Maryknoll Lay Missioner Karen Bortvedt reflects on lessons she learned from the deaf community in Cambodia.
“Can I come and visit your center? I want to meet other Deaf people. I am Deaf and visiting from…” started many of the emails I received while working at the Deaf Development Program in Cambodia. As a naturally anxious person, I would sometimes think, “Oh no! I don’t think we have anyone who knows the sign language from that country.” Very quickly I realized, my deaf colleagues had been endowed with the Holy Spirit and could communicate with anyone who walked into the room.
I first discovered this one day when we had a deaf visitor from a small country – I can’t even remember the name – who had come for a tour led by my deaf colleagues who were still in training as tour guides. My job was to tag along on the tours in case a question came up that our staff did not feel comfortable answering, but my primary role was as a cheerleader supporting their burgeoning skills. I happened to step away for a moment, leaving my deaf colleagues to chat with the newcomer before the tour began.
When I rejoined the group a few minutes later, one of the staff members began telling me all about the family of our new visitor, the number of siblings he has, their ages, and many other details of this stranger’s life. I said, “Wow! I didn’t realize our visitor knew a shared sign language with all of you.” The staff member responded, “Oh, we don’t have a shared language. We just figure it out.”
I witnessed this same dedication to communication time and time again with every visitor, intern, or new staff member, hearing or deaf. Our deaf staff would simple approach the new person and start figuring out how to communicate. They wouldn’t shy away, or try to find someone to interpret, or not even engage because they didn’t see a similarity. They would figure it out. A deaf friend from the United States told me this is the “Deaf Super Power” – the ability to connect with anyone, especially other deaf people.
The first reading reminds me of this lesson that my deaf friends taught me. "Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?” They found a shared ‘native language.’ It did not matter if they were addressing a hearing or deaf individual. It did not matter if they had never met that person or they came from a different place; they learned to speak in a new way and built connections – building the Kingdom of God on earth.
In today’s world, where we see conflicts over language and cultural issues, wars started because we can’t find common ground, or families being torn apart, we can learn from the experience of my deaf colleagues who saw the dignity of every human person and seemed to make it their mission to encounter each person in a meaningful way. I pray that all of us may follow their example when we encounter someone on the margins, who speaks a different language, has different perspectives, or comes from a different walk of life. May we see that, in the end, we do have a shared language if we just open our hearts to that encounter.
Photo: A Deaf Development Programme (DDP) staff member who worked as a cleaner and served as a part of the tour group explains the mission and vision of DDP to visitors. Photo courtesy of Karen Bortvedt.