Reaching deaf ears
Newton County couple uses sign language to spread Gospel
The Footes may be one of the few couples in Newton County who can evangelize without making a sound. They’ve been using American Sign Language as a part of their ministry since 1969 when they first started reaching out to the deaf community, with Leon Foote preaching and his wife Brenda Foote interpreting into ALS.
It all began when the Footes, who now attend Canaan Baptist Church when they’re not on the road evangelizing, were living in Pennsylvania where Leon was a pastor of a church.
There was a young deaf man who played for another church in their local softball league. Leon became interested in his spiritual state and tried to ask him through written
“T hey have their own world, their own language. They can’t enter into our world. We have to enter theirs.”
notes whether he was saved.
“ He was very polite,” said Leon. “ I’d write want something on the paper, and he’d say yes, but he didn’t understand half of what I was saying.”
The Footes had been to the Bill Rice Ranch in Tennessee, a Christian camp originally founded for the deaf, and had heard that unless concepts like salvation and resurrection had been explained in sign language, the deaf often did not understand.
“ It was just foreign to them,” Brenda said.
ALS, a pictorially- based language, is as different from English
as any other foreign language, Brenda explained. Those differences can often lead to difficulty understanding written English. A deaf person might not recognize a word written out or sign- spelled, she said, but they might know it when you sign it.
In the 70s, not many hearing people knew ALS and the deaf were still largely ignored by the church community.
“ They have their own world, their own language,” said Leon. “ They can’t enter into our world. We have to enter theirs.”
So they invited Bill Rice and his wife, who interpreted into ALS, to their church specifically to hold a revival for the deaf. That week, they were able to reach people in the deaf community who had never before understood the messages at church, including the young man who had sparked the Footes’ interest and who would become a preacher to the deaf.
This started nearly four decades of outreach to the deaf community, with Leon preaching and Brenda interpreting. Their ministries have taken them from Alaska to Nova Scotia, Mexico to Ohio. They’ve met deaf communities in all parts of the world.
They’ve also held a camp for the deaf every year since 1971 in Pennsylvania.
Brenda, who also interprets, initially doubted she would able to learn ALS at all.
In school, she had experienced trouble learning anything that required rote memorization, such as the multiplication tables or learning dates in history.
But, she said, “the Lord gave me a burden for the deaf, seeing there was such a need there.” She thought to herself, “If I can learn it, I will learn it.”
She did eventually learn it and was paid a wonderful compliment after interpreting a sermon when a deaf mother took aside her hearing daughter, who was a certified ALS interpreter, and pointed Brenda out to her.
“That’s the way you interpret,” signed the mother. Brenda had made the sermon simple, understandable and had acted it out for the deaf parishioners.
Brenda makes it clear that interpretation is more than just translation.
“ Interpreting is giving the (speaker’s) thoughts and meanings,” she said. “It’s not translating word for word from one language to another. You can’t do that in sign language because there aren’t that many signs.”
Brenda often finds herself signing while she sings.
“If I’m singing a song that’s touching my heart, my hands are going,” she said.
She also intentionally signs while she singing at church even if there are no deaf in the congregation, she said, to make the church aware there might be deaf in their area that need an interpreter to understand the gospel and to help individual members realize sign language is a real language.
More recently, the Footes find it harder to reach the deaf because there are more clubs and activities for them, they said.
It’s estimated that over 600,000 people in the United States are deaf or significantly hearing impaired, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
In addition to Canaan Baptist Church in Covington, Newton Baptist Church of Covington and Springfield Baptist Church in Conyers have deaf ministries that can provide interpretation during sermons.
Spreading the word:
Dr. Leon Foote, left, reads scripture from the Book of John as his wife Brenda Foote interprets his words via American Sign Language.