We’re able to engage deaf people all around the world with a Bible in their language so they can share that story. – JR Bucklew
We hope you enjoy listening to this week’s podcast, in which our host Aaron talks with JR Bucklew, the president and founder of Deaf Bible Society, about how they are making great strides in reaching the deaf community—not only in the US, but all around the world.
Voice-over: Romans 10:17 – “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” Welcome to our show!
Aaron: Today on the show I’m honored to have JR Bucklew, the president and founder of Deaf Bible Society. JR is a valued friend of mine, and he has a very close connection with the ministry. JR, it’s great to have you here; welcome!
JR: Thanks for having me here, Aaron. Faith Comes By Hearing is very dear to us—we were birthed out of this organization, so it’s such a joy to be back visiting with you all and getting to see what God is doing in both of our organizations. Thanks again for letting us have time to talk together.
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. I definitely want to get to a lot of the exciting things that Deaf Bible Society is doing, but I’m sure there are a lot of people listening who don’t know everything you do; or may not even know that you exist. So would you mind taking just a couple minutes to tell us what it is that Deaf Bible Society does?
JR: Yeah, well, thanks for spending some time with me today. Our history with Faith Comes By Hearing goes back a long way. I mean, we were basically conceived within this organization, and then sent off to do what we’re doing today.
Deaf Bible Society exists because we believe the Gospel is for every person, and that includes the deaf. We believe that deaf people have a right to access a Bible in their language so they can have personal community with God and with His people. So it’s that direct relationship between man and God, and then man and His people. So we’re all about saying, “What do we need to do to provide access to every deaf person on the planet with the Word of God in their language?” Because 100% of people, when given access to a Bible in their language, can engage with it, right? It’s there. They have to put forth some initiative to engage with it, but it’s there. The challenge for us is—there are more versions of the Bible in English today than there are sign languages that need Bible translation. There are 356 sign languages that need a Bible. There’s not one complete Bible in any sign language. We have over 400 versions of the Bible in English—full Bibles—but not one complete Bible in any sign language. So everything we do is about pushing the movement forward, advocating bringing awareness, supporting projects on the ground, so we can see more sign language Bible content translated with better quality, done faster, and done cheaper than has been done in the past. This results in what for us? The ability to then engage them with it. Provide them access to it.
Aaron: I think we run parallel because at Faith Comes By Hearing, we’re very focused on the orality of people, and there are a lot of misconceptions—for example, a lot of people think that in South America, Spanish is pretty much the only language, and you and I know that’s not true at all. A misconception when it comes to communicating with the deaf is that American Sign Language and English are the same thing. That’s not true, correct?
JR: Yeah, absolutely it’s not true. We get that question a lot. People assume that American Sign Language is the English language in gesture form. You have variants—sign-exact English—which are not real languages. They’re what I just said: English in gesture form. The problem with that is, you have to get rid of all linguistic knowledge. Because there’s a difference between communicating something visually and communicating something orally or audibly. So languages develop differently when you only think about the visual elements. Then also, like you said, people assume that there’s one sign language. That it’s universal—American Sign Language. “It’s just sign language, right? I didn’t know there were multiple sign languages.” But there are hundreds of sign languages around the world. We believe today that there are some regions of the world that there isn’t enough data on—that there could be more that we haven’t found.
Aaron: What’s nice is that Deaf Bible Society is leading the charge on creating that awareness in the American culture and international culture on the needs of the deaf and the great realm of need—especially in the realm of getting the Bible to the various sign languages. So in the realm of sign languages, there is a tremendous amount of change and flux, and you guys are learning a lot about the different sign languages that exist in the world. So there’s always new stuff before you. But currently, right now, what are you working on that really gets you excited?
