Eleta’s expression was dull as she stood a bit off balance alone in a room vibrating with music. Until another girl ran up to her and pulled at her wrist. This girl, Dani, placed her hand on Eleta’s outstretched palm. As soon as their skin met Dani began a series of shapes with her hand. Eleta’s face lit up and soon signed back, a silent conversation wrapped in thunderous music.
These two girls were at a Deaf Teen Quest (DTQ) Club where they came to hang out and play with other youth who were deaf. Paul and Heather who ran DTQ had known Dani for years. She was one of the most consistent young people at their youth group for deaf teens. Dani was just excited to be around people who spoke with their hands just like her. She didn’t always understand what was going on, but she was happy to be there. Heather would sign “Do you want to follow Jesus?” and Dani would reply “No. Where is he going?”
The ideas surrounding faith are difficult to describe regardless of the language. Many believers never realize the complexity of Christian concepts because Church vernacular is their first language. But, to an outsider, the church’s language is completely foreign and often sounds ridiculous. This difficulty is amplified by sign language which is nuanced by community, experience, and relationship. So, Dani’s responses to questions like “do you want to follow Jesus?” were not a surprise, but a consistent challenge within the youth group. Heather and Paul were constantly looking for ways to better explain concepts like communion or the Holy Spirit.
Their heart for this community, for young people like Dani, lead them to start Deaf Teen Quest (DTQ) in the Greater Cleveland Area. DTQ is an evangelistic ministry that serves youth between 11 and 19 years old who are deaf. As they began to reach out to youth who attend Cleveland schools, they met a few students who were deaf and blind. People who are both deaf and blind need a special interpreter because they cannot see others signing.
Eleta was one of the first deaf/blind youth to become a part of their ministry. At first, this felt like another challenge to overcome as they needed an interpreter strictly for Eleta, but the other youth began to take turns interpreting for her. They never even had to be asked. Dani was one of the first and most frequent to interpret for Eleta.
One Sunday, they were doing communion and Heather was watching Dani interpret for Eleta. (Eleta had been coming to Church since the first DTQ club.) Heather knew neither one of them really grasped what was happening, so she left the service to find a picture Bible. When she came back, church was over, but Heather was determined to work through this with them. She started by asking “Do you know who Jesus is?”
“God-Man” signed Dani.
“Show me a picture” Heather replied handing her the picture Bible. Dani pointed to Noah’s Ark. Heather began to use the pictures to explain to Dani, but she still wasn’t sure if the young girl was grasping what she said. Then, suddenly, Dani signed “We have to tell Eleta!” Heather watched as Dani signed. She was expressing and explaining more than what Heather had just said. Dani left church that day with the picture Bible under her arm and smile across her face.
The next week, Heather was still trying to figure out how best to explain to Eleta the Gospel, so she just began asking questions.
“Trees. Who made trees?”
Eleta signed back “I don’t know”
“God. Who made flowers?”
“I don’t know”
“God. Who made Eleta?”
“Who loves Eleta?”
This conversation inspired Paul and Heather to begin creating a deaf/blind catechism that Eleta can memorize knowing that the Holy Spirit will move through basic truth. Deaf Teen Quest has allowed them to give Eleta community that cares for her and the opportunity to meet Jesus on her level, in her language, wrapped in love.