April 18, 2022

From All People

Bringing gospel access to the Deaf world

by Hannah Packard

Envision is one of the four specialized structures of Alliance Missions, functioning to identify and develop missional leaders through short-term trips and leadership development. In the past, Envision has been structured solely around geographically based sites, both domestic and international. More recently, a need has been identified for specialized sites, which focus on people groups instead of locations and are specifically directed towards marginalized groups.

David and Aleah Nishizaki have pioneered the first specialized site with Envision Deaf Ministries. The vision is simple yet far-reaching: to help create greater gospel access for and from all Deaf people. This is derived from a phrase used by Tim Crouch, vice president for Alliance Missions, as an extrapolation of our Alliance vision, All of Jesus for All the World—we are working to create gospel access for and from all people. For the Nishizakis, this means they are not only helping to create gospel access for Deaf people who may have never had access to the gospel but also mobilizing Deaf believers into gospel ministry.

Overlooked and Under-Reached

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 72 million Deaf people globally, and over 80 percent live in developing nations. While Deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language (ASL), there are over 300 different sign languages used in the world today. It is reported that only 2 percent of the Deaf community worldwide knows Jesus. An ASL translation of the Bible was only recently completed in 2020, and it is the first of its kind.

David and Aleah live in Washington D.C., not far from Gallaudet University, the only university in the world specifically designed for students who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The Nishizakis also work in close partnership with Deaf pastor Bruce Persons, who leads The Table Church, an ASL-signing Alliance church in Frederick, Maryland. Aleah describes the Deaf community there as vibrant and diverse.

“A lot of our Deaf friends say to us, ‘The only thing I can’t do is hear. And I don’t care that I can’t hear—I can do everything else, and yet I’m treated differently.’ So, there is that tension. Hearing is the only difference,” Aleah shares. Accessibility is a significant obstacle for Deaf people living in a hearing-dominant world, and much of the Church is no different.

Everyone Is Essential

As Christians, we are all commissioned by Jesus to make disciples and preach the gospel to all nations. This is why, in The Alliance, we talk about gospel access for all people—this is the essence of the Great Commission. But what does gospel access from all people mean?

First, it’s important to remember that the global Body of Christ is diverse (see Revelation 7:9). It’s multilingual, multiethnic, and composed of individuals with countless experiences, backgrounds, and giftings. If every language will be represented in heaven, this includes hundreds of signed languages!

Second, we should look at Paul’s description of the Church in his letter to the Corinthians:

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. . . . If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. . . . The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” . . . If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad (1 Cor. 12:12, 17–18, 21, 26, NLT). 

This passage describes the global Church through the metaphor of a body. We are made up of many members with different functionalities, but everyone has a part to play in the functioning of the Body. Everyone is essential. We need one another. When talking about missions, the reality is that certain members of the Body will be more effective at certain tasks than others because of how God has formed and called each one of us. David explains this well in relation to the Deaf community:

For the Deaf world to have access to the gospel, Deaf people need to be mobilized. We don’t need more hearing people to learn sign languages and be mobilized as workers with Alliance Missions. We need Deaf people, Deaf believers, to be given the opportunity to be mobilized and make an impact for the Kingdom in the Deaf world where there is limited access to the gospel. And a Deaf person is going to do a far better job creating gospel access opportunities—far more efficiently, far more effectively—than what Aleah and I, or any hearing person, could do.

This is why we talk about gospel access from all people and why Envision has created specialized sites to focus on marginalized people groups. If we are to fulfill our All of Jesus for All the World vision, we must mobilize marginalized people because they are the ones best equipped to reach those on the margins. The Nishizakis’ goal is to work themselves out of their jobs. “We’re hearing people who are filling a space that a Deaf person should absolutely fill—and they can do it better than we can,” Aleah says.

Every member of the Body of Christ has been commissioned by Christ to make disciples, though our varying functions may differ. “We’re all called, but we’re unequally sent. We’re all gifted,” David says. “But unequally given opportunity,” Aleah adds.

God has specifically designed us to need each other’s perspectives, theological understandings, and giftings. We desperately need those who are currently on the margins. The Church is not a whole and complete Body unless every part is functioning; and if one member suffers, we all suffer. Failing to create gospel access from all people as we work toward completing the Great Commission is like letting the air out of our tires and attempting to drive cross-country—it won’t work.

Making Pathways Clear

While presenting on specialized sites at Envision’s Stateside gathering this past November, David shared the story of the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

When Jesus entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large umbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:1–5). 

In this story, a man needed access to Jesus. The crowd who was gathered was an obstacle—perhaps they didn’t see or hear him, perhaps no one wanted to let him through. The majority was an obstacle for the man on the margins, so this man’s friends created access for him where there was none. They ripped open the roof and laid him at Jesus’ feet. Here is a challenge for us, Alliance family: How can we be like this man’s friends and create gospel access? How can we make pathways clear? What is the roof that might need to be ripped open so that those on the margins can get to Jesus?

For David and Aleah, this looks like not only working to create greater gospel access for Deaf people but also developing ministry opportunities for Deaf believers. Aleah explains:

Gospel access for all Deaf people means we want to see all of our Envision sites, and even all of Alliance Missions fields, have a focus on their local Deaf community. Because no matter where you are, there are Deaf people. But then, if we are to create gospel access for all people, that means we have to focus on “from all people,” which then gives us a local focus. How are we going to contribute to creating opportunities for training and development for Deaf believers? Within Envision, what does it look like for our Deaf friends to have the opportunity to go on a short-term trip or take part in an internship? For unchurched Deaf people, there is a need for gospel access. But there are Deaf believers, and there’s also a need for access to gospel opportunities for the Deaf church.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance has always been a missional and sending family—over 40 percent of U.S. Alliance churches are from non-majority cultures. Let’s keep multiplying our diversity, especially in those we send. The Spirit is leading us; let’s keep in step with Him and keep learning from one another. Let’s keep following Jesus toward the margins, where He already is—preaching good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives, and freeing prisoners from darkness (see Isaiah 61:1).

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