“Do you know anyone in this village who’s deaf?”
It’s a question Jessie and her team ask regularly in rural areas of Honduras. The person at the door tells them about a deaf gentleman who lives with his parents and gives them directions to find his home.
“Do you know his name?” Jessie also asks. As expected, the person shakes their head. Jessie and her teammate, a Honduran deaf man, go search for him. They arrive at the steps of his humble home and knock on the door. A woman answers, looking a little tired.
Jessie warmly introduces herself and her teammate. “Is there someone who lives here that’s deaf?” she asks. The homeowner nods her head and walks them over to her son who’s silently watching his many younger siblings play. “What’s his name?” Jessie asks.
The man’s mother scrunches her eyebrows, unsure. “I’ll get his birth certificate,” she tells them, heading off.
Jessie’s teammate waves at the young man who looks surprised that people want to see him. The teammate points to his own ears and mouth, shaking his head, and then points at the man. The woman’s son looks amazed, mouth agape and wide-eyed. He nods his head at Jessie and her teammate, pointing to his own ear and shaking his head. He doesn’t know sign language, and Jessie can see that it’s his first time meeting another deaf person. His first time feeling less alone in the world.
Signs of Love
Jessie Fox is a Missions Door missionary with the Signs of Love, a deaf ministry dedicated to teaching sign language and the gospel to deaf people in rural Honduras. Along with Jessie is Missions Door missionary Rachel Gober who serves in the U.S. as a recruiter for Signs of Love and is also working on expanding the ministry in Peru.
Both women are American, hearing, and fluent in their respective countries’ sign languages. However, Jessie trains deaf locals to become leaders of their people because in her words, “They can do it better than we can.” One of the many reasons she’s a valuable asset to her deaf team is because she can communicate with a deaf person’s hearing family. Rachel’s frequent trips to Peru have already made an impact on deaf people in rural areas, but she still hopes to train indigenous leaders one day.
The Journey to Honduras and Peru
Jessie grew up in a Christian home and was saved in middle school at her church camp. She was fascinated by her church’s sign language interpreter and even petitioned her high school to let her study ASL at a community college. As a deaf education major at Baylor University, she got connected with Signs of Love. When her church in Austin, Texas began supporting missionaries, Jessie knew she wanted to serve with Signs of love. “I loved how Signs of Love was humble, door knocked, and valued relationships over numbers,” she says. In 2011, she moved to Honduras to serve full-time as a missionary Today, she creates a curriculum for the ministry.
Rachel also grew up in a Christian home. She really struggled to understand the true gospel and what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. In junior high, she moved to a Christian school and couldn’t make friends. She felt lonely, unloved, and unseen. Through tears, she clung to the hope that she would make at least one friend. At the end of the year, a transfer student moved to her school, and they immediately connected. Rachel observed her new friend’s beautiful faith, along with her family’s. At church camp that summer, she entered an authentic and saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The Lord would eventually use her experience to touch the lives of others who are unseen.
Her youth pastor saw that Rachel was gifted in loving others and told her she may be called to missions. From fourteen years old, Rachel began serving on mission trips. She worked with Signs of Love on one of those trips and felt the Lord putting art therapy for the deaf on her heart. Eventually after college (she majored in art and psychology), the Lord reconnected her with Signs of Love. Today, she works with Jessie to create illustrations for the curriculum, which is essential because many of the deaf people they work with are illiterate.
Growing Up Without Language
Deaf ministry often entails more than signing the gospel fluently to a deaf person. In the United States, 90% of deaf children are born to hearing adults, and only 23% of hearing parents will learn sign language and teach it to their children. Internationally, that statistic drops down to 15%. This means a majority of deaf people around the world do not know any sign languages and are unable to communicate with others, including their own families.
Often, deaf people in rural Honduras and Peru don’t know their own names, and their parents and siblings may have forgotten it. To get the concept of a name across, Rachel will often show a deaf person in a rural Peruvian village her I.D. and sign her name. Once the deaf person shows her his I.D., she’ll sign his name. It’s their first time having an identity and meeting someone who cares to know who they are. “The name is huge,” Rachel says. “Jesus always identifies the nameless,” Jessie adds, “whether it be calling them ‘daughter’ or ‘friend’.” Once that deaf person understands the concept of a name, he’ll begin to point to everything and learn its name.
