Around the world, it is estimated that anywhere from 0.2%-2% of Deaf people say they know Jesus. In the USA, that statistic is slightly higher at 2%-4%, but when you consider that 96% of Deaf people would say they DON’T know Jesus, that makes the Deaf community one of the most unreached people groups in our communities. That’s what makes Deaf Young Life so special and so needed.
I’m honored to be part of this unique and special ministry. As a senior in high school, I found myself on a soccer bus with a Deaf freshman who had made the team. My school had a mainstream program, so I went to school with Deaf students right in my own classrooms for years. As I got to know this girl, I invited her to come to Young Life and eventually she started bringing a few other Deaf friends to club too.
I felt a distinct tug from God to start a club just for this community, so in 1997, we started the first club at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem, Oregon. A few years later I stumbled upon a club happening at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. We started collaborating with the California club for camp and other club ideas.
Deaf Young Life club looks a lot like any other Young Life club you’d walk into on a Monday night. It’s the same everywhere, but different everywhere at the same time!
The logistics of an all-Deaf club is where it starts to look a little different. Deaf kids often live further away from the actual school they attend because school districts will often place all Deaf kids in one school to help meet their needs. Travel to club can be a little tricky. Music sounds a little different sometimes with mainly a drum beat that kids can feel, and it’s really loud. Physical touch (tap on the shoulder) or flashing lights is how we get everyone’s attention.
We sing songs together by signing and there are even some special games within American Sign Language we can play that you can’t do with audible voice. Theater, improv and story is really big in Deaf culture, and we incorporate that into club. We also go deep with sharing the story of Christ in club talks. Deaf culture is highly interactive and interrupting with questions is not uncommon at an all-Deaf club.
I remember being just shocked to learn one of my girls didn’t know what the cross meant. Around Easter, one of the girls finally heard the gospel through sign language and said “THAT’S what the cross is about? I had no idea.” She had been going to church with her family for years and never fully understood it because English was not her first language, and no one had ever shared it with her in her main language.
I’ve learned so much more about this community over the years. Deaf people are so unreached, and starting down this path raised that awareness tenfold. My eyes were opened to the fact there simply are not many resources focused on reaching Deaf teens.
In a lot of ways, we’re building something new here. There’s a lot of potential, with 100 Deaf schools in the United States and only a handful of ministries. Young Life has four active Deaf Young Life ministries and countless clubs around the world who have Deaf students popping in.
But, we can do so much more!
Where to start?
Do you want to plug into Young Life ministry to the Deaf? Do you want to help start a club specifically for Deaf teens? I’d love to help you find a way to plug in.
Be aware. For Deaf students, being Deaf is how they identify culturally. The culturally correct term is Deaf or hard-of-hearing, not “hearing impaired.” If you aren’t sure, use what term they use or use “Deaf.”
Remember that visual cues are vitally important for anyone with hearing loss. Don’t assume everyone can read lips, or even if they do, that they understood 100% of the message.
Pray that we can find ways to reach Deaf teens. Be aware of the needs in your own town and ask God if there are ways He wants you to get involved.
Written by Araya Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org)