‘How Are They to Hear?’
St. Martin Lutheran School in Dearborn, Mich., shares the Gospel through deaf ministry.
In a classroom in Dearborn, Mich., Deaconess Diana Rice teaches a small group of elementary students. The classroom appears, at first glance, like any other: There are books, pencils, paper and other teaching tools. Students work on their assignments, raise their hands and get called on by the teacher.
But something about this classroom is different. While Rice uses a variety of gestures, visual aids and facial expressions to teach, no words pass her lips. Her students respond in kind, answering her questions with signs rather than voices. When another student arrives a few minutes into the lesson, he is joyfully welcomed by his classmates, one of whom runs to greet him with a hug. Still, no words are spoken.
This scene takes place in a small school where Rice is the only full-time teacher. St. Martin Lutheran School for the Deaf — a program of Ephphatha Lutheran Mission Society, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization — opened in 2016 inside Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in Dearborn. St. Martin accepts students from preschool through eighth grade and currently has six students enrolled — three full-time and three part-time. The students of St. Martin and Emmanuel interact regularly during lunch, recess and other activities, and all students and staff, deaf and hearing alike, learn American Sign Language (ASL).
Rice, who has been deaf since the age of 5, was born in Fujian, China. When she was 13 years old, her family moved to Macau, China, to access the city’s more extensive educational resources for the deaf. In Macau, Rice attended Concordia School for Special Education and met the Rev. Thomas Dunseth, who was then serving as an LCMS missionary. “It was pretty clear when I first met her,” said Dunseth, “that she was already an exceptional student — naturally bright, with an inquisitive mind.”
Dunseth baptized and catechized Rice and encouraged her to consider church work. After graduating from Macau University with a degree in elementary education, she moved to the United States. She studied English and ASL at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C., and theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. She then entered the deaconess program at Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., graduating in 2018.
When she began teaching at St. Martin that same year, Rice — who homeschooled her four children — used her own materials. She continues to write and adapt curriculum as needed to serve her students. She advocates a classical Christian approach because “while we learn subjects, we also learn that God is in each of these subjects.” She says the best thing about her work is seeing a student who has not previously been taught ASL begin to develop a vocabulary for talking about God’s creation and learning about Jesus — perhaps for the first time.
The parents of Tavia Hardesty said they chose St. Martin for their daughter because the school holds the deaf students to the same standards as the hearing students. “[Tavia] is reading and writing at the same level that any normal 6-year-old is,” said Justin Hardesty. “She is exactly where she needs to be.”
The Rev. Tyler Walworth, senior pastor at Emmanuel and sole pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church of the Deaf in Beverly Hills, Mich., is a daily presence at St. Martin, where he teaches Bible stories, English and Latin. He also teaches confirmation class to Emmanuel students and leads weekly chapel, which — for St. Martin students — alternates between a shared, interpreted chapel with Emmanuel students and St. Martin’s own ASL chapel. Walworth, who is fluent in ASL, first worked with the deaf community when he was on vicarage in 2013. He has continued working in deaf ministry because “there is a major gap in the education of deaf children. … But the even greater gap is the number of deaf children who don’t have access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both of these needs constantly come to my mind as I continue to think of how to serve this community that our dear Lord Jesus loves so much.”
Rice says that, while technology has opened up many new avenues in deaf education, the need for deaf mission is not going away because “the number of deaf people around the world is not declining.” She quotes Romans 10: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (14, 17).
Managing editor of Reporter and staff writer for LCMS Communications.