The worldwide recruiting attempt of Jehovah’s Witnesses to bring their religious message to the deaf using sign language can be viewed as something of a mixed bag. While they strive to communicate it using the right methods, they convey an illusionary message that is detrimental in countless ways.1
Jehovah’s Witnesses international “deaf ministry” as directed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Inc., is no small feat because there are over 200 distinct sign languages in the world. It’s their “deaf ministry” in the United States and the United Kingdom that this article focuses on. Both countries share the English language, but each country’s sign language is markedly different although the recruiting method is basically the same.
Just as Watch Tower translators around the world look to the English version of book, article, or scripture in their work, the sign language that most of the Society’s sign language teams around the world look to for guidance is American Sign Language.
Investigation has revealed that this religious organization has not spared any expense to get their message out to the deaf, although, overall, hearing members directly bear most of the costs. The Watch Tower Corporation provides low cost DVDs filmed at their headquarters that feature expert volunteer sign language translators signing the Bible and Watch Tower literature. But expensive electronic systems are installed in places where Witnesses congregate to help the deaf understand the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses with equipment costs paid for by local Witnesses. Moreover, scouring the cities and countryside looking for deaf persons and conducting personal Bible studies is done by Witness translators at their own expense.
The charitable attitude of the Witnesses to aid the deaf to learn the fundamentals about God is commendable at a time when it is estimated “…that only 1 percent of American deaf children will attend church as adults and less than 7 percent will ever have the gospel presented to them in a way they can understand.”2
But what are the ramifications of accepting the sign language religious message delivered by Jehovah’s Witnesses? That is the other part of the “mixed bag” that will be discussed later.
Churches in America have, until recently, been ill-equipped to share their faith with the deaf, yet Jehovah’s Witnesses have been making a diligent effort to share theirs for years. Notice some success stories:
In Accra, Ghana, on Dec. 7, 2009, the Witnesses provided interpreters for 470 deaf attendees at a convention where nearly 50,000 people came from Ghana, Europe and other African countries.3
On September 30, 2000, Watchtower’s information site announced the completion of a building in Brooklyn, NY, “…the first of its kind in the United States, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses built from the ground up with the needs of the deaf community in mind.” All services were provided in American Sign Language. Sermons were given by ministers fluent in American Sign Language, many of whom were deaf themselves. Under construction was another sign language Kingdom Hall in Washington, D.C. that would join 68 other American Sign Language congregations and Bible study groups in the United States.4
On July 9, 2010, the newspaper, The Press-Enterprise, in Norco, California, reported that hundreds of deaf Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the area to attend a convention where about 1,500 people were expected. The article stated that there were 145 American Sign Language congregations in the United States. In addition, the press article pointed out that due to the “growing turnout in Norco,” the Witnesses would have a similar conference in the Bay Area.5
On August 2, 2010, a press release from Jehovah’s Witnesses Official Media Web Site announced that in Russia on July 16th, “…more than 3,000 deaf people from all corners of the country [there are 137 congregations in Russia that consist solely of deaf persons and interpreters] attended a special meeting and learned that they will get their own Bible in Russian Sign Language.” Further, “All in attendance received, free of charge, three new DVDs containing video recordings of those two Gospels [Matthew and John].6
On August 8, 2010, in Denton, Texas, the Denton Record Chronicle reporting on a Witness deaf convention in the area that drew around 1,000 said: “The first convention for the deaf was hosted in the early 1990s in New Jersey. Then came conventions on both coasts, with others following in Michigan and Texas. The denomination has so many deaf congregations that a new convention is being planned in Chicago.” Furthermore, “The denomination is the first to begin translating the Bible into more than 42 sign languages…and the denomination has translated the books of the Bible from Matthew to Jude. The translations are on DVDs and available to download…”7 Continued on next page…