As I approach thirty years old, my mind wanders back to times and places over the past decade that have shaped my person and passions. With a passion and vision now firmly in place for reaching and training Deaf men, I can't help but think about one of the first Deaf men that really impacted me.
Tony was one of those Deaf that have co-disabilities. On top of being Deaf, he also processed information slower, and had a few other health problems. However, Tony was saved, loved God, and was incredibly faithful to church. I first met Tony when I started to come to a church in South Carolina when I was twenty-one years old to help them with their outreach to the South Carolina School for Deaf and Blind. (Why they tried to educate both blind kids and deaf kids at the same school, I still have yet to fully understand.) I came to the church originally to help out with the blind kids, but God quickly gave me an interest in the Deaf. Very soon I was involved with the Deaf and trying my best to learn sign language, Deaf culture, and how to teach the Bible. Way before I was really ready, I began attempting to teach the Deaf teens and adults; a season of teaching that I look back on with chagrin. Tony was one of them.
He came every Wednesday night, and during my two years of helping out I began to really appreciate Tony. He loved God and it was evident. He wanted to learn and He wanted to be faithful. When I would pick him up he would always be sure to grab his Bible, a notebook, and a children's dictionary so he could look up words he didn't know. He was simple, and he made me smile on many occasions. His heart was big, really big.
One Wednesday night, there were no other teens or adults except Tony, so I wasn't really sure what to do. I noticed Tony was sitting at a table with his Bible open and notebook open. I got curious and asked what he was doing. Tony showed me that he was consistently reading the Bible and would right down the references of the verse that he would read in his notebook to keep track. I asked him where his list came from and he proudly took me to the back of the Bible where there was a list of verses to read. He would read the verse that came next, write it down, and then repeat the process. We have a fancy name for that list that Tony was reading through: a concordance.
I quickly realized that Tony had picked up that he was supposed to read the Bible - and he was. Page after page in his notebook was filled with scripture references. However, no one had apparently taken the time to show him how to read a chapter, how to link up thoughts together, and how to build for himself a knowledge of the God he loved. He was faithful, and wanted to do right and read his Bible, so he had gone with the only list he knew. It was near Christmas, so I took him to the nativity story in Luke 2. I read a couple verses and signed them and explained them and he realized that they were telling a story. He pointed to the next verse and then looked up after he signed it, wanting help understanding what he had read and signed perfectly in Straight English Sign (SES).
I wish you could have seen his face. The mixture of hunger and excitement was so evident. I wonder what my face looked like as my heart was breaking. Here was a saved Deaf man that wanted to do right, but no one had ever explained how to read his Bible. They hadn't taught him one of the essentials. I was just as guilty as everyone else.
I wish I could tell you that I figured out then I needed help, or that I needed to change my teaching to teach Deaf instead of hearing, or that I started to spend more time with Tony to help him in his Christian walk - I didn't do any of those things at the time. I didn't know how much I didn't know. I didn't know enough to help Tony, but Tony helped me. That night Tony helped me begin to understand the struggle the Deaf have with reading comprehension and with the assumptions the hearing have in their teaching. He taught me to start with the basics and make sure that everyone knows how to walk with God for themselves. He planted a seed that night in my heart that would germinate years later and bear the fruit of a passion to train men like Tony to read more than just their concordance.