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Religious Roadblocks

By Don Graham

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar—The smell of sawdust fills the air as members of Warren Baptist Church’s “Embrace” team step inside a carpentry shop somewhere in Antananarivo, Madagascar. But they aren’t looking for new cabinets; they’ve come to make friends.
One of Warren’s goals on this first trip to engage the Deaf Malagasy with the Gospel is to create as many connection points as possible within Madagascar’s Deaf community. This carpentry shop is special because it’s run and staffed entirely by the Deaf, a rare example of one of the country’s successful Deaf-led businesses.
The woodshop has the feel of a family operation, and its half-dozen workers seem genuinely pleased to break from sawing and sanding to receive their American visitors. But while the hearing portion of Warren’s team practices Malagasy sign and trades family pictures with shop employees, Phillip Easterling, who pastors a Deaf church in Asheville, N.C., soon finds himself deep in a theological debate with Leon Rabeson, the shop’s owner.
Rabeson is a Jehovah’s Witness and doesn’t believe in the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) or the full deity of Christ. (Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus was “created” by God the Father —Jehovah — and was actually Michael the Archangel; the Holy Spirit is not a person but the manifestation of Jehovah’s active force.) Both men pore through their Bibles for ammunition, each firing off verses to prove their point. The debate is friendly, but lively. Eventually, nearly everyone gathers around them to “listen.” Members of Warren’s team watch intently, trying to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation. They also pray.
“As crazy as it may sound, there was spiritual warfare going on between two Bibles,” says Drew Robinson. “Satan knows Scripture, too. … I was praying for him (Easterling) the whole time. That the Spirit would give Philip the signs and [Scripture] references he needed.”
Roger Henderson’s eyes well with tears as he talks about the significance of the moment — confirmation to the 62-year-old missions minister that Madagascar is where Warren Baptist is supposed to be.
“I didn’t think we’d be communicating nearly as much as we are. It’s phenomenal,” Henderson says. “The Scriptures are open and people are searching God’s Word for His truth. And when that happens the Holy Spirit is at work.”
Robinson says the debate sparked his own desire to learn Malagasy sign rather than depending on a translator the next time he returns to Madagascar. Like Easterling, he wants the skills to be able to share — and defend — his faith.
Besides Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is a local “Christian” cult in Antananarivo that is ensnaring potential Malagasy believers, a “health and wealth” version of the Gospel similar to the heresy preached by some American televangelists. Jehovah’s Witnesses, though, make the biggest impact among the Deaf. Dimby Raberanto, president of Madagascar’s Deaf Federation, says that group has better sign language skills than any other religious group working on the island, including the Lutherans, who are responsible for starting many of Madagascar’s Deaf schools.
That weakness is evident at a Lutheran church service for the Deaf that Warren’s team attends later that week. Most of the service is delivered orally by a hearing Lutheran minister. A series of interpreters take turns signing the minister’s words for the congregation, nearly all of whom are Deaf.
Easterling says that’s a mistake.
“The Deaf here have only been accustomed to hearing Lutheran pastors. So they memorize words, they memorize verses, they copy and parrot, but they’re not seeing God’s Word in their heart language,” he explains. “They know the sign for Jesus … but they don’t know Him in their heart.
“The Deaf have had such a shock when they met me,” Easterling says. “‘You’re deaf? You’re a pastor? I’ve never seen a Deaf pastor before.’ … The message that needs to get to America is that when Christians come, we come with an intent to empower and equip the Deaf.”
That’s the kind of church Henderson wants Warren to build in Madagascar — for Deaf, by Deaf.
“We make disciples and we train them so that they can make disciples, so that they can reach their own people,” Henderson explains.