TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ruth Bruffey first came to the Deaflympics games in 1961 as a track and field athlete with the U.S. Deaflympic Team. This year, Bruffey returned to the Deaflympics to tell others about Jesus.
In 1961, at the 9th Deaflympic games in Helsinki, Finland, 24 nations and 595 athletes competed. This year, at the 21st Deaflympic games in Taipei, Taiwan, more than 4,200 athletes and officials from 85 countries are competing in 177 events in 17 sports. The games, which occur every four years, began with opening ceremonies on Sept. 5 and are slated to run through Sept. 15.
In 1961, Bruffey, who is deaf, competed in what is now the 100-meter low hurdles and the 12-pound shot put. This year, Bruffey is with a team of deaf volunteers from churches across the United States to share God’s love with Deaflympic competitors and spectators.
Brian Sims, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church (BBDC) in Tennessee, organized the trip which is co-sponsored by the Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf (SBCD). The team of 10 volunteers personally paid the cost of their airfare and housing, with the SBCD providing the team’s local transportation and food.
Bob Barker, chairman of the SBCD’s international missions committee, said the group has been involved in ministry at the Deaflympics since 1985.
“The Deaflympics is a priority for deaf Southern Baptists,” Barker noted, “but this is the first time that we have brought a team to Asia. It presents new challenges and new approaches. It has been a very good experience for us and has broadened our awareness and our skills for reaching the deaf world.”
Bruffey first learned about the trip at the SBCD annual meeting in July 2008.
“I wanted to go when I first heard about the trip, but I had no money,” Bruffey recounted. “Then, I heard that the trip was off. When I learned a few months ago it was back on again, I just felt compelled to go, regardless of the little money I had in my bank account.”
So, Bruffey ventured to Taiwan with the team and has shared the Gospel numerous times using special “power” pins designed to tell the story of Jesus.
“In deaf culture, all information is shared through a story,” said Dee Douglas, global deaf strategist for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. “Our story will be told through the exchange of pins.”
Trading pins is a Deaflympic tradition, akin to the Olympics. Athletes and spectators bring pins from their countries to trade with one another. Bruffey and her fellow volunteers, who have dubbed themselves the “Power Team” based on the Deaflympic theme, “Power in Me,” have brought their own pins to trade. The cost of producing the 10,000 pins was funded by the SBCD.
Although the small rectangular pin is only a few millimeters high and even fewer wide, it contains a series of three deaf symbols set against a red background with three gold stars.
“The first symbol represents that Jesus is the Rock,” Douglas explained. “The second is an invitation to build your life on the Rock. The third shows that only Jesus has the power to bring light and change.”
Some on the team also have been trained to share 20 Bible stories, as time and opportunity allow, based on the symbols on the pin and on such themes as who Jesus is, the church as the body of Christ and the task of reaching the lost.
For Bruffey, it is thrilling to share with those she meets at the games. “For me, this is like a reunion. I feel like I belong here. I know what they went through to get to this point.”
In 1961, Bruffey was entering her senior year in high school at the Mississippi School for the Deaf in Jackson. She was active in sports, including basketball, track and volleyball — and she could even kick field goals for the football team.
“But,” she said, “track wasn’t me. I didn’t enjoy it, and as a junior in high school, the coach found out I was planning to quit the team. The coach told me if I quit track, then I would also have to quit basketball. I loved basketball, so I stayed on the track team.”
Bruffey, now 66, thanks God for the coach’s direction because a track and field event was what brought her to the Deaflympics just a few months later in August 1961.
Originally, Bruffey was slated to compete only in the 100-meter low hurdles, but when the team stopped in Duisburg, Germany, en route to Helsinki, a member of the shot put team suffered a hamstring injury. The coaches asked Bruffey to take her place.
“But look at my weight!” Bruffey, at a mere 112 pounds, exclaimed.
“Just do the best you can,” her coaches said.
While Bruffey did not win any medals, the memories stay with her, and at the 2009 Deaflympics she has enjoyed a type of celebrity status. She has connected with two former Deaflympians — a German man and a Slovakian man. The Slovakian competed in the 1965 and 1969 games on the swimming and biking teams.
“I also met a group of U.S. citizens who were in awe that I was a former Deaflympian,” Bruffey smiled.
While this is not Bruffey’s first volunteer mission trip — she has made eight trips to work with the deaf in Portugal since 2003 — mission trips have not always been one of her priorities. Instead, she focused on her family, leaving mission work to her husband, Clifford, who passed away in 2001.
Clifford Bruffey served as the Baptist chaplain at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., for many years with the North American Mission Board. Clifford, who also was deaf, is referred to by many as the Billy Graham for the deaf. He constantly encouraged his students to consider mission service. Meanwhile, Ruth stayed home to raise their three children, all of whom are now involved in full-time ministry.
But after her husband’s death in 2001, God began to work in Bruffey’s heart, calling her to more active involvement in missions.
“My husband was always so engaged in missions, always out and going,” Bruffey said. “After he died, I wrote a song called ‘Time to Go.’ As I was writing that song, I thought, ‘What prohibits me?’ The song was about being in the Word, being ready and going when God calls. Every time I sang that song, I thought about going.”
Then came an opportunity to minister in Portugal in 2003, and Bruffey felt it was her time to go.
“Portugal changed my life,” she said. “I began to see a broader world, and I’ve continued to go to Portugal year after year. I have a strong commitment to seeing the work there come to fruition.”
Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church, where Ruth is a member, has a strong commitment to planting deaf churches internationally, having started one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and now focusing on Portugal, with plans to begin a new work in Argentina this fall.
Ruth smiled as she talked about what her husband’s reaction might be to her current involvement in missions.
“I’m sure he’s rejoicing, knowing that I am going and sharing the Gospel,” Ruth said. Then she grinned and said, “and he’s probably just a little surprised.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rivers is a writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.)