JR: I think some of the things that we’re trying to do that I think are truly exciting is really just rethink how we engage in the process of Bible translation. Historically, there’s been a lot of things built in the process that measure content completion, whether we’re on track, timeline and cost—but because our heart is engagement, we’re starting to add a layer in that says, “How well are we using the content?” Because it doesn’t do anyone any good if we translate 300 Bibles that aren’t used. It doesn’t do anyone any good. In the same way, we’ve started changing how we measure our digital platform—the Deaf Bible App and Deaf Bible Online. Being able to promote how many installs we have is really insignificant, no matter how many hundreds of millions of installs we have. Installs don’t really do anybody any good if they’re not using it every month. So, rethinking how we measure things, saying, “It’s more effective to measure monthly active users.” Because if our installs are climbing, but our monthly active users have plateaued, something’s wrong. People aren’t using the Scripture. Well then, what’s the point of having the platform? Why are we wasting Kingdom dollars on something that no one’s using? So, just really being able to rethink having the flexibility to be sort of “edgy” in how we approach things.
We don’t really have a huge market where we’re competing against how things have historically been done. Rethinking how we do consultant development for Bible translation. Rethinking how we do leadership training. Rethinking what Scripture engagement looks like. The tools that we have in front of us. Social media platforms have been a huge springboard for engaging the deaf community, because you can do video blogs, and you can do that pretty easily—your phone, you can go to Facebook Live. You use your desktop, your iPad—you use whatever tool you have. And all of the sudden, I’m creating a video series and talking about whatever it is I want to talk about. So people are engaging on social media. So we start rethinking: Well, how do we start to infiltrate that platform with sign language Scripture? How do we start engaging other deaf people?
You know, we had this problem early on: Deaf leaders are saying, “It won’t happen. People don’t engage that way.” Well, they are! They are engaging that way. So, I think what’s exciting about what we’re doing—on top of some really cool technology that we’re working on in motion capture, where we’re able to record a signer and render them into a 3D avatar for the purpose of protecting people in hostile countries. Because how do you distribute the Bible broadly in a high-security country when their face is on the Bible? We put them at risk. So we can protect them. Well then, what do you do when you have a Bible translation that gets put out, and the person that’s on the screen falls away from the faith? Or has a huge temptation that’s been given into? All of the sudden, you lose credibility—we don’t, but the Bible loses credibility. How do we protect the content from a person? This tool helps that. So that’s extremely exciting.
But I think that overall, the movement itself is exciting. We have a lot of deaf organizations that are saying, “How do we do it better? How do we do it fresh?” We have a lot of hearing organizations that are saying, “I think we get it. Okay, yeah. Sign languages are languages, so we do need to add them to the total count of languages that need Bibles.” Or, “We do children’s ministry. – Oh, you’re right! There are deaf children too! What are we doing for deaf children?” Or, “There are deaf people in Africa. There are deaf people who need water. There are deaf people who work in government. There are deaf people that are in prison. There are deaf people that are being trafficked.” And every ministry that you can think of—demographic or geographic approach—there are deaf people there. And they’re awakening to that. That’s exciting.
Aaron: That’s good to hear. And it’s exciting to know that these people are being identified and that translations are being created for their language, and that they are—because of that, being numbered among the people of God as brothers and sisters to all of us. It’s something that we definitely want to get across: Just because someone is deaf does not mean that they are any less valuable to the Kingdom, or that they have less of a role to play than those who are not deaf. I’m really glad to see your enthusiasm about that. It’s always a breath of fresh air to see your passion for it, and to know that there’s someone who’s as passionate about the deaf community at the helm of such a great organization as Deaf Bible Society. And I know that there’s a reason behind that passion—you are very close to the deaf community. You want to talk a little bit about that?
JR: Yeah. My story is: Both of my parents are deaf. I grew up in a home where American Sign Language was the language used. That’s what put me on a journey toward deaf ministry. I’m extremely passionate about it because the things I’ve seen happen in my life, in my family, among our deaf friends that I grew up with—because I often wonder what their lives would look like today if they had access to a Bible they could truly engage with. Not just scratch the surface. Most deaf people in the US who are literate in the English language—it’s a surface-level connection. It’s not something they can dive into that they really wrestle with, or that impacts them to the core, like a language that you and I use as a first language. What if they had access to a Bible? What if churches were able to teach using a Scripture that people could actually go home and use? Where would they be today? Then you think about the millions of deaf people around the world that don’t have that access either. So for me, that’s a big reason why I’m here—why I’m doing this.
