Lessons Learned in Deaf Ministry – Steve Houghton [Interview]
Please introduce yourself for our readers.
My name is Steve Houghton. I was born in upstate New York and my twin sister and I turned six when we moved to Florida. My dad was a preacher and we later moved to Youngstown, Ohio through my high school years. Well, later, I had the chance to go into the Air Force and passed the test. My dad asked me, “Aren’t you called to preach?” I said, “yes.” That had happened a year or two before at camp (Thank God for camp!) that I surrendered to preach.
I signed up for Akron Bible Institute and I didn’t have to enlist. I was there for a couple of years and I met Joyce there. I was not Baptist back then, I was Christian Missionary Alliance. They are Baptistic, but not as strong in Eternal Security. We were going to Chapel on Fur Hill and they had a singles ministry, and that is where we meet. I was at the Bible institute for a couple of years, but it closed because of finances.
I asked my dad what to do, because I wanted to go to Bible school. My dad hear about Tennessee Temple University and I sat in Lee Robertsons’s office and my dad asked the difference in Tennessee Temple and Bob Jones (my sister was going there) and he said the local church focus was the major difference. I was in the dorms a year before Joyce and I got married. At that time, I was working in a hot water heater factory and there were a couple of deaf hippies there that some of the people could communicate with.
How did you get started in Deaf Ministry?
Okay, as I said we were working at the water heater factory and we took a beginner Sign Language class. We had Training Union, which was a training time an hour before church, and the teacher said if you want to learn Sign Language you need to be faithful every week. They had other options, but my wife and I stayed with it.
If you want to learn Sign Language you need to be faithful every week.
We started with the beginner class and worked our way up to the advanced class which taught us how to interpret. We were involved in the Sunday School class and Deaf Ministry at that church. Don Cabbage was in charge of the Deaf Bible Institute and had asked me to teach in it because I had graduated from college. I was nervous, but I said yes and my first year I taught Reggie Rempel, and he was a tough student!
In what ways have you been involved in Deaf Ministry? (Leader, interpreter, where, etc)
I taught for five years in a Bible institute at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I graduated seminary and what I wanted to do was preach. At Tennessee Temple University, I had the chance, but it was mostly teaching. I looked at one church and I was advised that it was weak on its standards.
I had contacted the Bill Rice Ranch and then Bob Gray at Trinity contacted me and said that they wanted a Deaf Pastor and he asked me if I wanted to check it out. I was floored and I said sure (first I prayed). He flew me down and I checked it out. In 1982 I went there and was there for 17 years.
When Tom Messer became pastor, I started at the church full time rather than part time at the college and part time at the church. it was an exciting time for me and we had high days of 100 but we averaged 50 to 60. then in 1999 or 2000 God burdened us to work in St Augustine because of the large Deaf school, and Joyce and I vacationed there a lot. We decided to move there and start a Deaf ministry.
We haven’t worked full time, but we started at Heritage Baptist Church because we knew him (the pastor) and his daughter Rachel from the Bill Rice Ranch. We also started doing services at FSDB (Florida School for the Deaf and Blind) in the chapel. Then, we started picking up kids from the different dorms and busing them to our church and we had many deaf kids get saved, and the “Light of the World” video was a way we reached many Deaf kids.
So, we were there, and I don’t remember which year we left. I was an evangelist and I wanted to see how we could help the Deaf. About four years ago… you know how we got started at CrossRoads, right? We had a funeral and Pastor Dan came. I asked him if he had a Deaf ministry and he said “no.” I asked him if he was interested and he said “definitely.” He had us down to eat and at that time Pastor Rich was wanting me to teach Sign Language in the Bible Institute.
I did, and I don’t remember, it’s foggy, but we agreed to start the Deaf ministry, but we tried to prepare by teaching Sign Language for a semester and we had a good turn-out. Of course, Arla was my prized student and she was the only one who got involved. Well a few others were involved, but never got into interpreting. Unbeknownst to anyone, our first Sunday, two Deaf guys called and asked if we had an interpreter and they said “yes,” because we were coming that Sunday! Then you come into the picture after three years and that was great to work with you.
I asked him if he had a Deaf ministry and he said “no.” I asked him if he was interested and he said “definitely.”
Then, we left to breath life into the ministry at Heritage, and now we are training Daniel Rakoncay and looking for someone to help him so he can be on his own in January. Our future is that we want to help you guys out and help out other churches, too.
What are some of the biggest things that you have learned about Deaf Ministry? Perhaps some things you didn’t know that ended up being very important, or things you thought you knew but you really didn’t.
