Attending a beginning sign language course as part of the
deaf ministry at 38th Avenue Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1979,
Howard Burkhart III liked his teacher so much he married her.
Because of Tina McMillan (Burkhart) and her attentive pupil,
Howard — both students at the University of Southern Mississippi at the time —
untold hundreds of the hearing and hearing-impaired from Mississippi to
California have not only been taught how to communicate, but how to accept
Christ as their Savior.
Today, the Burkharts’ ministry — based in Benicia, Calif.,
just north of San Francisco — extends far beyond the deaf community, although
that remains their first love. Howard, 52, is a church planting strategist in
the San Francisco Bay and San Diego areas and a jointly funded missionary for
the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the California Southern Baptist
In fact, Howard and Tina are only two of more than 5,000
missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by
the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® (AAEO) for North American Missions. They
are among the missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March
6-13, 2011. Visit www.anniearmstrong.com for resources.
With a theme of “Start Here,” the 2011 Annie Armstrong
Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits
missionaries like the Burkharts.
“The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering makes everything
possible,” says Burkhart. “It puts missionaries on the field, provides ministry
funds, provides Bibles, church planter training, support for new churches and
allows for special projects that are critical. AAEO is our lifeblood, our
lifeline and our future.”
After both graduating from Southern Miss and enrolling at
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the Burkharts became aware of the
huge need for pastors and missionaries to work with deaf people.
Howard would later become missionary to the deaf in
California, where the Burkharts have lived and ministered for the last 27
years. From 1988-2000, Howard taught classes through Golden Gate Baptist
Theological Seminary for the hearing-impaired so they could learn to be
pastors, teachers and other ministry leaders. It was the first opportunity for
deaf people to get seminary education at the diploma level.
“Deafness is its own culture,” he says. “It has its own
language, its own grammar, its own social structure. Deaf people tend to marry
other deaf people.”
At the same time, Burkhart says today’s technology has
empowered many deaf people, enabling them to become more part of mainstream
Why do the hearing-impaired need special ministries aimed at
them and their needs?
“You’d think they could choose from a hundred different
churches but they can’t. They have to go to a church where there’s either a
pastor to the deaf or where there’s a competent interpreter. And when deaf
people need pastoral care, they call the interpreter, so the interpreter often
becomes their pastor and advocate,” according to Burkhart.
“For hearing-impaired Americans, English is their second
language. Sign language is their first language,” he said. “For deaf people
from other countries, English is their third or fourth language.”
And not only does Burkhart work with hearing-impaired
Anglos, he also ministers to the deaf in other people groups, such as
Hispanics, Asians and Koreans. It’s not commonly known that each nationality
has its own unique deaf signing language — for instance, Koreans have their
own. So signing is different across different cultures and languages. Burkhart
says one of his “joys” is to return to churches he helped start years ago, and
one of his favorites is New Hope Community Church in El Monte, Calif.
“Going back there and knowing that probably more than 50
deaf people there now have a relationship with Jesus — and many of them are
serving and leading in the church — makes for an exciting day,” he said.
Burkhart said the deaf ministry at New Hope is very
multi-ethnic, with nine or 10 countries represented. Out of 30 or so deaf
people in attendance, only three or four are Anglo or Caucasian.
“Deafness trumps ethnicity, so if you ask a hearing-impaired
Indonesian, they’re going to say they are deaf first and Indonesian second.”
Steve Lucero, pastor to the deaf at New Hope, is the father
of a deaf son, Leo, who pulled him into deaf ministry. “When Leo was born, I
asked, ‘Well, Lord, why did you give me a deaf son?’ It was a big question in
my heart and mind.”
At the time of Leo’s birth, Lucero and his wife, Linda,
already had a hearing son. And although Lucero was successfully climbing up the
career ladder with Safeway, he would later leave the business world and go into
deaf ministry — partly because of Leo and partly because of Howard Burkhart.
“We were going to Howard’s night class to learn religious
signing,” recalls Lucero. “He was very patient as he taught us. He also was an
encourager and gave us the confidence we needed to do deaf ministry.
“If it weren’t for Howard, we would have been stuck,” admits
Lucero. “That was 25 years ago and I still love him dearly and so do the deaf
(at New Hope).”
Beyond the hearing-impaired, California — Burkhart’s mission
field — is home to some 37 million people and if a country, it would be the
34th largest nation in the world. More than 200 languages are spoken in the
Golden State. About 40 percent of the population speaks another language or are
bilingual at home.
“In several cases, California is home to a nation’s largest
ethnic population outside its home country,” he said. “In other cases, we may
have more people living here from a country than who actually live back in that
Burkhart strategizes and works with other church planters to
start churches in the San Francisco and San Diego metro areas trying to reach a
number of people groups — Indonesians, Romanians, Mongolians, Burmese,
Vietnamese, Japanese, Russians and Brazilians. He also coordinates and leads 10
basic training events a year for 60 California church planting teams.
“Everybody needs Jesus. It doesn’t matter where you’re from,
what language you speak, where you came from or where you live. Everybody needs
Jesus and it’s our job to communicate that in a language they can understand.
“We would ask Southern Baptists to pray for us because we
need to identify a Japanese church planter for San Diego and several Vietnamese
church planters for 10 churches that need to be planted in California. We also
need partners for several new churches being planted in the San Francisco Bay
Miami-born Howard and Tina — a Jackson, Miss., native who
grew up in Alabama — are the parents of two children, Nathan and Victoria.
Howard also asks Baptists to especially pray for Victoria, only 18, who has
been seriously ill with a rare, debilitating neurological disease, leaving her
mostly homebound for the last six years.
“I grew up in Miami and if you’d told me growing up that I
would be a missionary in California working among the Burmese and Karen, deaf
people or the other language groups I work with, I would have said, ‘never in a
million years.’ But God had a work
for me to do and He is completing it in me,” said Burkhart.
“It’s hard work, it takes people, money, mission teams and
partners. It takes a lot of people to reach a community for Christ.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah is a writer for NAMB. Visit
www.anniearmstrong.com for resources.)
(SPECIAL NOTE — Thank you for your continued support of the Biblical
Recorder site. During this interim period while we are searching for a new
Editor/President the comments section will be temporarily discontinued. Thank
you for your understanding and patience in this. If you do have comments or
issues with items we run, please contact [email protected]
or call 919-847-2127.)