We have an amazing team at Deaf Bible Society of deaf individuals who serve on our executive leadership team and our wider leadership team, and serve in every area of the organization who are extremely gifted. Who are intelligent and who are passionate about taking the Word of God to their own people, where they’ve said, “We need this. We’re hungry for it. So we’re gonna fight to get it.” That goes beyond me being here. That’s a people who now have a platform to lead well, to serve well, and to reach well.
Aaron: That’s incredible, because it’s another demonstration of how we stand as equals, no matter what kind of language we communicate in, or how we communicate. I think it’s important that everyone understands that people always communicate. We are beings that have a need to connect and communicate. That’s not always through our words or our oral voice.
It’s tough for people to wrap their minds around the fact that Deaf Bible Society came out of Faith Comes By Hearing—we joke around here that God has a sense of humor for doing it that way. But we run parallel to each other in a lot of ways. What are different ways, from your experience, that we intertwine and work together?
JR: There are a lot of parallels between our two ministries. I’ll just say this first: When I tell the story about us being birthed out of Faith Comes By Hearing, when I first came on board, we had the—it was called the “Deaf Bible Project.” My business card said, “Faith Comes By Hearing – Deaf Ministry Specialist.” And I thought, “Yeah, you would have to be a specialist to make that work at Faith Comes By Hearing.” So we often called myself and our little department the “oxymoron of the organization.” People would come in and say, “This is Faith Comes By Hearing, Audio Bible, Audio Bible… deaf ministry.” And then go back to the Audio Bible stuff. *laughs* One of my fondest memories here was when one of the leaders here was giving a tour, and it was an older crowd, they were coming through the building—and at the time, it was just me. So she’s giving the tour, a really quick tour, you know. And saying, “This is military. This is marketing. This is this.” And she points at me and says, “That’s our deaf guy”—meaning our deaf ministry guy. Of course, I get up to say something, and I’m waving, and all of the people are like… they literally think I’m the deaf guy at Faith Comes By Hearing, not the deaf ministry guy! So that was a lot of fun.
However, I think one of the biggest parallels in what we do is, I think we’re both about engaging people with Scripture they can actually engage with. That’s not meant to be insulting to any other work, because it’s all extremely important and extremely vital to what we do. But it’s just the reality of oral communities around the world. Of literacy in the text around the world. For deaf people, the literacy rate in their second language, which would be the local spoken language, is very low. So how do we engage people with Scripture? How do you engage people with a Bible if they can’t read it? Audio. How do I engage people with the Bible if they can’t read it or listen to it? That’s not their language, and they’re not literate in this second language. Well: Sign language. So, sometimes it’s about challenging the status quo of how we present the Gospel to people.
At the same time, I think it’s largely about consistency. What I mean by that is, people for all of history have been storytellers. Oral communities especially. But even in our society, we’re all about stories. We’re not as much about literature as we’d like to think here in the West. Go to any marketing class—what do they tell you to do? Tell a story. You have to be able to hear it. You’ve got to engage all the senses. You’ve got to hear all the background noise. And you want to take people on a journey. It’s a story. The whole world is about a story. The Bible is a story of the Fall, and God’s plan to redeem a people to Himself. And it’s there, written.
The challenge we have in oral communities is, how do we keep consistency with the story? What Faith Comes By Hearing is able to do is provide a product in audio that engages people with a story they’ve never heard and keeps the story consistent as they share it with others. What we’re able to do is engage deaf people all around the world with a Bible in their language so they can share that story, and it’s a consistent story. His Word isn’t changing. But you have to have the Scripture; you have to have the Bible. The Bible is extremely important because it’s the Word of God that does not return void—not the word of JR, or the word of Aaron, or the word of someone at Deaf Bible Society or Faith Comes By Hearing. It’s the Scripture. So, providing them with a consistent medium to then tell that story is one thing that makes us so similar. You’re engaging a people in one of the only ways that they can be engaged with the Scripture—we’re doing the same for ours.
