Juana hangs out in Plaza Bolivar, in front of the birthplace of South America’s liberator. Caracas is not an extremely picturesque city as compared to, say, Prague, nor is it filled with centuries of cathedrals and places of historical note. The city’s greatest claim to history is Simon Bolivar’s house, or at least the one his mother occupied when he was born. It is restored and painted now, converted into a museum.
Directly in front of the home lies Plaza Bolivar. The plaza is not large; being lined as it is by small stores, internet cafes, and copy shops only makes it appear more claustrophobic. Most times of the day a constant flow of traffic keeps the tree-and-stone cooled area from appearing lethargic. In the afternoons, along the western corner of benches, a pocket of Deaf adults gathers.
These Deaf who gather are often not members of the local association or club. Low-income people, they come directly from whatever under-paying job they are lucky enough to have. Coming primarily to share information, they learn what they can about the community’s events. Many of them remain barely literate and, as such, learn more from one another than from the papers or television broadcasts. The group talks about friends, politics, news, and sports. They are relatively uninformed yet still discuss other countries, currency exchange rates, and elections. This gathering is their news at 11:00, their internet, their email.
It was in this plaza that my wife met Juana, a young Deaf woman working at some menial labor job.
The two of them hit it off. Once she felt comfortable, Juana spilled all her news, indeed her entire life. Whether this openness was simply Juana’s character or a result of feelings generated in the new relationship was never clear. Juana began to sign, and talked until she was finished.
Juana’s hearing mother cleaned rooms in a small motel part-time in the western side of town, where run-down tenement apartments and cheap open-air markets crowd together. When not cleaning, her mother turned tricks in the motel’s rooms. Apparently she had done this since before Juana was born because Juana never knew any other sort of life. Men came and went, namelessly, over the years. Growing up deaf and oblivious to the whispered comments by neighbors and people in the street, Juana was left to puzzle out what her mother and these men did exactly behind closed doors. Juana’s world was the motel, the streets outside, the store down the block, and these men. Her life included no Deaf friends, little sign language, and no school.
When she was still quite young, Juana was included in the closed-door sessions with the men and no longer had to guess what happened behind her mother’s closed door. She could not tell exactly how old she was when it began, primarily because she never knew birthday parties and presents, pinatas and cake.
Juana recounted the events of her young life, pulled into dark rooms with smelly men. Alcohol and drugs entered her life at some point. More than likely, she admitted, they had always been there. Only as she was indoctrinated into her mother’s work did Juana become aware of them, though. Shortly after her initiation into the working world she began using the same intoxicants as her bedmates.
The other Deaf present that day in Plaza Bolivar watched passively Juana’s matter of fact retelling of her entrance into the adult sexual world. In light of Juana’s easy recounting, the group likely already knew the story. No one reacted to the tragedy or the shame. Nor did anyone criticize; the actions of Juana’s mother remained in a moral vacuum for the moment.
Juana had two hearing children, fathers unknown. Her mother, possessed with the common South American conviction that a Deaf daughter knows nothing of child-raising, chose to give the babies the benefit of her own mothering experience. Juana had not seen the children in some time but felt confident that Grandma knew what she was doing. After all, Grandma was hearing and as such knew things. Don’t all hearing people know best?
As average children turn into adolescents parents generally answer questions regarding sexuality, both the general mechanics of human sexuality as well as the morality of sexual behavior. Society as a whole contributes to the development of sexual understanding as well; media coverage, teachers’ comments, snippets of conversation in the street, all contribute to a child’s understanding of sexuality. Teenagers passively gather up these hints because they can hear, and cobble together an understanding of intimacy.
One of the great tragedies of growing up Deaf in South American is being left out of the information loop. It is a thorny issue that surfaces time and time again in Deaf life. What average children gather passively through hearing remains inaccessible for Deaf children. In the absence of indirect teaching, parents and society rarely offer direct explanations.
The question of sexuality thus remains largely unanswered by Mom and Dad. The nominally Catholic surroundings demand a certain vague view of sexuality, naturally conflicting with the larger secular view of sexual intimacy. Society primarily offers answers in pictures, movies, and observed but unexplained social interactions, allowing the Deaf to watch but not understand how sex enters into human relationships.
In the absence of knowledgeable information sources, the Deaf turn to the most authoritative fount of understanding in their lives: their friends within the Deaf community. All children in the world learn from their friends, of course, but for the Deaf in much of South America, sex education comes almost exclusively what they can glean from those around them. Ironically, their friends know little about sex themselves. What they do know is often the unhealthy side.
Leona is another example. Raised Deaf in a conservative hearing family with strict views of sex, she grew up without her family’s perception of physical intimacy. She understood well enough the basic operations of sex, but how could she learn the attitudes conveyed by a hushed voice or a vulgar word? So many mores, especially the sexual ones, are taught and learned casually, almost accidentally. Even having two Deaf siblings did not save her, for they were equally excluded from the spoken conversations between hearing mother and hearing father, hearing parents and hearing grandparents, and so on.
