continue his travels and research in other countries as well as present his findings and experiences to a wide variety of scholarly and non-scholarly audiences.


In the webcast, he explains many points about how we are walking on holy ground when entering Deaf communities in another country.

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