Aaron: Yeah. It’s something that you have a passion for, that the people who work here have a passion for, the people who are working alongside you at Deaf Bible—the passion to see people get a Bible in their heart language no matter what that is. And a lot of people don’t realize that we have a large, significant portion of the deaf community in America that is functionally not literate in English, which is really their second language and not their heart language. We at Faith Comes By Hearing are constantly telling people about oral communicators and people who, in a lot of languages, don’t even have any form of written text. It’s very similar with the deaf society: Anything that’s written is in their second language, not their heart language.
JR: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that made it challenging here in the US. Less than one percent of the deaf community in the US will frequent a Bible church once a year. An extremely unengaged community.
It’s hard for us to think about the US in terms of having a people group that are unengaged. There’s a church on every corner! I come from the Bible Belt, so there’s literally a church on every corner. But most of the US—there are plenty of ministries that have been there for ages, and there are new churches that are popping up, and there are multiple types of ministries. We have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of organizations. Some—what was it—43 thousand different registered denominations, Christian-linked denominations in the US. That’s crazy! It’s everywhere! “What do you mean, there’s a people here that are largely unengaged”?
It’s because we assume that they have access to everything we do. That providing an interpreter in the church is enough. That giving them a printed Bible is enough. That a billboard is enough. That a radio program or a podcast or something else is sufficient. We forget that, well, they can’t engage with half of that content because it’s audio, and the rest of it, they’re just not really engaging with, because it’s not their language. So, we’re having to do a lot of education even here at home, and saying, “All these people—you want to train the indigenous, train the leaders, go to the nations, and Pauls discipling Timothys and Timothys becoming Pauls,” and doing that—it doesn’t only take place out there; it’s got to take place here too. And I don’t think that’s only true for the deaf community here; I think the hearing church at large too will need a little bit of awakening to what it means in reviving discipleship here at home.
But yeah, a truly underserved community here that could be better served not necessarily by you actually having to do something, but you being aware that it exists so you can share with other people that it exists. You can tell your Sunday School group or your church group or your community group—or whoever it is your meeting with, saying, “Hey, I think there’s a people right here in Albuquerque or Dallas,” or wherever you’re based. “Are there any deaf churches here? Where do deaf people go to church? My church doesn’t even have an interpreter. What does that mean for them?” That allows us to do so much more. It’s just people being aware and then people being obedient when the Lord says, “Hey, I want you to do something. I want you to pray. I want you to give. I want you to serve. I want you to go.” We’re saying, “Yeah, I get it, there’s a need. I’m here, Lord; use me.”
Aaron: That is one of the reasons that we are doing this podcast—one of the reasons that we do what we do is to make the church more aware of the needs—globally and across language barriers.
Well, JR, we’re about out of time. It’s been great to have you here on the show, and we look forward to continuing to talk with you—chat, partner with you. Faith Comes By Hearing and Deaf Bible work parallel with each other on reaching the world for the Gospel. If people want to learn more about Deaf Bible Society, where should they go?
JR: DeafBibleSociety.com. That’s the website that has all of our organizational information. If you want to share Bible content in sign language with people, go to deafbiblesociety.com or Deaf.Bible. That’s where we have all Bible content—today, I think it’s about 26 sign languages that can be accessed there.
Thank you again for having me. It’s been such a privilege and honor to talk with you and to be working parallel, like you said, with Faith Comes By Hearing.
Aaron: We at Faith Comes By Hearing, along with our valued partners, record and distribute Audio Bibles. Given that over half of the world’s diverse population are oral communicators—which means that they have little access to formal education, or are living in a different culture from their own, or perhaps don’t even have a written language at all—the only way many of them will ever encounter the truth of God’s Word is by hearing it. So, for each episode, we’ll take a few minutes to highlight one of the language recordings we have available by playing a featured reading from the Bible.
Today’s section of Scripture is John 15:9-11, which reads in English, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” Here it is spoken in Amharic:
[John 15:9-11 in the Amharic language]
Aaron: Amharic is spoken by over 17 million people and has a literacy rate of around 28 percent. This makes Audio Bibles essential to reaching these people with the Gospel of Christ.
Voice-over: You’ve been listening to Now Hear This!, a Faith Comes By Hearing podcast. If you have any questions, or anything you’d like to hear us talk about on the show, email us at Podcast@faithcomesbyhearing.com.
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”