Proclaiming the gospel to deafblind people
By Ruth Zacharias
After I had studied theology and spent several years in ministry with deafblind people, I was ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran Church in 1975 and asked to continue developing a work among deafblind people. Proclaiming the gospel to deafblind people has not only been the focus of my ministry in Germany, but around the world since that time.
When I was presented the lifetime award by Deafblind International in 2015, this matter became even more important for me.
A journey stretching back 40 years from 1975 to 2015 – and that seems significant too.
How does the gospel reach deafblind people around the world?
Pastor Volkhard Scheunemann worked with his wife as a missionary and the theological director of the Bible school in Batu in Indonesia from 1963 to 1982. He was sent out by WEC International. He was head of WEC Germany from 1985 until 1993. Despite his old age, he still has a heart for missionary work.
He has been helping me since 2010. He has now got to know some deafblind people. He has played a major role in leading special conferences. We regularly spend time on the phone sharing our faith and praying for people as priests.
He received his calling for missionary work in Indonesia from Isaiah 42:1-4 and passed it on to me with the following verses in Isaiah 42:6f in 2016: "A bruised reed he will not break and smoking flax he will not quench. I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house." Christ is the covenant. He, the Lord, is the covenant giver and sheds His blood for His people. He enables us to share in the new covenant in His blood, the blood of the covenant, in holy communion. He therefore wants us to spread His covenant to all who need it: to His people, to the Gentiles and particularly to those who are "blind", whose hearts are to be enlightened, and to the deafblind people in their dark prisons, so that they can be led out of captivity.
We have got to know deafblind people in our decades of working among them
- who are living out their faith in Jesus Christ,
- who radiate a strong testimony of gratitude despite being deafblind,
- who experience the presence of Jesus Christ in holy communion,
- who eke out a life as a "home for demons",
- who are just a home for "spirits of death",
- who are viewed as being "possessed",
- who are held captive in the "prison house" as people robbed of their humanity.
How does the Kingdom of God make its way to deafblind people?
Many questions have occupied us from a biblical and theological point of view. We are still looking for many answers!
I would like to quote a chapter from my book entitled "Gottes Kraft – das Geheimnis der Schwachheit" (God's Power – the Secret of Weakness):
"My calling within my work"
"I have got to know about 2,000 deafblind people. I have communicated with them in many different ways, alone and with many helpers, down through the decades. As far as preaching and counselling for this group of people are concerned – my theology has been repeatedly "filtered" by the many situations that I have faced as part of my ministry: making the love of God comprehensible – and more intelligible for deafblind people. Communications have therefore involved special content, i.e. biblical content, from the outset – discovering from the Bible what deafblind people know and need to learn. I have always wrestled and struggled with the fact that I have been able to preach so little – partly for time reasons, for language reasons, for comprehension reasons. The weakest person always set the standard for my preaching.
I can remember the first holy communion that I was allowed to celebrate after my ordination. It took place during a retreat lasting ten days where we had Bible studies every day. My heart was filled with joy at God's love and I had considered and looked at so many biblical texts. What should my message be? What will this group be able to absorb and understand? I prayed and wrestled and understood through the working of the Holy Spirit that the central focus in the biblical message is God's love in Jesus Christ for all people. We then receive Jesus Himself in the bread and wine in holy communion: He humbles Himself to such an extent that He takes up residence within us.
I decided to start things by celebrating holy communion. Everybody was able to receive the sermon with ten sentences, the words of institution and the prayers too. An atmosphere full of light and peace filled the room and the hearts of those who were present in their poverty and weakness in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
One of those sharing in this experience grabbed hold of my cassock as she went out and waited until she was the last person in the room. She used the Lorm alphabet in my hand to communicate that she felt that Jesus was with us. She clapped her hands in joy.
We celebrated holy communion three times during the retreat. I had experienced something absolutely critical: a realisation through the Holy Spirit, the Creator, that it is possible to personally recognise that Jesus is alive.
