by Esther Doss

Among the many gifts God has given us, my favorite is the special gift of friendship. We are made to be social creatures and our desire for a meaningful relationship with others is a natural need. However, some of us do not experience ready smiles or gestures of friendship.

“I’m not going to church today,” my mom declared one Sabbath morning. She didn’t look ill, so I prodded for a reason. My Deaf mother signed back to me, “What’s the point? I go in, sit in silence and walk out. Even at the fellowship meal no one talks to me. I try to approach them, but they are always in a rush. No one takes an interest in me.” I reminded her that members greet her by signing Happy Sabbath. “That’s all they do from week to week, ‘Happy Sabbath!  Happy Sabbath!’ They pat themselves on the back for a job well done and then they turn to chat with everyone else. I would love to have a meaningful conversation with someone once in a while.  And I hate going to church socials.  I get so lonesome while watching everyone else talk and laugh. I’m tired of turning to food to keep myself company.”  

"We are such funny creatures. Our hearts long for relationships, but should we catch a glimpse of anyone somehow different, we do not know how to conduct ourselves."

In fact, this frustration is an all too common one among Deaf people. Most Deaf people are born to an all-hearing family; too many times they are taken for granted and not truly included even in family life.  While longing for the needed affection and attention from their parents, siblings, and other relatives, they feel ostracized and purposefully excluded, resulting in deep emotional wounds.  Instead of perpetuating the agony, our church family should provide these wounded souls a sense of belonging.

Soon after my mom’s declaration, I visited a nearby church and noticed Maria, a lovely youth who was bound to her wheelchair. Her smile was so contagious that I was drawn to her side. After a few minutes of chatting, I found that Maria was really fun-loving and intelligent. I asked Maria if she ever felt frustrated about not being able to walk. After taking a breath, she shared, “I am okay with being in this wheelchair. What bothers me is that people don’t want to talk with me. Sometimes it's like they don’t see me. I’m alright with not being able to run and play with other kids. I really like watching them play. I just wish people would look down and see me. I get really lonely.” There are many Maria’s among us, each one unique and struggling with any one or more of a variety of disabilities. They are just like anyone else and crave for friendship. We are such funny creatures. Our hearts long for relationships, but should we catch a glimpse of anyone somehow different, we do not know how to conduct ourselves. And so what do we do? Our tendency is to find the nearest exit away from the awkward situation.   Should a double amputee in a wheelchair happen upon our path, we fear the guilt of staring impolitely, so we avoid eye contact by looking in the opposite direction. If a Deaf man comes to church, we leave him to himself because most of us have no clue about communicating in sign language. Besides, what does one say to a Deaf person? We might find ourselves face to face with someone suffering from paralysis due to a neck injury; we cut off the conversation as soon as possible lest we say something offensive. In fact, our mode of operation is to avoid an encounter altogether. It’s much safer this way.  

A Deaf man once pointed me to something that Ellen White wrote: “I saw that it is in the providence of God that widows and orphans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, and persons afflicted in a variety of ways, have been placed in close Christian relationship to His church; it is to prove His people and develop their true character. Angels of God are watching to see how we treat these persons who need our sympathy, love, and disinterested benevolence. This is God’s test of our character.” 3T p.511.

This simple paragraph has been a tough challenge for me.  The thought of such individuals being placed in my path as a test of my character has troubled me for I have failed again and again. I have caught myself pretending to not see someone or that I am busy and need to break away. But I am stopping myself now and reaching out. And you know what I have found? I discovered that I have been missing out on the blessings of time spent with some of God’s most special children.  

We talk often about unity within the church, yet we are resistant to talk with some of its members just because of a disability or an inability. We talk about love and being loving, but we find that we prefer to show love to those we deem lovable or with whom we feel most comfortable. We also frequently use the cliché, “What would Jesus do?”

"And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand and touched him"

And what did Jesus do when he walked down the city streets of Jericho, Capernaum, or Jerusalem? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s heart was tender toward those who suffered from a variety of conditions. One such account tells us that an untouchable, loathsome leper knelt down before Jesus and asked for healing. “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41, KJV). And of course, the leper was healed. In fact, the majority of Jesus’ miracles were with people with disabilities.   As Jesus met one disabled person after another, He did not see them as strange or worthless. Nor were those encounters awkward. Their very presence was not offensive to Him. Rather, Jesus saw them as His Father’s children who were suffering in body, mind, and spirit. He had great compassion for them and reached out to them. He loved them.

Indeed, Jesus is our Perfect Model. He has given us an example of how to treat the disabled around us.  Jesus touched them. He had compassion on them. He loved them and was a friend to them. In several places in the Gospels, we see Jesus was more concerned about their spiritual health. He knew that a person’s spiritual condition was far more important than their physical condition. They needed forgiveness and a saving relationship with their Creator and Savior.  We are now Christ’s hands and feet in this world; we are to take the same attitude He did to those around us, including to the disabled.

My challenge to us all is simply this: pray that we will be more loving, put aside those awkward feelings, and share some moments of life with someone we might not have otherwise. When we look into those eyes we’ll see a real person, a child of God. God has indeed given usthe wonderful gift of friendship. Let us not miss out on precious relationships just because of a fear of awkwardness. Let us rather be wise in how we extend Jesus’ hand of friendship, through our smiles, love, and affection.

Esther Doss
Esther Doss is a "Child of Deaf Adults" (CODA). She writes from her unique perspective of living between both the Deaf and hearing worlds and her eye-witness accounts of the Deaf experience. She lives in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas with her husband and young son and works for Three Angels Deaf Ministries.