Signs of Love’s original strategy was to teach parents of deaf children sign language, but they saw it wasn’t working. In rural Honduras, a mother who walks miles to gather food or wash clothes by hand may not have time to learn another language for her eighth child. She may not be able to communicate with her deaf child, but she shows her love through providing. Instead, Signs of Love has found success in teaching a deaf person’s sibling or cousin sign language so they can act as an interpreter. But of course, the priority is teaching the deaf person sign language and the gospel.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
Teaching someone a language is difficult, especially if they’ve gone most of their life without having any language at all. Rachel notices, though, that even if they don’t know Honduran or Peruvian Sign Language, they still find ways to communicate, whether it be hand gestures, miming, facial expressions, or making up their own signs. While she and Jessie are both fluent in different sign languages, they’re working with deaf people who aren’t. So, the sign language they use is often condensed into what Rachel calls “village sign.”
Rachel’s illustrations are incredibly useful because she and Jessie don’t have a language they can rely on when teaching sign language. Even after the deaf person they’re discipling becomes more fluent, the Honduran and Peruvian Sign Languages don’t have a lot of the religious words we use in English, like grace. Rachel’s drawings help communicate abstract concepts that are crucial to understanding Jesus. They’ve also proven to be helpful in therapy. Signs of Love saw that many deaf Hondurans have trauma and are now also focusing on helping them heal.
Jessie’s passion is training deaf Honduran leaders. “[Becoming a leader] is powerful when you’ve been told your whole life that you can’t do anything,” she explains. “It’s their culture and language, so working with them to reach their own people is our heartbeat. We see locals take it, make it their own, and multiply disciples.” One of these indigenous leaders is Orlan, a pastor and former tailor. He didn’t have language until he was twenty-five and Jessie began working with him. He used to watch Jessie preach, but seven years ago, she turned over the church to him. From the beginning, he’s been going through the Action Bible with his church body and is finally getting to the Book of Revelation. Because he’s illiterate, Jessie will read him a bible story from the Action Bible each week for him to teach the congregation. “I’ve learned so much from him and how he breaks down concepts not using formal Honduran Sign Language,” she says.
Deaf Church Plants
Deaf churches in Honduras and Peru look different than American churches. In Honduras, the church plants typically meet in homes. They go through images of baptism, communion, worship, and see what they’re going to do that week. They have notebooks containing prayer requests, like a picture of someone’s mother with headache marks. These church plants originate from bible studies Jessie and her team start. In these studies, the groups learn a lot about churches in the New Testament and eventually, Jessie will ask them if they’d like to turn their bible study into a church. In Peru, Rachel will often see a person suddenly stand up and begin signing a song they’re making up, and everyone will copy it. That’s their worship.
However, she’s also noticed that while it’s easy to get deaf people together to do bible study, planting a deaf church in Peru is difficult. It may be due to a lack of language development and social interaction, but deaf people in rural Peru struggle with concepts like empathy or forgiveness, and they can be divided by miscommunication and even gossip. “Deaf churches aren’t just a bunch of deaf people and deaf pastor,” Rachel explains, “but a community that fellowships and is healthy like the churches in the New Testament.” But she has hope for a deaf church and deaf leaders in rural Peru which is why she continues to go back throughout the year.
What Matters About the Gospel
Giving the gospel to someone who doesn’t have a language yet is difficult. “How do you teach someone about Jesus who doesn’t know their own name?” Jessie asks. “What’s one word for the gospel?” Rachel adds. “Love,” she answers. One of the biggest things they’ve learned is simplicity – condensing the gospel, the bible, and theology into village signs. They’ve learned what actually matters. Not brain knowledge, but the heart.
Instead of memorizing bible verses, for example, which can be difficult for someone illiterate, they memorize spiritual concepts with bible stories, like “mercy” and “Noah’s ark.” Another example is the gentleman in his fifties Rachel’s been working with. He’s having a difficult time learning sign language but tracks right along with bible stories. He values them more than memorizing his name.
Because of Jessie and Rachel, the deaf people they work with learn they’re not broken, and so do their families. They’re connected with other deaf people, leaders, and mentors. “Souls aren’t bound by language,” Rachel says. At Missions Door, we’re proud to support Signs of Love. By taking care of funding, logistics, accounting, and more, we can ensure our missionaries focus on their ministry and be financially stable in-between mission trips. We also make sure they’re loved, taken care of, are provided flexibility, and trusted to lead their ministry the best way they know how.
We ask that you pray for Rachel as she continues to work in Peru. Pray that indigenous leaders will step up and a deaf church will be planted there. Pray for Jessie as she finishes up her incredible work of ten years in Honduras and moves on to do deaf ministry in Northern Argentina. You can find Jessie’s support page here and Rachel’s support page here.