NORTH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST – We were tightly packed into a bus heading out of the city on our way to train Deaf nationals to craft Bible stories in their own sign language.
Our training team consisted of IMB [International Mission Board] workers, Deaf European workers and Deaf nationals – a total of 49. The bus could seat only 40.The Deaf national leaders asked the Americans and Europeans to sit at the back of the bus and pull the curtains to avoid drawing attention as we passed through checkpoints throughout the desert. It was hot, it was crowded, and there were many unfamiliar faces – Deaf who had not come to last year’s training.
A man and a woman sat in front of me. He looked too young to be her husband, yet they seemed protective and caring of one another. I wondered who they were.
A tap on my shoulder interrupted my focus, and I turned to see who wanted my attention. It was Shereen*, a Deaf national.
Photo by Isaac Colnago
In North Africa and the Middle East, 49 people met to craft a set of Bible stories in sign language to enhance their work in evangelism, discipleship and church planting. During the training, more than a dozen people accepted Christ as Savior and were baptized. (Identities obscured.)
Shereen loves to talk (i.e., to sign) and it is a rare moment when her hands are not flying about. Shereen pointed to the two sitting in front of me and signed, “Those two are brother and sister. … He stabbed their brother in the heart, killing him last year.”
Shereen spoke matter-of-factly. I tried not to appear shocked. Questions like, “What’s he doing on the bus? Why did he kill his brother? Why isn’t he in jail? Was it an accident?” began to fill my head. “Don’t ask them any questions,” Shereen said. “They do not want to talk about it and, oh, by the way … they are people from the Garbage City.”
These are people who live in the city dump and sift through the refuse and recycling to earn a meager living. It is a huge, smelly section of the city that is dirty, depressing and filled with sickness. It also is a part of the city that Muslims do not visit – except to dump their garbage. Nearly all of the inhabitants are from an Orthodox background and many are destitute.
Once we passed through all the security checks, several of us began to move about the bus to get to know our trainees. Deaf were standing all along the aisle, engaged in conversation. The sister pressed her way into the aisle, and we made eye contact. She smiled and opened her jacket to reveal a white T-shirt with a silkscreened image on it.
Imprinted on her T-shirt was Jesus on the cross. Superimposed onto that image was an image of a young Middle Eastern man with his arms spread out, as if he were being crucified. Below the cross were a couple of black-robed, gray-bearded Orthodox priests looking up to the cross.
After studying the picture, I looked to her for an explanation. She pointed to the man on the T-shirt, then looked over to her brother and signed, “My Deaf brother killed my hearing brother.”
I pointed to the image of the young man and asked, “Brother, yours?”
She handed me a small booklet. On the cover was a picture of the young man on her T-shirt. I opened the booklet and looked at each page. The book was a tribute to her dead brother and his service to the church and community. There were pictures of him trying to make a difference in the Garbage City. He sang with a praise band.
“Why did your brother stab him? What happened?” I asked.
She seemed eager to tell the story.
She and her brother lived among garbage. While their hearing brother had found some kind of escape, they had not. He was always at peace, comfortable and involved with a church – a hearing church. Her Deaf brother joined a gang and used drugs. One night, in a fit of fury, rage and confusion, he lashed out in anger at his hearing brother and thrust a knife into his heart. All he wanted was what he felt his hearing brother had – money, significance, comfort and peace. He was immediately locked away in prison for a crime he never denied and for which he knew he could never find forgiveness. Soon afterward, he was found in his cell hanging by the neck from a rope, yet he survived the attempted suicide.
Someone begged that he be shown mercy, and he was released from prison. Not long after that, the brother and sister learned about a group of Deaf believers meeting together in the city. They began to attend the Deaf church there.
She closed her story by taking my hand, kissing it and thanking me for the opportunity to join in this pilgrimage to learn about Jesus.
While she did not use the signed vocabulary one acquires in a Deaf school, she had no problem communicating to me what had happened to her brothers and how this was a journey for her and her Deaf brother – one where they hoped to find the peace and comfort her hearing brother had seemed to know.
We arrived at the retreat center and gathered together to begin the training, focusing on crafting Bible stories in sign language for use in evangelism, discipleship and church planting. As the group was divided into small groups, I made sure these two were placed with leaders who would love them with the love of our Lord and lead them to understand the saving power of the Savior.
I was pleased at the end of each day’s training to see these two standing shoulder to shoulder with the others, rendering Bible stories and understanding Bible truths. I prayed that any judgments others had harbored in their hearts against them would be dispelled. It brought me great joy to see our Deaf workers being Christ’s heart, hands and His voice and loving them as He loves them.
In one of our group meetings at the end of the week, the “murderer” dropped his head in despair, looked at his group leader and slowly raised his hand. His intent was not to be recognized or gain permission to speak. He meant it as a gesture of surrender.
Then he signed, “Me. I do.” Curling his big hands into fists, he gently pounded his head (the Arabic sign for “Sorrow plus repentance”). Then slowly and methodically, his hands straightened and he lifted them from earth to heaven, signaling a turning of ways. “I want to turn,” he signed. “I want to follow Jesus in baptism.”
The next afternoon, more than 40 of us walked into the sea to witness this new brother symbolically “buried” in the sea and brought up to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
A murderer redeemed.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Dee Douglas is an International Mission Board strategy leader for Deaf peoples.)