Steve Dye, a 17-year veteran of deaf ministry and former deaf minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is a freelance evangelist for the deaf, working in conferences, workshops, revivals, and other church programs, for the encouragement of deaf ministry. (The interview was interpreted by Amy Truman of the Deaf Institute.)
How did you become interested in deaf ministry?
I did not know sign language until I married my wife. She is also deaf and had to be my interpreter all the time. As I learned to communicate through sign, I began to realize many deaf people did not even know basic Bible stories; 60-year-olds who had attended church all their lives did not know about Moses or Jonah. My passion grew as I saw their need to learn the Word.
Tell us about your hearing impairment.
When I was 4 years old continuous ear infections led to my deafness. I remember having good hearing, but it was a long time ago. I still have a little bit of hearing, but I cannot function on just what I hear.
Give us some insight into what deaf ministry is all about.
Deaf people need to be empowered to be accountable to themselves. Instead of having hearing persons do the job for them, deaf people need to do the job themselves. For example, before I joined the staff at Southeast Christian, no deaf people were in leadership of deaf ministry. Interpreters did the work because deaf people were not assuming leadership. We worked to make deaf people responsible for leading their own activities.
Are you suggesting that the benevolence of the “hearing” has built a culture of dependency among the deaf?
Yes; some of that stems from government policy. Deaf people are labeled as “disabled.” Food stamps and Social Security checks have led to a dependency mode for deaf people. When they get so much free from the government, they tend to expect everything else to be free. That mind-set needs to be changed. Deaf people do not need everything done for them.
Is deafness not a disability?
My deafness does not define me. Jesus defines who I am!
How did that core Christian identity emerge?
Painful experience played a big part. From ages 4 to 7, I was sexually abused by a family friend, Arnold (not his real name). Near the end of this time, my aunt took me to church where I was introduced to Jesus. I saw Jesus as the only person who would never hurt me. I accepted Jesus as my Savior. However, I still took seriously Arnold’s threat never to tell about the abuse. Like most victims, I did not want to talk about or deal with the experience. But after marriage, I told my wife. As I watched a TV show about sexual abuse of children, I realized I had pushed back “stuff” and I started remembering everything. My wife told me I needed to tell my parents. This was hard, because Arnold was Dad’s friend. I did not know how Dad would react. He listened to me, then immediately went to the phone and called Arnold, saying, “I know what you did to my son. I love you, but I can never talk to you again. We cannot be friends anymore.” Then he hung up the phone and went out to the garage for a long time.
Where was Christ in this?
Dad was not a strong Christian at that time, but I was impressed by the temperament he showed. I saw Christ’s influence on Dad. When I went to counseling, at the strong encouragement of my mother, I wanted that controlled temperament, but I realized that strong acceptance needed to meet equally strong grace. I later saw Arnold in a store. I followed him to his car and asked him, “Do you know who I am?”
He looked puzzled, then said, “Oh yeah, you’re Steve.”
I pushed, “Do you remember what you did to me when I was a little boy?” Even when I persisted, he denied having any idea what I was talking about. So I said, “It doesn’t really matter, but I’m a Christian and I am going to forgive you. I love you. God bless you. I hope you find Jesus too.”
About two months later I bumped into Arnold’s mother at another store. We recognized each other and talked. She had two grandchildren with her, Arnold’s children. When I asked where their father was, she looked away and then said he was in jail for molesting his children. I told her I was sorry and I prayed for her right there. After the prayer she said, “Steve, I know he did the same thing to you.” She hugged me and I fell into deep sobbing.
Steve, I never expected the interview to go this direction.
There’s more. A number of years later, Arnold sent me a letter from prison, thanking me for forgiving him, and telling me he had found Jesus. I don’t know if he would’ve found Jesus if I had not forgiven him, but I think Jesus used my forgiveness to help him come to his own faith. Jesus was first my counselor; then he was my Savior.
Are you open to my sharing your story with our readers?
Every time I share it I find more healing. And I find that there are many others who benefit from my testimony.
Were you more vulnerable because of your deafness?
No. I was abused because evil occurs. But the Lord worked through this bad situation. Being deaf does not make me weak. Being abused did not make me weak. But God’s loving healing is making me strong.
Can we talk a bit more about deaf ministry? Is this a cross-cultural ministry?
Yes, we have our own language and we develop our own ways of doing things. We have reason to be cautious when people say they want to help us. We get defensive, just like other people on the margin. We have to relate to the rest of society through interpreters.
How can the church engage this ministry?
Every church should have a sign language class so you’ll be ready to reach out to deaf people.
But what if our church doesn’t have any deaf people?
If you don’t have any deaf people, you probably are not reaching out to the deaf people. Nearly 10 percent of people in America have some level of deafness, but fewer than 1 percent of the profoundly deaf people know Jesus. Deaf people are the third-largest unreached people group in the world.
Would I need to be fluent in sign language to reach a deaf person?
No, but you need to try, . . . with sign, with paper and pencil, electronic communication . . . anything to start, but no people group really comes to know Christ until he is presented in their own language. If you sense God’s call to deaf ministry, empower deaf Christians by supporting their ministries and entering into partnership with those who cannot otherwise hear the gospel.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.