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The Deaf Will Know

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“Do you trust me?”

These may be the famous words of a Disney character reaching down from a magic carpet, but what if God is saying this to us? What if He has the same outstretched hand and cheesy, confident grin with a twinkle in His eye that sparks of mischievousness and daring? Are we willing to take Him by the hand and step into His “whole new world” of adventure?

With an eager “yes!” I’m taking hold of His hand now—but before I was ready for the journey that’s before me, I needed to be able to answer His question: “Do you trust me?” This is a question I’ve been wrestling with my whole life. 

A Seed Planted

Mike and Renee Olivier have the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with the children and teachers at the Deaf school in Bobo. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

When I was young, I loved when the missionaries would come to visit our church. They had the most amazing stories about God’s greatness and provision. The seed was planted in my heart that someday I wanted to be a missionary and be on the front lines telling others about Jesus. But somewhere along the way, the seed got covered up and forgotten. When I went to college, it began to emerge again as I majored in Christian studies. Later I went back to school because I had always had an interest in American Sign Language (ASL) and I was determined to learn it. While in my last year of school to become an ASL interpreter, I met Mike. I didn’t realize at the time that God had been pursuing Mike and working in him for a while. So when I invited this super-cool, good-looking guy to come to church with me, I never thought he’d say yes! I was playing piano at church that morning and invited him to come watch me play (Mike is Deaf, so I realize the irony behind this). He mentioned to me that he had been looking for a church and how “convenient” it was that my church in Phoenix already had ASL interpreters and a Deaf couple who were attending there. God worked in Mike’s heart, and after a while he was baptized, happy to surrender his life to the Lord. Mike proposed two months later, and six months after that we married.

Love Takes Root

Fast forward several years, and we were living in Salem, Oregon, where we attended the Salem Alliance Church, and we had two sons. When Mike joined a team from the church going to Burkina Faso in 2016, everything started to change for us. Our youngest son was only 13 months at that time, so I stayed home with the boys. But when Mike returned, I could clearly see that Burkina had a special place in his heart. He was trying to explain his experiences to me but just couldn’t find the words. However, he felt deep inside that he would be back someday and I would be able to join him. Even though I had never been there, God placed a love for the people deep within me that took root and started to grow. However, we couldn’t think about that now! We had already planned to move to Massachusetts that summer. We had seen how the Deaf church in Salem had grown and blossomed with a Deaf pastor, and we had it in our minds to move to Massachusetts and replicate that somehow.

Working the Field

Not much Deaf ministry is happening in New England and we saw ourselves as “missionaries” to the Deaf there. We had no idea what we were in for! We wanted to partner with a church and establish a Deaf-led congregation—but as we started meeting people and building relationships, all our efforts seemed to be met with closed doors. We couldn’t understand how this could be and felt frustrated with the lack of progress. By all accounts, our work seemed like a failure. Had we heard God wrong?

Part of the Oliviers’ passion is to see more Deaf missionaries trained and sent. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

But God doesn’t see failure as we do. He knows where seeds have been planted, and those seeds are in His care. Mike and I have been completely crushed and rebuilt through this experience, too. Looking back, we can clearly see how God has used it to prepare us to receive the desire of our hearts—we just didn’t realize it at the time. We have grown much closer as a couple, and our relationships with the Father have grown much deeper. Our expectations of what it means to serve Him have been tossed out, and we have learned how to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance. Our time in Massachusetts was actually an important step in our journey of learning to trust our good Father—as we would soon discover.

Clearing a Path

Not long after we moved to Massachusetts, Salem Alliance contacted us—they were sending another Deaf team to Burkina for a short-term assignment in 2018 and asked if we would be interested in going. Our answer was, “Yes! Of course!” The team was going to work with the Deaf community in Bobo-Dioulasso, primarily at the Deaf school with the children and teachers, where we would share with them the good news that they are loved and valued by Jesus. This was the opportunity we had longed for ever since Mike returned from his trip in 2016—and this time, I was able to go, too! Everything seemed to be falling into place—but God had one more lesson that tested our trust in Him and His direction.

