Hearing use humor to bridge to Deaf in Madagascar
Dec 3, 2013

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (BP)—It’s like learning to swim by being pushed off the high dive—and Mason Barrett just got shoved. The 33-year-old real estate agent sits wide-eyed in a tiny, crowded living room in Madagascar’s capital city, trying desperately to understand what anyone around him is saying. Hands fly in a flurry of conversation, mostly get-to-know-you type questions: What’s your name? Are you married? Were you born deaf?

That last question might sound strange if this wasn’t one of the thousands of Deaf communities that Barrett has come to serve. He’s part of a team from Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., that’s traveled more than 9,000 miles for a single purpose: sharing Jesus with the Deaf Malagasy.  

Tucked away off Africa’s eastern coast, Madagascar is home to roughly 110,000 Deaf, less than 1 percent of whom are disciples of Jesus Christ. Most follow a centuries-old 

tradition of ancestor worship. There may be a “veneer of Christianity,” says missionary Matt Spann, a Texas native who leads IMB’s Madagascar team, but “they fear their ancestors more than they fear God.” That’s what Warren has come to change.

LUCKY FEW A Deaf student plays a game with classmates after school in Antananarivo, Madagascar. The countrys Deaf federation estimates that only a small portion of the 110,000 Deaf of Madagascar have attended a Deaf school. IMB photo
Sending a hearing church to evangelize the Deaf may seem a fool’s errand, especially since Warren has absolutely no experience with Deaf ministry. Roger Henderson, Warren’s missions pastor, said the decision left many scratching their heads—including the very people he tasked with choosing which unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG) Warren would embrace.

Blessed mistake

Cue a young men’s discipleship group Henderson affectionately refers to as the “Ten Angry Men.” They were “angry” because of the lack of Christ-centered leadership they saw in many of today’s Christian men.

Sorting through the more than 3,800 UUPGs identified by IMB, the Ten Angry Men researched and prayed through their top picks, eventually voting on their selection in Madagascar. The process went smoothly, save for a “slight hiccup”—they didn’t realize the UUPG was Deaf.

“All throughout the Bible, God uses our weaknesses to display His strength—from Moses to David to Paul,” says Vesta Sauter, who leads IMB’s global Deaf work with her husband, Mark. “I think He knew exactly what He was doing when He chose Warren Baptist to bring the Gospel to the Deaf of Madagascar.”

And just like God gave Aaron to his tongue-tied brother when He ordered Moses before Pharaoh, He gave Warren Baptist a man named Phillip Easterling. 

Easterling, 51, is a pastor and church planter from Asheville, N.C. He’s also Warren’s way of gaining access to Madagascar’s Deaf community, a job Sauter says is notoriously difficult for the hearing. Easterling was born deaf. He started Asheville Deaf Church, which he currently pastors, and has helped Southern Baptists plant Deaf congregations all over the world.    

MAKING CONNECTIONS Pouring a glass of water may seem insignificant, but Drew Robinson knows that simple gestures like helping serve lunch at a Deaf school in Antsirabe, Madagascar, are the building blocks of new relationships. IMB photo
Sauter says Easterling was a critical addition because the Deaf are used to being ignored, abused and marginalized by the hearing. But Easterling’s intimacy with Deaf culture instantly breaks down those walls, lending acceptance to the hearing members of Warren’s team.

“It’s such a blessing that Warren had foresight and [was] sensitive to God’s plan,” Easterling says. “They don’t know about deafness or Deaf culture … but they basically adopted me so that I could be a liaison, a bridge, and begin to share the story of His love and salvation.” 

Mind the gap

Back in the tiny, crowded living room in Antananarivo, Easterling watches as Barrett and the rest of Warren’s team struggle to communicate with their hosts, a middle-aged couple named Didi and Jeannette. News about their American guests has spread quickly, and the couple’s house is overflowing with more than 20 visitors.

Easterling tries to translate both sides of several conversations. But after 20 minutes, he stands abruptly and leaves Warren’s team members to fend for themselves. 

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