ORANGE WALK, Belize — More than 40 adults and children participated in the 10th anniversary celebration of Jesus’ Deaf Church Oct. 11.
Nancy Marshall, a worker with Virginia Mennonite Missions and Eastern Mennonite Missions, started the church and continues to pastor the group.
Marshall had been living and working in Lancaster, Pa., in 2004 when a friend invited her to teach sign language to deaf children in Belize for the summer. During her last three days in Belize, she heard God’s voice in her head: “I want you to come back to Belize to start a deaf church.”
Marshall had never heard God’s voice so directly. She replied: “How can I pastor a church? I’m a woman. It won’t work here. There are pretty conservative gender roles in Belize.”
Then Marshall visited San Felipe Mennonite Church, about an hour from Orange Walk. On a wall she saw a picture of a white woman with a head covering. When she asked who the woman was, a friend told her it was Dora Taylor, an EMM missionary nurse who had started the church in the mid-1960s.
Marshall wondered how the men had responded to a female pastor. Her friend said, “We loved her! That’s why her picture is on the wall.”
‘We got the same memo’
Back in Orange Walk, Marshall prepared to return to the U.S. The pastor she had worked with said she should come back to Belize and start a deaf church.
Marshall recalled: “My jaw hit the floor, and I said, ‘I think we got the same memo.’ ”
Marshall returned to the U.S., finished some teaching commitments, sold her car and many of her belongings, quit her job and moved back to Belize.
When she arrived in August 2005, she began to teach 11 deaf children, ages 6 to 15.
Marshall knew God wanted her to start a church, but she was busy in the classroom and “not really sure how to go about starting a church,” she said. “So it felt good to put that off and focus on the children.”
She began each day by teaching one of the Ten Commandments and reviewing the ones she had taught before. On the fourth day she came to keeping the Sabbath holy.
Some of the students asked how they could do that, since there was no church for the deaf in Orange Walk.
Marshall just kept the lesson moving along.
The next day, they reviewed the first, second and third commandments.
“When I got to the fourth one,” she said, “they signed, almost in unison, ‘How do we do that? There’s no church for deaf.’ I said, ‘OK! . . . Anyone who wants to go to a deaf church, we will start one this Sunday, in my house. Everyone’s invited. Be there by 9.’ ”
That was the start of what became Jesus’ Deaf Church, now celebrating 10 years. They met in Marshall’s home for four years and now share space with another congregation.
No longer isolated
Marshall has always felt supported and encouraged by the Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church board of ministers and by her EMM connections.
For 10 years, Marshall’s life has been immersed in the deaf community in Orange Walk, said Phyllis Groff, EMM regional representative to Central America.
“These deaf youth and young adults are often considered to be at the bottom rung of society and have few options in life,” Groff said.
“Nancy and Jesus’ Deaf Church have given them a safe place where they are valued as individuals and given the opportunity in Christ to be the persons God created them to be.”
The church has had a significant impact on the deaf community.
“Before God formed our church many of the deaf older people were isolated,” Marshall said. “They lived in villages far away or here in Orange Walk, but they did not really know each other well, or did not meet to socialize. Many did not know more than a few signs.
“As a result of forming a church, we have also created Christian community. Now most have learned to sign well just by communicating with other people in the church.
“From isolation they have found many who love and accept them. It’s heartwarming to see this transition.”
Minelia Carballo, a member of the church, said: “Without the deaf church there would be nowhere for me to worship.”
Manuel Tosh, who attends the deaf church, agrees: “I’m thankful for the deaf church because I have developed a strong faith.”
How does a deaf congregation sing?
We sign without music or tune. We sign the words of the song, and the leader chooses the rhythm. We have two binders with songs in them. Anyone who wants to “sing” a song during worship will select one of the songs, take it out of the binder, take it up to the front when it is his or her turn and sign the words. The rest of the church copies the signs. Occasionally someone will sign words that they made up or will feel inspired to share, and we watch or copy them. — Nancy Marshall