I thought Deaf ministry would be easier than it is. Learning ASL was not as easy as I thought it might be. Then, learning to interpret took a lot of focus, but it was not easy. I’m sure some people thought it was easy. When I met those Deaf hippies, I couldn’t even learn the alphabet off the cards. I had to take the class.
I thought Deaf ministry would be easier than it is.
The biggest challenge has been counseling, especially married couples, because you need to know your subject and what is going on with the Deaf. I enjoy it, but it has not been easy.
Of course, reaching the Deaf is not easy. it’s harder to reach a Deaf person than a hearing person. Especially with many who are educationally challenged or grew up without parents talking to them. It makes them harder to reach.
What have been some of your biggest challenges about Deaf Ministry?
Understanding the Deaf and witnessing to the Deaf. Convincing them that they are separated from God and convincing them that what it means is that they are going to Hell if they don’t get saved. That has been the biggest challenge, reaching them spiritually.
The longer I live, and the more I minister, the more I wonder how many Deaf really are saved. It’s something I emphasize a lot in my teaching. Even last Wednesday, I taught a lesson. Basically, God hates all sin and when we repent and receive Christ, we need to repent of all sins. I’m not saying we need to change to be saved, but our heart needs to be “I hate homosexuality,” “I hate living together with this woman I’m not married to,” “I hate smoking,” and we need to have that attitude when we get saved. I think the more I am circumspect about that, the more deaf that get saved.
Also, working with some high-maintenance Deaf that don’t understand so much. When you have Deaf who learn fast its a blessing, but some Deaf you need to dramatize and work hard so that they understand. That can be a challenge. Sometimes, working with interpreters, too!
Some Deaf you need to dramatize and work hard so that they understand.
In what ways have you grown in the way you serve since you first got involved in Deaf Ministry?
Humility is not my strength, but by God’s grace it has improved. I have grown as a husband, father, and grandfather. I am more patient. I don’t enable Deaf people who self-pity like I use to do. Those are just some some thoughts that wrote down. I could sit down and write a book, but I just never have done that. As I get older, my memory is more taxed, and my kids have mentioned for me to write a book or at least a journal or something. My own dad has done some of that. We have a lot of technology today we didn’t have back then to do that, too.
What have been some of your biggest surprises in Deaf ministry?
Hearing people coming up to me and wanting to work with the Deaf and then fizzling out. Like, they will start learning and the glory and glitz is not there and many have fizzled out. That was a negative surprise. Another surprise was people who told me they wanted to work with the Deaf and I would slough them off, and they were the real thing! Like Joe Kotvas and Les Leckron.
Another surprise was, when we had the Deaf college, one Deaf man tried my patience until I blew my stack, and I regretted it. He was just refusing to submit himself to what we were trying to do in the college. There was one girl, who I thought she was my secretary but I later learned she was a volunteer, and and she got onto me for that.
Another time, there was a guy from Puerto Rico who visited and he used a dirty sign in church and I got onto him. He quit church because of that. I had to go to his house and apologize. There is just a right way and wrong way to do those things; I should have gone to him more privately.
What advice would you give to people wanting to start serving in a Deaf Ministry?
I’d orient them. Let them know it’s not easy to work with the Deaf. It’s not good to give people an impression that it’s so good and easy and they’ll love it. I don’t want to paint a false picture. I’d encourage them to attend Deaf classes and activities. I struggle with that, because there are people that want to learn ASL and they don’t want to be involved with the Deaf. I don’t know anyone who learned ASL and become a good interpreter who hasn’t been involved with the Deaf. For them not to criticize the Deaf and their signs, and to have an attitude of being teachable and to want to learn.
I don’t know anyone who learned ASL and become a good interpreter who hasn’t been involved with the Deaf.
What advice would you give to people leading or serving in a Deaf Ministry now?
If you stay at it, the deaf will realize that you are there to help them. If a person is working with the Deaf and they get discouraged, leave, and quit, when the Deaf come back and they’re not there, the Deaf people realize they won’t get help. The Deaf that leave, when they come back, they will realize that you mean business. That is the main thing. and to stay close to the Lord and not fall for the ecumenicism that is prevalent. Satan is trying to infiltrate our churches. We need to stand on the Word of God. What has happened is that some preachers don’t want to preach some things because they don’t want people to leave the church. We, as leaders, need to stand on what we believe honors God. That’s what I would say.
What one characteristic is most important for people who are leading a Deaf ministry?
That’s hard to answer. I do have one, as you recall, from the Deaf ministry leadership class I taught. There are different things I said, and I put down one word, humility. There’s another great need, and that is communication. You said characteristic and for that, I would say humility. If we can be filled with the Spirit, and that is humility, I think that is an important quality for a Deaf leader.