A much-valued tenet of Southern Baptist life is the emphasis we place on cooperation among churches. We even have an entire funding program named for this; it’s apparently a Very Big Deal. Cooperation is how we fund seminaries, send missionaries, reach America, fight for religious liberty, and support Southern Baptist churches in general.
Personally, my family is a product of SBC life, and therefore of the Cooperative Program (CP). Wife and I work as church planters among the Deaf. The IMB covers us through gifts from churches across the nation. We are eternally grateful for the support these churches offer, and know that without donations from average SBC members, we’d be exactly nowhere in our labors. I’ve graduated from Southwestern Seminary, stayed at both Ridgecrest and Glorieta conference centers, and we’ve generally enjoyed the benefits of being a part of the convention. We believe in the SBC, with all its flaws and foibles, and cannot envision leaving it.
But try as I might, I cannot find a way to present a convincing argument to a local American Deaf church as to why they should join with the SBC.
We’re helping with a small Deaf congregation, an independently constituted church. They pay a pastor to preach, but fall short of having a secretary, or payroll, or even an office. I assumed they were SBC until recently, when they found it necessary to seek legal advice from the local Baptist association; turns out they allowed their membership in the association and state convention to lapse years ago.
What followed was a month-long conversation, one I have summarized here below. I’ve added other conversations I’ve had with Deaf pastors, Deaf church leaders, and Deaf members. The discussion between Me and the Deaf Church is in italics, while the regular print serves as a commentary.
Me: Is your church SBC?
Deaf Church: No. Why would we be?
Me: It doesn’t cost but about $250 to register your church with the SBC.
D.C.: We average 12 people a week. Do you really think we have $250 lying around? Besides – what’s the point of joining? I’d need a compelling reason. (Deaf people are usually underemployed, either stuck working part time, or employed in roles for which they are greatly overqualified. This is a perpetual condition, and not one that exists due to recent market forces. They have little money to give to the church, even when convinced of the need to do so.)
Me: Well, you know, churches can accomplish more together.
D.C.: Like what?
Me: Well, like seminaries. SBC churches support seminaries.
D.C.: Oh. So we would donate funds to support a seminary where we could get trained pastors. Great! We desperately need more Deaf pastors. Do they provide interpreters for Deaf men who want to be pastors?
Me: Um, no. They don’t. None of them provide interpreters. They don’t receive federal funds, so they don’t have to provide that sort of accommodation. (A caveat: New Orleans Seminary has a privately-established endowment to cover costs of interpreters for Deaf students who wish to enter Deaf ministry. It was established by Stephanie Johnson, the widow of Dr. Daniel Johnson, a former IMB missionary kid from Chile and a graduate of NOBTS. Dr. Johnson was a deeply respected Deaf pastor in NC until his death in 2010.)
D.C.: Are Deaf students allowed to have note-takers so they can lip-read the professors or watch an interpreter (that they paid for personally at $30/hr)? You know it’s impossible to look at the interpreter and simultaneously look at your paper for notes.
Me: Traditionally, most of the seminaries call that “using someone else’s work.” They feel it’s something between cheating and plagiarism. (This is a major point of disconnect: Deaf students know the reality of having one set of eyes to use for two different visual targets. Hearing people listen to the professor while looking at their notes, but Deaf cannot accomplish this. While seminaries have strongly opposed or forbidden the use of note-takers in classes, it is possible that some schools today might allow it. For Deaf students, this is a deal-breaker; it is additionally puzzling because secular universities seem to care enough to allow it, but Christian seminaries have traditionally forbade it.)
Me: Even so, cooperation with the SBC is great.
D.C.: Oh? Tell me about this Ethics and Religious Liberty thing. Do they argue the ethics of issues that matter to Deaf people?
Me: Like what?
D.C.: Like the injustice of asking Deaf churches to support seminaries which in turn decline to make even the slightest attempt at accommodating communication needs. Or the denial of communicative access for Deaf children in hearing, Christian families. Or the ethics of cochlear implants in Deaf children. Do they stand up for the basic respect Deaf people need in terms of cultural and linguistic respect?
Me: Um…no. (Yes, the ERLC does a ton of stuff, but most of it feels far away from Deaf churches and their members’ questions.)
Me: Well, consider NAMB! It’s a great organization.
D.C.: Looks cool. Do they have a department that focuses on Deaf churches?
Me: They have a guy.
D.C.: A guy?
Me: Neal something, I think. He is the point of contact for Deaf pastors.
D.C.: Does he know anything about being Deaf? Does he know sign language? Anything?
Me: He knows Deaf pastors, and learns from them. Still, a wonderful man who is committed to seeing more Deaf churches.
D.C.: I’m sure he is, but was there no one else in NAMB who knew, well, anything about the Deaf? Could they have hired an experienced Deaf pastor to fill that role?
Me: Um, I don’t know. Neal works hard, though, and is respected by the Deaf men who know him.
(Editor’s note: Neal Hughes no longer works for NAMB, and right now the organization lacks a point person for Deaf work in the United States.)
Me: Besides, one benefit to convention life is the support you get from your local and state associations. Joining allows you to contribute financially to cooperative local projects.
D.C.: Ahh, that’s more like it. Does the state have a Deaf contact person?
Me: Our state? No. Most states? Again, no. Your local association, most assuredly, no. (Deaf pastors sometimes point out that their state has someone to support Spanish-speaking work, but not sign language-based work.)
D.C.: Does the state convention offer interpreters for their pastor training events?
D.C.: Do they tangibly support in any way Deaf work on the state or local level?
Me: In most states, no, though they love to see that sort of work being done.
D.C.: Will they help Deaf churches deal with hearing pastors and congregations who seem intent on pushing them aside?
Me: Maybe, but I don’t know if they would help mediate a local issue. I just don’t know.
D.C.; Then what would my money be supporting that would make it a worthy recipient of our meager funds?
D.C.: So NAMB has obvious limits, but it tries. Seminaries are a non-starter. The ERLC has other points of focus. Local associations are probably too limited. The IMB?
Me: Ahh, well, the IMB is a different animal. They’ve had Deaf missionaries and Deaf work going on for years. They even have a Deaf Affinity!
D.C.: So if we donate money to the IMB, they will make sure it applies to Deaf missions?
Me: No. Well, if you designate it as being for Deaf missions, yes, but otherwise, it goes into a general fund for all missions.
D.C.: Oh, that’s good. We like that. We’ll take up a missions fund, and just send it to the IMB. We can do that without bothering to join the SBC or anything like that, right? I mean, there’s just no point.
The sad part is that they are right: joining the SBC seems pointless for many Deaf churches. Average, local associations, state conventions, regional seminaries and national organizations have little impetus for active participation in Deaf ministry. Deaf churches have unique values and styles, and hearing groups often express a judgmental sort of frustration with the different perspective, one that often suggests that the Deaf way is incompatible with whatever goals the rest of the SBC might have.
So prove me wrong. Make a compelling, logical argument to convince this local Deaf church of the need to join the SBC, one that deals with the reality of Deaf life in America and the pattern of interaction between Deaf communities and hearing groups.
One final note: I’ve lost track of the number of times Deaf pastors and friends have said, “Why do hearing people believe they know more about Deaf experiences than Deaf people do? They spend 20 minutes debating it with me – someone who has lived Deaf for 40 or 50 years – and suddenly they’re the experts and I’m the moron.” So prove me wrong but understand that part of solving the problem is a willingness to listen. I’ll listen to those of you who are SBC wizards, but you’ve got to be willing to listen to this Deaf church (in this case, through me) in exchange.
So come at me, bro.