United Church of God

Learning the Bible Through “Signs”

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Learning the Bible Through “Signs”

How much effort am I willing to make to understand God’s Word? I hadn’t thought that I took this special gift for granted before, but in the course of the past school year, I’ve watched the example of a Bible student who has had to work far harder than me, probably more than almost all of us. With God’s help, he’s overcome obstacles that might easily have caused me to give up. The student’s name is Josue (pronounced like “hoe-sway”) Lopez, and I think you’ll find his story as inspiring as I do.

Josue e-mailed me shortly after the Feast of Tabernacles in 2016. This was early in my first year as coordinator of Ambassador Bible College. He wanted to apply to attend the following year—but there was a complication. Josue is deaf. No deaf student had ever attended ABC before. I know from teaching in public universities that providing sign language interpretation in the classroom is no small matter. It requires well-qualified signers; it requires support from teachers and administrators; and it is very expensive. I wrote back to Josue to tell him that I was supportive of his desire to attend ABC, but I just didn’t see how we could overcome all the obstacles.

Josue would not give up on his desire to study God’s Word. He contacted me again and again; he was determined to let nothing stand in his way. I had no idea then of how many obstacles and challenges in life he had already met and surmounted.

Josue was born in an agricultural region of Mexico, and a childhood medical crisis left him deaf at the age of nine. Because he had been able to hear and speak Spanish, he became skilled at reading lips. However, upon moving to Southern California at age 13, he met an entirely new challenge. He had to learn English and American Sign Language, both at the same time, and with practically no help at all! Fortunately, Josue is intelligent and very observant. He felt lost for a time, but eventually adapted his lip-read to English, and he learned ASL well enough to become a college tutor and volunteer teacher. He was able to finish high school, earn a two-year college degree and work to support himself. But at that point an even bigger challenge loomed ahead.

In the summer of 2013, Josue’s father handed him a book titled Mystery of the Ages. Josue had never heard of the author, Herbert Armstrong, and he ignored it for several months. But then, during time of emotional difficulties, he decided to read that book. More than that, he compared what it said to his Bible, and from that time forward his views of God and of Christianity changed dramatically.

In time Josue learned the location of the United Church of God congregation in San Diego, and one Sabbath he decided to try attending. There were no ASL interpreters there, but Church members did their best to make Josue feel welcome and to communicate as best they could. One lady realized that her smart phone could display in writing the words she spoke, and so the communication gap was bridged by a variety of means. In their “talking” Josue learned that in a few days would be the Feast of Tabernacles. He determined to attend, even though there was no plan to have deaf interpretation at the San Diego site that year.

At the start of the Feast, the site coordinator, Robin Webber, asked if anyone attending knew ASL. It turned out that some members did—and they were willing to devote their time and energy to helping Josue. During the Feast he attended an informational meeting about ABC, conducted by long-time coordinator Gary Antion. Shortly afterward was when Josue sent that first e-mail to me. At the time I saw no way that a deaf student could successfully attend ABC.

Happily, I was wrong. This May Josue graduated from ABC along with several other remarkable students. That accomplishment was the result of a lot of work, not only by Josue, but also many volunteers from the local congregation, not to mention the other students.

To overcome my skepticism, Josue looked into a variety of ways that he could successfully attend ABC. He contacted members in the Cincinnati congregation who do ASL interpretation to seek their help. He arranged a transfer within the national restaurant chain that employs him, so that he could continue to support himself while in Cincinnati. He investigated voice-recognition software, learning that some of our congregations use that to help deaf members understand Sabbath services. I could say that he simply wore down my objections, but really what he did was to realistically face the obstacles to his goal, and with determination he found ways to surmount them. Again, I have to wonder if I would have persevered in that way. I know that having watched him, I’m determined to make myself work harder to overcome.

Though I admit that early on it was sometimes annoying to respond to one e-mail after another when I didn’t think a deaf student could come to ABC. In the long run, I’m glad I was proved wrong. Josue made friends, fully participated, and was as much a part of the class as anyone, (with one of the best attendance records!). As hard as he has worked, though, Josue’s accomplishment is not his alone.

The other students immediately worked to learn some ASL signs, and some have become fairly adept. Six Church members who sign, led by Debbie McNeely, set up a schedule for volunteering their time to interpret classes. They provided services that would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars if done by professionals. Another member, who has training in live-captioning Sabbath services, volunteered to type a number of classes, and a handful of students also took on that task.

I should add a disclaimer to say that as happy as our volunteers were to help, they are also glad to now have a rest. We are not equipped to adequately provide for a deaf student every year at ABC, but it is good to know that it has been done. With help from enough people, it probably could be done again in the future.

This article isn’t meant as an advertisement for ABC. Rather, it’s an advertisement for the determination and perseverance in studying God’s Word that one young man has demonstrated. It is an example for me, and for all of us. Josue knows that he has not yet attained all that God has in mind for him. He plans to continue studying and continue striving for God’s way. That is also an example and an inspiration. May we all strive and work nearly as hard as this student has in the calling God has given us.