History of Watch Tower’s Sign Language Ministry
Jehovah’s Witnesses reached out to the deaf beginning in the 1930s, when sign language interpreters signed for deaf attendees at Witness conventions even as far away as Sweden.[foot]Ibid[/foot]
The first Jehovah’s Witness American Sign Language Congregation for the deaf was organized in the New York City area somewhere around twenty-three years ago. A hearing Witness by the name of George Freibolin, was a signer or translator for the deaf and heavily involved with directing the first group.
Eddie Mapula was there but went on to Gilead, then to Africa. Not only did he know sign language but several spoken languages as well. Mapula was instrumental in that congregation’s early work of helping sign language grow into what it is now in the Watch Tower Society’s organization.
According to others who were in that first deaf congregation, Mapula appeared in a very early sign language video of the brochure “Enjoy Life on Earth Forever!” This is notable because he is one of very few persons not deaf or from a deaf family who has appeared in a video produced by the Society. Mapula’s exceptional sign language ability and zeal to bring to the deaf what he believed to be the truth had some comparing him to the Apostle Paul.
There was a deaf elder in that congregation by the name of George Sarter. He was to be an exception to the rule in that few future congregations would have deaf elders.
Deaf signer Theressa Du Bois had twenty-two deaf Bible studies in the New York area, and then her husband served as a circuit overseer to deaf and English congregations when they were sent to Long Island, NY.
Within the next five years, there was another American Sign Language congregation established in Manhattan. Some from Bethel who could sign and were CODA’s or HMFD’s (Child of a Deaf Adult, or Hearing, Mother-Father Deaf or have siblings or extended family members that are deaf), attended these congregations such as Bobby Dunbar, Jeremy Mallory and, later, Nick Alhadis. They were and still are highly valued as “native speakers,” though of course this is a common fallacy. Just because someone has deaf parents or family members does not mean that one is actually qualified to be involved in sign language translation and teaching, much as being able to speak English does not qualify a person to be a linguistics professor.
Translation Services Department
The Watch Tower Society began to take over directing the deaf ministry from within the Translation Services Department at Brooklyn Bethel by the mid-1990s and had full control by the year, 2000, with the Bethelites mentioned above taking the lead. The video for the deaf that explained Jehovah’s Witnesses, with Bobby Dunbar interpreting, was done in Brooklyn and released in the mid-90s.
New York’s Translation Services was given overall responsibility for every Branch Translation Services worldwide. Translation Services moved to the Watch Tower’s Patterson, NY, complex soon after they took over the deaf ministry work. Victor and Ruth Vigna moved to Patterson in 1996 and basically established the sign language work at Patterson. Shortly, an American Sign Language congregation was established in Waterbury, Connecticut. This is where hearing staff from the deaf section of Translation Services attend and where they clearly outnumber deaf attendees. There was one deaf ministerial servant who was in Bethel, but it is not known if he was there temporarily or long-term. In addition, one deaf Witness woman spent time in Bethel as a “Temp.” As the Waterbury group grew, some members of Translation Services moved on to establish a congregation in White Plains, NY.
A few years ago, sometime between 2007 and 2009, Sign Language Translation was taken out of Translation Services and put under another department thought to be the Service Department, working directly under the Governing Body and not through the same committee system the other languages have to work through. Continued on next page…