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Deaf Thais Start a Church With Sign Language Where You Can’t Fake It

Deaf Thais Start a Church Where You Can't Fake It

Sombat Apichai* understood only 50 percent of the Thai Sign Language interpretation of the sermon at his church in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sermon was translated into what is known as word signing, which is in Thai word order, and is different from Thai Sign Language, thus making the translation choppy. To complicate things further, Thai religious vocabulary is hard to understand, even for hearing Thais.

Sombat and other Deaf Christians were unable to truly connect or intimately worship God because they didn’t fully understand and were never discipled. They didn’t really have a way to contribute or volunteer at church. They felt disconnected and isolated from the hearing members of their church.

Crafting the turning point  

Sombat and his wife, Alisara,* met IMB workers Victor and Madeline Hawthorne,* who invited them to Story One, a new church for the Deaf. The Hawthornes introduced them to Bible stories in Thai Sign Language.

Astonished, Sombat noticed the Hawthornes followed the Bible exactly when they signed, and they signed the story in the Deaf style—not in word-for-word sign like his hearing church did with their sign language interpretation.

Sombat and Alisara started attending a camp the Hawthorne’s hosted that taught Deaf Christians how to craft Bible stories in Thai Sign Language.

‘Crafting’ is a multi-step process to transform a two-dimensional written text into three-dimensional communication via drawing, dramatization, and dialogue. The aim is to accurately and clearly communicate the Word of God in Deaf people’s heart languages, which utilizes these three elements.

Believers at the camp were empowered to dissect Scripture and understand it for themselves. The Hawthornes gave them background to the Old Testament to help them as they crafted stories.

The process was time-consuming and difficult, but empowering.

Equality in the family of God

The faith of Sombat, Alisara, and other Deaf Christians flourished, and they realized they could play a vital role in the church and in the fulfilling of the Great Commission.

“When I joined the Story One church, it was the first time that I felt like I was equal in God’s eyes to a hearing person, and I was able to, for the first time, serve in a church without fear,” Alisara said.

The Christians met in the Hawthorne’s house. But it was far away from most of the members’ homes. They started meeting after work on Saturday in the food courts of shopping malls—often late into the night—until the mall security guard motioned for them to leave because the mall was closing. Eventually, the believers were able to rent property in a neighborhood for their church.

They now have a vibrant church that is Deaf-led, with equal participation and shared leadership.

Shared leadership in the church

Their church services look different than traditional church services. Members can’t sit passively in this church, Sombat says.

They meet on Saturday nights, which is when most members have time off from work. The believers eat dinner and fellowship with one another prior to the service.

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Caroline Anderson is a writer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.