Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Courage to Change the Things She Can

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.  Amen.”  ~commonly called “The Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr

There are so many people, deaf or otherwise abled, who are so talented but overlooked or not given a chance to even get their foot in the door.” ~Marlee Matlin

For me, it was the wallpaper.

Not our wallpaper,
but you get the point.
When I was growing up, my mother had a framed cross-stitch of the first sentence of the “Serenity Prayer” hanging in our foyer bathroom.  As the family story goes, I emerged from the loo one morning and made a joke that the yellow wallpaper in that room was so hideous, it must be the reason that she put the saying there. 

It was the “thing we could not change.”

(Though, I must admit, a few years later they found the courage to change it after all.)

I was reminded of this story on a recent Sunday morning when we said the Serenity Prayer in church.  I was sitting across from a charming blonde named Nathalie, trying to remember whether there was an ASL sign for “serenity.” It was one of those panic moments I have experienced several times since I agreed to use my very rusty sign language skills to interpret for her.

Serenity … serenity … what does that even MEAN?!

I quickly decided to sign “peace.”

(I looked it up later and turns out, it was the right choice.  Whew!)

After the service was over, and I had apologized (again) for my many errors, and she had said thank you (again) for trying, and I realized that whatever I had done or not done had not scarred her for life, another woman approached Nathalie from the side and got her attention.

“I saw you on TV,” she said, her eyes wide and her mouth practicing greatly exaggerated enunciation.  Nathalie smiled and nodded her head.

“Why was she on TV?” asked another.   I didn’t know, so I signed the question to Nathalie.

“Because of a book,” she replied modestly. 

Nathalie's greenhouse close to where we live - full of Hoyas!
Born deaf in Sweden, Nathalie first visited PNG in 2005 as part of an around-the-world trip.  As a botanist fascinated by the genus Hoya, she was delighted to discover that the tropical PNG forests hold at least 70 species of the wax plant, some 90% of which have not been recorded outside the island.  As she traveled and met people, she quickly also became passionate about the needs of the deaf community in Papua New Guinea and began to involve them in her research whenever possible.  She returned in 2010 to begin a five-year dual research project.

While much of the modern world has come to understand the realities of deafness, it is still not uncommon in more remote areas for people to assume that deaf individuals are mentally disabled or even cursed with spirits.

The reality is, if a child grows up not being exposed to language, he will not acquire language.  And many parents of deaf children in third world or developing countries cannot figure out how to communicate with their children.  Therefore, though deafness does not affect intelligence, people who don’t know any differently often assume the child must be incapable of learning, functioning, or relating normally.

The child, therefore, grows up in a silent world and may not even know his own name; the deaf are often marginalised through no fault of their own.

That much I knew.

Then she said something that rocked my sense of stability.

Sometimes they even kill deaf children.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that must happen, but I didn’t think that it would be true here, or that it happened still.

But it does make sense.  Papua New Guineans are deeply spiritual.  The lines between the natural and the supernatural are much more blurred than they are for many westerners.  Everything affects everything else on a spiritual level.  Spirits are mystical entities that often must be appeased or pacified, sometimes by ritual.   

And sometimes that ritual is violent.

Sorcery is also prominent.  Deafness, mental illness, or disability can be viewed as the result of a curse.

And sometimes, perhaps, they just don't know what else to do with them.

Nathalie speaks thirteen (thirteen!) different languages.  The list includes six written languages and seven different sign languages including Swedish, German, Latvian (Latvian?!), Papua New Guinean, Japanese, UK, Australian, and American Sign Language (ASL, which is where she and I can connect.)  And yes, you read that right … though the US, UK, and Australia all speak the same verbal language (ok, mostly), their sign languages are all strikingly different. 

Though many people are surprised to hear it, there is no universal sign language.  Just like spoken languages, sign languages have developed independently around the world, over centuries of time.

In her work with the PNG deaf population, Nathalie and her husband, Foreting, have joined on as consultants and translators with a team of deaf Papua New Guineans who are working on a book that will teach PNG Sign Language to parents of deaf children.  The book will help them understand what deafness is, what it isn’t, and how they can help their children communicate and thrive while helping the surrounding community accept them as significant members of society.

Her work with this book is what landed her on that television spot.

In one village Nathalie and Foreting visited on their travels, some mothers said to them, "Thank you for coming and showing us that we don't need to kill our children again!"

The women's reaction gave them goosebumps, she admitted to me.  "We are so thankful God has used us and our deafness."

But her research and work has also taken on additional significance since she came to know Christ here in Papua New Guinea.  This quote comes from a newspaper article she co-wrote with Tim Scott:

“Nathalie and her deaf Papua New Guinean husband, Foreting, also want to help meet the deaf community’s spiritual needs.  People who are deaf often come to church with their families but don’t understand what is being spoken.  One of the most frequent questions asked of Nathalie is, ‘Please, ‘you who can sign our language,’ can you tell us who is God and why people are going to his house every week?’” 

What could be a better lead-in than that?

God has given Nathalie both serenity and courage.

Serenity to accept her deafness with grace and surrender, but without any hint of martyrdom.

Courage to do what she can to better the lives of deaf people across Papua New Guinea.

And that, without a doubt, is far more important than any wallpaper ... no matter how hideous it may be.

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We are missionaries serving God and the task of Bible translation by serving the missionary community in Papua New Guinea through Personnel Administration and MK Education. We thank you for your prayers!

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(Updated 13 April 2013)