GREENFIELD — The laptop connects to a projector. Up on the wall, for the next two hours, they sit on the floor watching a class about marriage and family via Skype, coming to them in sign language from Greenfield.
Dewayne Liebrandt is the man signing into the webcam. He is a hearing person who over the years has learned to see — see the lives and needs of people who cannot hear, whether they live in Hancock County or Thailand or Colombia.
The road to being a missionary to deaf people began not with disability but with discord.
Liebrandt said he decided to become a Christian in 1975 when he was 19 years old. The news was not well received at home.
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“They thought I’d become a Jesus-nut freak,” he recalled.
Liebrandt sought to avoid the tension by spending time away from the house. He became involved in various activities at Fortville Christian Church, such as the puppet ministry.
One of the children at the church was deaf, and his Sunday school teacher signed to him. But as he aged out of her class, it was apparent more people there needed to know how to sign.
Liebrandt signed up for a class, shown on old projectors, “just as something to do.” By the tenth hour of the 13 sessions, he had picked up enough sign language to interpret in church. He had uncovered an extraordinary skill.
He was also involved in the church’s missions committee and went to a missions convention. He began to feel “that God wanted me to work taking the Gospel to the deaf.”
He tried to attend Bible college a couple of times, but the plans didn’t come together.
“God knew I still needed to grow and mature in areas of my spiritual life,” he said.
In 1986, Liebrandt visited friends who were missionaries in Thailand. He hadn’t been in the country 24 hours before he met a group of people who were deaf. American Sign Language is not the sign language used in Thailand — in fact, there is no single international sign language for the deaf — but he was able to converse with them.
“The reason, I believe, is the Lord,” he said. “ … I was able to understand what they were saying,” he said. “They were totally blown away. That’s when I knew.”
When Liebrandt suggested he minister to the deaf, missionaries at first said there weren’t enough people in need to make it work. He told them how many deaf people he had met, though, and the missionaries agreed he needed to go back to Thailand.
“Chances are you walk right past them in the Walmart here in Greenfield and never even notice them,” he said. “It’s a handicap of isolation.”
North Burma Christian Mission asked Liebrandt to complete a two-year degree. He took an educational leave of absence from Allison Gas Turbine and headed for Roanoke Bible College (now Mid-Atlantic Christian University) in North Carolina.
By then, it was 1987, and Liebrandt was married and had two children attending Mt. Vernon schools. But the whole family headed south.
There was more research and travel for Liebrandt and his wife, Jackie, as they considered the move to Thailand. But when he graduated in 1989, he quit General Motors, froze his retirement and sold his car collection.
The years in Thailand that followed didn’t fit an easy pattern.
“There was never a 9-to-5 job,” Jackie Liebrandt said.
“It’s all relationship-building,” Dewayne Liebrandt said. He would meet a deaf person and become friends, then that person would introduce him to the whole group.
Finding deaf people was the first challenge met. The next challenge was telling them the message he had come to share.
“There was no sign for ‘God,’” he said, noting people “have to understand an idea to sign it. We kind of had our backs up against the wall.”
Over many hours of signed conversations, Dewayne Liebrandt described the concepts he was trying to communicate. God. Salvation. Forgiveness. Repentance. And slowly, the signs developed.
Dewayne Liebrandt didn’t want to simply teach Thai people the ASL signs for those words, because he wanted to be sure the signs used were culturally meaningful. For example, the ASL sign for “redemption” uses crossed arms then uncrossed — as if a slave’s chains are falling off.
The Thai sign for that word, however, is more about “change” and “heart.”
Dewayne Liebrandt became the only foreigner in the National Association for the Deaf in Thailand. He taught English on a volunteer basis at Chang Mai School for the Deaf for several years. In the course of that work, he was part of a 1995 private audience with the princess of Thailand.
Eventually, the Liebrandts’ ministry developed a video recording studio with seven employees. It’s produced a couple of short movies and other products, such as visual devotions, which Dewayne Liebrandt describes as being “like silent movies with just enough sign language going on” to explain what’s happening.
As Christians grew in their faith, and leaders were trained, “we turned it all over to them,” Dewayne Liebrandt said.
He and his wife returned to Thailand recently for a marriage seminar. Their goal is to return and check in once a year, although funding constraints had kept them away for two years before the seminar.
The group in Thailand sends them updates, such as progress on looking for a building it can rent as a place to have its church services.
Dewayne Liebrandt is working on teaching a master’s degree-level program on church doctrine that a professor at Cincinnati Christian University is letting him use. He said it’s freeing to concentrate on translation without having to also devise the course.
The next journey is to Colombia. The Liebrandts have begun work there within the past 10 years; missionary Dale Meade had pleaded with them for years to join him there. But the timing didn’t seem right until they had left Thailand. There’s more material to prepare, and different signs to use, but the same concepts to share.
Deaf people in many parts of the world, Dewayne Liebrandt said, tend to be cut off from much of society, so a message of love and a place of belonging are powerful to them.
“The deaf live in a world of isolation, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people each day,” he said. “At least in the church (they can feel), ‘I’m not a second-class citizen. I’m a person.’”