The almost complete absence of verbal content used to proclaim the good news had become the focal point of this retreat. Holy communion has become throughout the decades and still is crucially important. I still wrestle and puzzle with the mystery related to holy communion, particularly for deafblind people, with whom it is impossible to communicate verbally. The Holy Spirit, the Creator, has access to each person whom I view and understand to be God's creation: He communicates Jesus, He interprets what I am unable to do; but I am still involved in this process through prayer and faith. I have a greater desire to expect a revelation of the love of God through the creative working of the Spirit for those in prison, as I view deafblind people, with whom it is impossible to communicate – but the Holy Spirit opens closed doors.
I have learnt to an increasing degree from practice what real content to proclaim from God's Word in Bible studies, devotional sessions and devotional letters and counselling situations and how long I should do this. I basically know that even the hearts of the weakest people can receive the message of the Bible if it is explained in simple language.
I recall the many visits to people's homes that I have made during the last few decades, always aware of the task associated with the calling within my work. Sitting with deafblind people, taking a seat with them and spending time with them, using special means of communication and in countless different situations: alone with them or with relatives in their flats, in homes, in situations where we could get to know each other, a birthday, holy communion, counselling issues, in hospitals, or when they were close to death. What can I do? What help can I provide? What is most important and essential at these times, when I have travelled hundreds of kilometres to see them? I am aware that my calling involves using my hands to bless others. I studied what I found in the Bible and, with many questions, I hesitantly started to do what the Bible says. Body contact in this manner in conjunction with the working of the Holy Spirit seems to me to be a source of blessing, and yet I have been disobedient on many occasions and have sinned with regard to my calling.
During the last few years, I have been particularly attracted to Bible verses, for which there is still little revelation and which I have not experienced.
Smelling, tasting and touching are important senses for deafblind people, partly because seeing and hearing are not available or only in a restricted form. The fact that there are Bible verses connected to our senses is good enough reason to become involved in work with deafblind people, particularly for preaching too.
Tasting is important in holy communion and is referred to in Psalm 34: "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good." We receive Christ by taking the bread and wine. The deafblind can receive whatever the Holy Spirit communicates, but this remains a mystery. Hands are used for people to feel. There is a connection to the hands of blessing here – and with communication through the Holy Spirit.
"... the fragrance of his knowledge" (2 Corinthians 2:14) in conjunction with the statement and experience that people have a fragrance. What do deafblind people sense, when Christ dwells in us, when His love fills us? 1 Corinthians 6:19 should certainly be considered in this context too – i.e. that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
My theology has continually been "filtered" by the biblical texts that are the truth and this truth needs to be revealed to me, no differently than through the communication of the Holy Spirit with and in me, for my calling's sake; I want to be open to this.
In all that I have experienced in the presence of deafblind people, dumbness is the disability that bothers me most. Language is part of being human in an all-embracing sense. What then does dumbness mean with all its ramifications? Not being able to speak without any other disabilities is hard enough when dealing with people or relating to them; if blindness or deafness or both of them are additional factors, then human nature has reached a level where people largely have to live in an "inhuman" way, and yet these people are still God's creatures! Jesus healed a dumb man with a demon in Matthew 9:33 and a blind and mute man with evil spirits in Matthew 12:22. Demons were the reason for disrupting and robbing these people of their humanity then. The biblical calling includes preaching, healing and driving out demons ... I need very much more communication with the Holy Spirit to help others so that God's love is revealed.
In addition to disabilities caused by sickness, I have also been confronted by expressions of demonic activity during the decades of my ministry. It was possible to drive out demons; but the disabilities remained. I still have to cope with some questions that remain unanswered.
I can still remember a conversation with the theology professor, Heinrich Vogel, where we tried to understand what it means to be deafblind. Deafblind people are largely unable to protect themselves, and are very quickly exposed to many uncertainties and fears, which are open doors for demons, in his view.
I have now encountered deafblind people with psychological problems too: that is another mission field for me and for all of us!"
Extract from: Ruth Zacharias: "Gottes Kraft – Das Geheimnis der Schwachheit ", pp. 254 - 257, cf. also → here
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