Right before we left in February 2018 to join the team headed for Burkina, I had to fly with our two boys to drop them off with their grandparents. A few hours before our flight, our youngest son started clutching his stomach and shrieking in intense pain like he never had before. We stopped at urgent care, but they immediately sent us to the ER. I knew if we went to the ER, we would miss our flight and I would not be able to go to Burkina. Resolved to this, we drove to the hospital. I messaged our team about the problem and asked for prayer. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the pain in my son’s stomach went away. He stopped crying, and he actually started running around the hospital room, playing and laughing. Relieved and astounded, I knew that the prayers had worked. Later, I found out that our team had passed on the message, and there were more than 200 people praying for us.

As we left the hospital, I could sense God telling me that He still wanted me to go on this trip. I didn’t know how this could be. It seemed impossible. I looked to see if there were any early flights, and there was only one option—with exactly three seats available for my two boys and me. This was a stunning reminder that when there seems to be no way, God can make a way.

He not only provided the way for me to join Mike and the team going to Burkina, but He also brought another delightful surprise our way. Right in the midst of preparing for the short-term trip, The Alliance opened an international worker position for someone to move to West Africa and work with the Deaf community full-time. We couldn’t deny that God was calling us to apply for this position and using the short-term trip to allow us to visit the area before moving there. We knew back in 2016 after Mike’s first trip this was where we wanted to be. It was clear to us that if we wanted to continue to walk in obedience to God, we needed to go. He gave us a deep love for the people, and it broke our hearts to find out that there are no Deaf believers in Bobo. Not even one—despite the Christian-based Deaf school that is there.

Unplowed Ground

We knew about the need to bring the gospel to the Deaf in West Africa but had no idea of the greater need within the worldwide Deaf community. In preparing for our assignment, we learned that of the 70 million Deaf people in the world who use sign language to communicate, only 2 percent are believers. In my 10 years of working as an ASL interpreter I could see how many Deaf nonbelievers struggle with isolation and related problems. Cut off from their own families (70 percent of Deaf children born to hearing parents can’t communicate with them because the parents never learn sign language) and isolated from society, Deaf nonbelievers often have no source of hope.

When Mike Olivier returned from Burkina Faso in 2016, the people held a special place in his heart and the Oliviers knew this was where they wanted to be. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

While the Deaf experience the effects of oppression everywhere, in Burkina Faso they have a much bigger struggle. They must face the negative stigmas that they have been cursed by God—not only the Deaf child, but the entire family. Often Deaf children are assumed to be demon-possessed or the result of a great sin committed by the mother. There is so much shame associated with having a Deaf child that many mothers will hide their child inside their house, not letting him or her go outside. Other mothers will send the child away to live with relatives in a distant village.

New Growth Begins

We are starting to see the beginnings of change, however. Mike and I hope to spread awareness about Deafness within the community. We also hope to start a support group for the mothers who are so ostracized from their communities and often tormented and ridiculed. The vast majority of our time, however, will be spent interacting with and ministering to the Deaf community. Mike will be doing a weekly chapel service at the school and we will start evening and weekend Bible studies as well as interpreter training for Sunday church services.

I want to emphasize that the need for more Deaf missionaries is screaming out at us. Mike is the first Deaf C&MA international worker to be commissioned and sent—and the need is great for many more. Mike and I are going to one tiny place in the world—but think of all the places where the Deaf have never received the good news! They don’t know their God-given dignity and value as children created by a loving Father. They don’t know that redemption can be found through Jesus. It is also  part of our passion to see more Deaf missionaries trained and sent!

Ripe for the Harvest

You may have noticed that throughout this article when I refer to the Deaf, I use a capital “D.” That is because Deafness is not just an inability to hear aurally, but it is also a culture and a community—a people group. Matthew 24:14 says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” That word translated as “nations” could also be translated as ethnicities or as people groups. We have been working tirelessly to send missionaries to every corner of this earth, but we have overlooked a large population—the Deaf. They are not being told the good news of Jesus Christ. We need workers to tell them! 

As we have prepared for this journey, God has taken us on a path of surrender and trust. “All to Jesus I surrender . . . I surrender all.” I grew up singing this hymn over and over, but was I even aware of what I was singing? It’s funny how it can become habitual to say the right things, but God knows our hearts. He will test us to see if we really mean it. He’s been testing me in all areas of my life where I’ve struggled to trust Him—with my children, my work, and my dreams. And out of this, a new journey began for me of just resting in God’s presence.

God is now reaching out to you, with a twinkle in His eye that sparks of daring, “Do you trust Me? Do you trust Me with your life? Will you give what I ask you to give? Go where I ask you to go?” When we choose to trust Him, we will see Him do amazing things—the very first step is to trust.

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