The excitement of her first boyfriend waned after she learned that sex was the responsibility of any dating couple. According to the handsome and dashing object of her affection, both of them were to be willing participants and she should not want to say “No.” In a scene that fell somewhere between consent and force she lost her virginity doing something she didn’t really want.
In comparing notes with her Deaf friends, Leona learned that is just the way of things. Men take what they want, and the women should be glad they have someone to love them. Faithfulness and fidelity are desirable but unrealistic. Leona would learn in time to tolerate both a wandering man and her sexual duties in exchange for financial stability, a solid roof, and a kitchen with a good stove.
Leona still lives at home with her mother.
The local South American church struggles in handling these sexual issues among the Deaf. The preaching side is easy enough. The sexual sins can be easily identified here, so go get an interpreter and start teaching. Homosexuality bad. Sex before marriage bad. Rape bad. Improper view of sex within relationships….what? How does one preach against sexual attitudes that originate not in what is said but rather in what is left unsaid? And how does this preaching address the tragedies that result?
What does the church have to say to Juana? How do pastors help her understand she is more than a sexual plaything, something used and tossed aside? How can Sunday School teachers, lacking necessary communicative skills, convince Leona to hold out for a godly man who will love and care for her in every way, sexually as well as emotionally? Someone who will love her as Christ loves the church?
What do missionaries say to Arturo, plucked from the streets as an eight-year old and sexually assaulted? Taken because he was Deaf and unable to testify against anyone, Arturo returned home forever and involuntarily changed. Today he plucks his eyebrows, wears ladies undergarments, and refuses to attend church because all the church has to say is that he’s a pagan, a sinner choosing to pervert God’s natural order. As if he had a choice.
How can missionaries relate to Luis, forcibly introduced to homosexuality and not permitted to leave the relationship? Most of his Deaf friends today are part of the lifestyle. Luis has given up trying to leave the lifestyle and shrugs when other Deaf boys are brought into the community in similar ways. It’s normal, don’t you know?
Being a missionary among the Deaf should demand more than simply telling the Good News of Jesus’ love and salvation, more than giving the Deaf a choice. The job of missionary to any people group requires more than sharing the knowledge of what God likes and dislikes. People hurt, regardless of culture and hearing status.
As we examine the ministry of Jesus, we often see less preaching about repentance than we might expect and more comforting the masses. Matthew summarized Jesus’ first acts of ministry as such: “…teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.” Matthew went on to recount that Jesus spent time with the diseased, the tormented, the demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics. While we would be wrong to characterize Jesus’ ministry as a medical mission trip, He did spend considerable time in healing, comforting, and showing compassion.
When the imprisoned John the Baptist sent messengers to ask if Jesus was the Messiah, the response focused more on Jesus’ use of divine power to comfort than to convict: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
In another two-chapter section, Matthew recorded one historical fact, one generic display of miraculous power, one section of teaching, and five miraculous acts of compassion towards those who might receive His grace and salvation.
What does any career missionary, not just a missionary among the Deaf, have to learn from this? When we examine Jesus’ acts of compassion, comfort, and mercy, how do we measure up?
We preach repentance, and rightfully so. We reach out in love in order to show His love in us. We build houses, drill wells, paint schools and hospitals. When given the chance, we talk of our past sins and how God graciously forgave us through the sacrifice of His son. We use Bible passages to convict and to explain His willingness to set aside all our flaws and mistakes and accept us, if only we will kneel before Him and accept His forgiveness. As new Christians enter the fold, we work with them to understand His plans. We guide them towards forgiving others, letting go of pain, and placing all our hurts, concerns, and worries on Him. And yet…
When and where do we reach out to people through comfort and counseling? When teaching of the woman caught in adultery, do we use the passage only to convict, or do we also emphasize Jesus’ words of comfort? Do we show Jesus’ emotion at the tomb of Lazarus? I would submit that maybe, just maybe, not enough missionaries teach of Jesus’ desire to comfort. Great comfort exists in the forgiveness and remission of sins, but the Lamb of God offers more than just that.
We must find a way to express sentiments similar to those of Jesus: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” We need to teach people how to ask for relief from pain and to seek comfort. We should show those around us the compassion of the Good Samaritan, expending our all simply to comfort and heal another.
Perhaps we are missing the boat as we minister, among the Deaf or the hearing. Maybe instead of evangelization leading to new Christians in need of counseling, we should be counseling as a way of evangelizing. Maybe the surest route to evangelism and salvation is not “Jesus died for you,” but “Jesus can comfort you.” Maybe the shortest line between the altar and the disciple is allowing the cross to comfort as well as to convict.
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Jesus promised comfort and compassion to the hurting and the exhausted, not only forgiveness and mercy. As we meet the Juanas, Leonas, Arturos, and Luis (Luises) in the world, we should evaluate our first words to them. “Come to Jesus,” we should say, “and let Him heal the wounds of your heart. Allow Him to give you rest.” If they are willing to set aside everything in their search for comfort, they’ll likely set it aside for repentance as well.