Week of Prayer: Sign language breaks barriers to gospel, discipleship in West Africa

International Mission Board missionary Paul Yount sits just outside a crowded cafeteria. Inside the room, chairs squeak across the floor. A cacophony of voices mixes. Forks scrape plates. The ice in the drink machine crashes to the bottom of an empty glass.

He hears none of it.

More than 71 million people worldwide are Deaf, like Paul. Most culturally Deaf people have almost no access to Scripture in their heart language. Very few have ever had the gospel shared with them. Most of the Deaf around the world have never seen Jesus’ name signed.

This IMB missionary connects easily with other Deaf. He is uniquely equipped to disciple them because he experiences the world in much the same way they do.

The commonalities between Paul and Joseph, a Senegalese believer, have helped Paul disciple him more effectively.

When Paul met Joseph, he was already a believer, but Joseph was hungry to know the Scriptures more.  While he had a basic understanding of the gospel, he couldn’t fully connect with the truths of written Scripture.

Deaf West Africans use workshops at StoryOne camps to learn how to present Bible stories visually. They use a combination of pictures and pneumonic sign language to commit the stories to heart. (IMB photo)

As a Deaf student, Joseph needed to see the Word, not just read it. Seeing is how he connects with the world. Paul understands this need to learn visually, and, along with StoryOne Camps, he teaches the Bible in a way Deaf can understand — through storying.

Paul discipled Joseph with three sets of Bible stories that rely on sign language mnemonics, which help commit the stories to memory more effectively. This visual presentation of Scripture resonated with the new believer.

After attending the first StoryOne Camp, Joseph was sold on this storying method. When another was held, he returned. “He felt so moved and so inspired, and we were excited for him to experience that,” Paul said.

Joseph, a Senegalese believer, is discipled by IMB missionary Paul Yount. Joseph is dedicated to seeing other Deaf people come to faith in Christ and have access to the Scripture in their heart language. He’s helping translate the Bible into Francophone African Sign Language with Deaf Pathway Global. (IMB photo)

Now, because Joseph was given access to the Scripture in his heart language, Francophone African Sign Language, he’s passionate about sharing the gospel with those like himself who need access to the gospel in a way they can understand.

His faith has come at a great cost for him. He is disowned by his family, but he hasn’t backed down. He’s now working in a Deaf church, discipling other believers through this mnemonic storying method.

Leading out in a Bible translation project, in partnership with Paul and Deaf Pathway Global, is another way this growing disciple is fulfilling the Great Commission.

• Thank the Lord that He is using missionaries like Paul Yount and national believers like Joseph to reach the Deaf.

• Pray for Joseph as he continues to spread the gospel to the Deaf while being burdened for his lost family members.

• Pray for Deaf Pathway Global as they work to translate the Scriptures and present them visually for the Deaf to have gospel access.

(Some names may have been changed for security reasons.)

— Myriah Snyder writes and edits for the IMB.