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Couple minister in Calif.’s vast mission field
Mickey Noah, NAMB
March 07, 2011
8 MIN READ TIME

Couple minister in Calif.’s vast mission field

Couple minister in Calif.’s vast mission field
Mickey Noah, NAMB
March 07, 2011

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

Convention.

Photo by Greg Schneider

NAMB church planting missionary Howard Burkhart, right, holds a church planting strategy session in Walnut Creek, Calif., with Brazilian couple Wanderley and Claudia Alvares. Burkhart is one of the Week of Prayer missionaries for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. See video.

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

society.

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.

Photo by Greg Schneider

Howard and Tina Burkhart

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

country.”

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

area.”

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.)

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