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Deaf of Uruguay call out to Jesus


IMB photo

Mary and Charles Swanner talk with Ruben, right, a deaf Christian, following a deaf-led worship service in Montevideo, Uruguay. Mary is the IMB strategy coordinator for the deaf of Uruguay and Paraguay. Ruben went to be with the Lord on May 1, 2008, after suffering an unexpected lung infection.

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (BP)—As the congregation begins to sing, the only sound is a faint murmur. Suddenly, the loud pounding of a bongo drum shatters the quiet.

Eyes closed, a stout, balding man sways to the vibrations of the drum. While others clap—each to his or her own internal beat—he mouths the words to a praise song as he leads the “singing” at Comunidad Cristiana para Sordos (Christian Community for Deaf) in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Much has changed for Uruguay’s deaf population in recent decades. In a country that once forbade its deaf to use sign language and forced them to read lips and speak, this people group is now free to worship with their hands.

Mary Swanner, International Mission Board strategy coordinator for the deaf of Uruguay, has been instrumental in that change. For more than 20 years, she has taught the deaf about Jesus by using sign language.

Most of Uruguay’s deaf grew up without Christian influences, such as church or parental teaching.

The older generation is especially resistant to the Gospel. Some still refuse to sign because it was once seen as a weakness. Most of them are nonliterate.

IMB photo

Mary Swanner uses visual aids, such as the story of Moses and the burning bush, to teach stories to the deaf.

Many of Swanner’s first years in Uruguay were spent gaining the deaf’s trust.

“The deaf culture worldwide is practically closed to hearing people. It takes a lot to … enter into the community, let alone to be accepted,” Swanner says.

Secularism and affluence have made Uruguay one of the least evangelized countries in South America. These factors make reaching the deaf population with the Gospel even more challenging.

“Every deaf community takes on the characteristics of the country they are in,” Swanner says. “Uruguayans in general are hard to reach for Christ; the deaf community is [harder].

“On top of this … deaf are suspicious of hearing people and their motives for getting close to them. All this compounds the resistance to the Gospel.”

For several years, Swanner and her team did not see any results from their ministry. But a breakthrough came six years ago when Swanner attended a deaf summit in the United States.

“I was able to see what deaf church was really like,” Swanner recalls. “We … learned that just putting an interpreter [in church] is not the answer, especially in countries where the deaf do not have any Bible background or knowledge.”

She also learned that deaf people attending a church with interpretive sign language alone understand only 2 percent of the message. However, their understanding increases to 100 percent when the entire worship service—including the sermon—is in sign language.

Following the summit, Swanner and her team began to plant deaf churches where the deaf “teach, pray, lead their own praise with a drum instead of piano or guitar—and no more interpretations,” she says.

Swanner organized a group of partnerships with hearing workers assisting deaf leaders from existing churches. The hearing group is known as Manos Inspiradas en el Apoyo al Sordo (Inspired Hands in Support of the Deaf) or MIAS.

“Those in MIAS have a clear vision that their role is only support, and the goal is to equip deaf to reach deaf, deaf to lead deaf, allow the deaf to be full participants in the body of Christ and not just spectators,” Swanner says.

“We started with one church; today there are [many]. Others have deaf Christians [who] are … waiting to be baptized to form a church.”

Despite their progress, reaching this people group remains a challenge for Swanner and her team. Although deaf churches are needed all over the country, eight of the 19 Uruguayan provinces have none.

Swanner said she and her husband, Charles, worry about the future of the deaf ministry. In less than five years, they plan to retire and move back to their home state of North Carolina.

“It is my prayer that the Lord will raise up bold deaf leaders to continue [spreading] His Word throughout Uruguay,” she says.

To learn more about ministries in Uruguay and South America visit samregion.org. Visit going.imb.org for general volunteer opportunities.

Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering provide vital support to the International Mission Board’s more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including the Swanners. To give, go to imb.org/offering.