ORANGE WALK, Belize – More than forty adults and children participated in the tenth anniversary celebration of Jesus’ Deaf Church on Sunday, October 11, 2015. Nancy Marshall, a worker with Virginia Mennonite Missions and Eastern Mennonite Missions, started the church and continues to pastor the group. The celebration included singing, prayer, and a photo slideshow Marshall created to document the church’s ten years of worship services, baptisms, and other special events.
Marshall gave the sermon, focusing on the church’s future. “We know that churches, like people, go through unique stages of development,” she said. “In the beginning we were like babies who cannot care for themselves. Babies soak in everything, learn, and holler about their needs. Primary-age children start to take some responsibilities. During this time our church people grew up and started to take responsibilities, cleaning, sharing God's Word, learning the Bible, inviting people to church, and singing.
“The teen years are times of rebelliousness. Some rebelled by turning away from God. Thankfully I think we are approaching the adult stage. This is a stage of independence and vision. As adults we have dreams for the church and ask God how we can apply His kingdom goals. We work and take responsibility. I'm looking forward to this new stage of development in our church and pray that God will look upon us saying, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servants.’”
Marshall had been living and working in Lancaster, Pa., in 2004 when a friend first invited her to teach sign language to Deaf children in Belize for the summer. After a meaningful summer of teaching, during her last three days in Belize, she was ready to meet a friend’s family and see the San Felipe Mennonite Church, located about an hour from Orange Walk. “Before we left on this trip, I was thanking God for this awesome opportunity,” Marshall said. “And I suggested that God and I do this again next summer in Thailand.”
But, she says, God interrupted her thoughts. “I heard His voice in my head say, ‘I want you to come back to Belize to start a Deaf church.’” Marshall hadn’t ever before heard God’s voice so directly and thought it was a little odd. But she replied, “Are you sure you have the right person? How can I pastor a church? I’m a woman. It won’t work here. There are pretty conservative gender roles in Belize. Me? I don’t think so.”
Marshall then went with her friend to San Felipe. When they entered the church, the first thing she saw was a 36- by 24-inch framed picture of a white woman with a covering. Marshall said, “I immediately got goosebumps and knew I needed to find out who she was. We were in a Mayan village where there were no white people for miles.” When she asked her friend who the woman was, he told her it was Dora (affectionately called “Dorita”) Taylor, who had started this church.
Marshall looked up and laughed, murmuring to God, “Funny, very funny.” Then to her friend, she said, “Come on, a woman? A woman started this church?” He said yes! She had started it back in 1964-65. She was a missionary with EMM, a nurse. She began by reading the Bible to people, and a church formed. Marshall wondered how the men had responded to having a female pastor, but her friend said, “We loved her! That’s why her picture is on the wall.”
When she got back to Orange Walk and was preparing to return to the U.S., the pastor with whom she had been working came to visit and do an informal exit interview. He asked her, “What went well? What should we do differently next summer?” Then, Marshall says, he actually interrupted himself and said: “I think you should come back to Belize and start a Deaf church.”
Marshall says, “My jaw hit the floor and I said, ‘I think we got the same memo.’”
Marshall returned to the U.S., finished out some teaching commitments, sold her car and many of her belongings, quit her job, and moved back to Belize, intending to start a Deaf Church. When she arrived in August 2005, she began to teach eleven Deaf children, ages 6 to 15. They had devotions every morning, and Marshall said, “I thought, we are teaching rules for the class. I’ll teach God’s rules: the Ten Commandments. I hadn’t started a church yet. Yes, I knew God wanted me to do that, but I was in the classroom and kind of busy, and I was not really sure how to go about starting a church. So it felt good to put that off and focus on the children.”
She began each day by teaching one of the commandments and reviewing the previous commandments. On the fourth day she came to, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” But the 15-year-old boys in her class asked, “But Miss Nancy, how can we do that? There is no [Deaf] church in Orange Walk. There are no interpreters!” Marshall attempted to just keep moving along, but she says everyone noticed that it was a very awkward moment.
The next day, Marshall reviewed the first, second, and third commandments. Marshall says, “When I got to the fourth one they signed, almost in unison, ‘How do we do that? There’s no church for Deaf.’ I said, ‘Okay!’ more to God than to them. I said, ‘Anyone who wants to go to a Deaf church, we will start one this Sunday, in my house. Everyone’s invited. Be there by 9:00.”
That was the start of what became Jesus’ Deaf Church, now celebrating ten years. They met in Marshall’s home for the first four years, then had opportunity to share space with another congregation. From the beginning, the services have been quite interactive. The church also holds Bible study on Friday nights, Family Fun Nights monthly, and vacation Bible schools each summer.
Marshall says that in her pastoral role, she has always felt supported and encouraged by the the Belize Evangelical Mennonite Church board of ministers and by her EMM connections. She says that her challenge from the beginning has been for her to accept the role. She says, “I was the one who had a lot of difficulty.” But, she says, “I knew I was called by God, so I had that authority and the conviction that I was doing what God wanted me to do.”
“For the past 10 years Nancy'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. Nancy and Jesus' Deaf Church has 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 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.”
"Without the Deaf church there would be nowhere for me to worship,” said Minelia Carballo, a member of the church. “All of the other churches are for hearing people, but at the Deaf Church I can worship in ASL and understand."
Manuel Tosh, who attends the Deaf church, agrees. “I’m thankful for the Deaf church because I have developed a strong faith. All of the Deaf Christians need to continue to grow strong and be faithful to God.”
How does the 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/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