Deaf youth retreat impacts lostnessby C. Walter Overman
During the final worship time at this year’s Deaf Youth Retreat at Camp Caraway, a young man named Duanta announced to everyone his profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
“He signed, ‘I am Duanta. I have been a thief and a rebel. Today I give my life to Christ,’” said Donnie Wiltshire, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) consultant for special ministries. “He was crying. He was overwhelmed and felt like it was something he needed to say to everyone.”
Duanta’s testimony was a powerful moment that spoke truth into the lives of other campers.
“Several other youth, touched by the sincerity of Duanta’s confession, likewise professed faith in Christ,” Wiltshire said.
Every May, deaf middle and high school students from across the state attend the retreat. The primary purpose of the event is to provide youth an opportunity to respond to the gospel and to help Christians grow in their walk with Christ.
“The Deaf Youth Retreat has a strong evangelism and disciple-making emphasis, and all the typical things kids do at a camp such as swimming, playing games and sports activities, but they also have numerous times of worship, devotions and prayer,” Wiltshire said.
An important feature of the camp is that youth are mentored by deaf adults. Most campers are from hearing families and rarely interact with deaf, Christian adults. This, combined with the other aspects of the retreat, provide a complete Christian camp experience.
“When we have this event, these young people are able to see Christ in their counselors, have worship experiences, see testimonies from deaf adults – so they encounter Jesus all over the place,” Wiltshire said.
Meeting a Need
For youth such as Duanta, the annual retreat might be the only time during the year when they have an opportunity to respond to the gospel. Thus, the retreat is essential for reaching the deaf community for Christ.
“Many of these kids have no church they are a part of during the week,” Wiltshire said. “Our annual camp is one of our strategies for impacting lostness in the deaf community.”
About 36,000 North Carolinians are culturally deaf, which includes people who were born deaf or became deaf early in life, attend or were educated at a school for the deaf, and who communicate primarily through American Sign Language (ASL).
The culturally deaf are one of nine affinity groups listed by the International Mission Board. Affinity groups are large concentrations of people who share similar origins, languages and cultures. Often, the most important aspect of ministering to a people group is to communicate the gospel in their heart language. The heart language for the deaf community in North Carolina is ASL.
About 100 North Carolina Baptist churches are engaging the deaf community, the majority of which aim to mainstream deaf people into the life of the church through interpreters. Only 10 deaf congregations are active statewide.
“If deaf people have a choice, typically they will choose to be a part of a deaf congregation. Those are largely found in the metropolitan areas,” Wiltshire said. “The vast majority of deaf people in the state have no place close by where they can really be part of a Christian fellowship.”
Wiltshire said North Carolina Baptists can engage the deaf community in a number of ways, but they must begin with a commitment to understand the culture.
“It takes a long term commitment and a cultural understanding of how they think and live, and then reaching them in relationship,” he said.
The BSCNC offers training throughout the year to help churches minister to the deaf community, including ASL training for interpreters.
Wiltshire encourages all North Carolina Baptists to prayerfully consider how they can engage the deaf community with the gospel. One way churches can help is by increasing their gifts to the Cooperative Program, which helps fund the annual deaf retreat and other ministries aimed at impacting lostness among North Carolina’s deaf population.
“The lifeline for our work to reach deaf people in North Carolina is the Cooperative Program,” Wiltshire said. “Support for the Cooperative Program allows us to offer these kinds of ministries to reach people who are often overlooked.”
The 2014 Deaf Youth Retreat will be held May 2-4 at Camp Caraway. For more information, contact Donnie Wiltshire at email@example.com.