No Longer Forgotten, Wycliffe Reaches Out to the Deaf with Sign Language Bible Translations 


ARLINGTON, Texas — Imagine not having a Bible in your language. That's a reality for around 2,000 languages across the globe.

Now in its 75th year, the world renowned Wycliffe Bible Translators continues its work at reducing that number. One of their newest missions is reaching the deaf.  

"The Scriptures clearly state that the Word will go forth to all people, all nations around the world, and then Christ will return," Andy Keener, director of global partnerships for Wycliffe USA, told CBN News. "And God has it all planned out, and the fact that he chooses to use an organization like Wycliffe to help bring about his plan just encourages me." 

Much Work to be Done

While the numbers are also encouraging, much work still needs to be done. The organization says up to 160 million people need the Bible translated in their languages.

"When God's Word becomes alive in the language that you use at home with your family, and then you see that God speaks your language, you realize this is not someone else's message," Keener said. "This was a message intended for me, and it becomes foundational to all other things that the Church does."

Reaching the Deaf

One new frontier is the deaf community, and Wycliffe is working with Deaf Bible Society to reach this often overlooked group.  

"We believe that they are a part of the Great Commission's command, and they, too, do have a right to know God's truth," Chantel Pagan, director of advocacy for Deaf Bible Society, told CBN News.

The need is great. Deaf Bible Society estimates there are 70 million deaf people worldwide, and less than two percent have interacted with the Bible in a language that they can understand.

It doesn't stop there. Of the more than 350 sign languages, Pagan tells CBN News not one has a complete Bible translation – even American Sign Language or ASL.

Why not just read?

Some may wonder, "Why doesn't the deaf community just read a printed Bible?"

"What many people don't realize is as hearing individuals, we grow and are raised in the environment in context of noisy world," Pagan explained. "We have sound all around us. That for us is developing language."

"It's developing what we use to learn to read and to write later in life," she continued. "For a deaf person, they don't have that experience."

Pagan calls sign language the heart language of the deaf.

"It's how they communicate best," she said. "It's how they understand best, and I think that the Lord wants to communicate with us best. He wants us to understand him, and he wants that for the deaf community as well."

"So why not give them Scripture in their heart language?" she continued. "Why not translate the Scriptures in a format that they can understand and offer video to content that they can have on technological devices?"

Clearing up Confusion

Director of operations Adan Burke talked with us about the importance of this translation effort through interpreter Mistie Suhr.

"And when I was growing up, I saw so many different churches where I'd see people signing directly from the Bible in English, and often there are missed concepts," Burke signed to CBN News. "They're even misconstrued as to what the actual meaning is, and so I always struggled with that growing up."

He's encouraged by recent progress, specifically for ASL. 

Once a translation is complete, the Scripture engagement department steps in.

"...Then they focus on knowing how to use that translation; how do we apply it; how do we teach it to the community," he signed. "It could be different ways of applying what they have. It could be on the app, on their phone."

Translating Technology

CBN News caught up with Brandon, a Deaf Bible Society employee, who demonstrated the Deaf Bible app.

"So you can see there's two different sections here; one is called ASLV, and it's book by book of the Bible," he signed. "And the other one is CBT; and that's more of Bible stories that are in a story format for deaf people to watch." 

Computer technology is essential to the process. Shawn Collins oversees the software program known as Chameleon.

"We're using motion capture, so we're actually capturing the signer; we're tracking their motions, and we're putting it into a 3D avatar in a 3D environment," he told CBN News. 

"So this allows us to change the avatar, to look like a local national, or a biblical character in an historical environment," Collins continued. "And in a visual language like sign language, this creates a lot of context."

Making Contact for the First Time

All this helps Wycliffe reach deaf people around the world with the Word of God. CBN News watched field coordinator Severa Trevino make contact with a deaf translation team from Tanzania in East Africa, for the first time. 

"I'm so excited," Trevino shared with CBN News. "He told me he couldn't be in contact because they were having Internet issues, and we'd have to wait until next year. But now here we are."

Burke, who was CBN News' tour guide of Deaf Bible Society, agreed that the Holy Spirit ordered that contact right as the crew from CBN News walked by.

A Positive Future, No Longer Forgotten

Deaf Bible Society says so far 30 sign languages have portions of the Bible translated. The organization and Wycliffe hope in the next three years that 100 more will be added to that list.   

Stuart Thiessen, a consultant for the organization, says deaf people are usually the last people to learn what's happening in the world.

"Even with the Bible, we're still the last people to know," he signed to CBN News. "I'm very excited that we have the ability for deaf people to get this, what they need, now that we're making all these translations happening."

Wycliffe and Deaf Bible Society are taking God's Word to people from all walks of life and helping to usher in the return of Jesus Christ. 

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