change5LAST YEAR I READ A REVIEW IN THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER OF A NEW BOOK: INVENTING THE
INDIVIDUAL: THE ORIGINS OF WESTERN LIBERALISM. THE FINAL WORDS OF THE REVIEW WERE:

But the book is...not too hard to grasp, and its basic principle – "that the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for what became an unprecedented form of human society" – is, when you think about it, mind-bending. (27/01/2015)

The author is Oxford historian and philosopher Larry Siedentop. He traces the history of what we now call Western Civilisation, from the Roman Empire to the end of the Middle Ages. Little by little, step by step, the outlook of Europeans changed radically. Many of the consequences were unintended. Who would have guessed that the life and teachings of a Jewish rabbi would have produced such outcomes as Western democracy? Siedentop traces how this came about.

Earlier this year I was thinking about how Christianity builds a new form of human society, as I sat in a funeral, in a Fijian village. We were mourning the passing of a deaf Fijian man. Serevi had been a leader in the deaf community, and he had had prominent roles in Fijian special education. There was a big turnout. Vibrant tropical flowers adorned the simple church, skilfully crafted mats and tapa cloth overlaid the coffin, and the beautiful harmonies of the village choir led the event, and followed each speaker. Each speaker's contribution was translated into signlanguage, or, if they were Deaf, the translation was into Fijian and/or into English. The local sign-interpreters were fluent and competent, as were the deaf speakers. And yet the history of sign-language use in Fiji is short. The most significant players in the introduction of deaf communication were Christians motivated by a certain belief about God and about people.

The first sign-medium school in Fiji (the Gospel School for Deaf, the GSD), was opened in 1999: a small charity school with hostels attached for children who come from all over the South Pacific. A few years earlier Vivienne Harland, a deaf missionary, began the Fiji Deaf Ministry, the GSD was part of this. NZ vision, money, and manpower were critical to the beginning of the school. The founders of the ministry and school wanted to change the experience of South Pacific Deaf. Ignorance, isolation and often abuse characterised the lives of most Deaf. These pioneers believed that disability made the Deaf no less precious to God. "To love your neighbour", in this context, meant helping the Deaf to learn about God's love for them, inviting them to become part of a community, and enabling them to participate fully in their villages, and their country. Education was to be a key factor in this approach.

Christian people seeking to educate the Deaf has a long history. Many societies have assumed the Deaf could not be educated, and some saw them as cursed and subhuman. But Christians valued the Deaf and looked for ways to help them learn. In 685AD the Archbishop of York taught a deaf man to speak. Various other experiments in educating the Deaf, using hand signs, were started in Europe by god-fearing folk. In the eighteenth century a priest, Abbe L'Epee, documented a complete language: the French Sign Language. He then opened the world's first sign-medium school for the Deaf, in 1760, and he encouraged the founding of other such schools. In 1817 Gallaudet started an American school for the Deaf, so that the Deaf could "hear Christ's gospel". By 1864 the Americans had established a sign-based college, now known as Gallaudet University, which could confer degrees. Deaf education is now worldwide. The deaf schools of Africa were
started in 1957 by a deaf Afro-American missionary, Andrew Foster, a graduate of Gallaudet University.

The first GSD school principal, Wale Alade, came from Nigeria, he founded the Fiji Association of the Deaf. The school curriculum and teacher training were developed and formalised by Jim and Marilyn Cooney from the USA. Ruth Spencer, a NZ missionary, set up a training programme for sign-interpreters. A group of Fijian Christians, deaf and hearing, are now at the centre of the Deaf Ministry. The Fijian government gave support for some of the Deaf-Ministry initiated programmes, some they took over running, and some classes for deaf students, at government special schools, began to imitate the GSD in using sign-language.

One of the first speakers at the funeral was a Fiji Ministry of Education official. He began by acknowledging all the Deafand Special Education groups represented in the church. One group was excluded, and that was the GSD. And this in spite of the fact that the majority of Deaf at the funeral were either GSD students or graduates. The government has a slightly uneasy relationship with the GSD. This school is not under government control. Their budget is small, the school staff are paid less than government employees, and yet the quality of their education attracts more students. The government sometimes head-hunts GSD staff,
offering them higher salaries. How does the GSD respond? The staff try to ignore the slights, retain good relationships, and when they can they share what they have. This school has run workshops for all deaf educators in Fiji. The GSD tries to ensure their focus remains on the benefit of all South Pacific Deaf.

Making a mind-bending difference is underpinned by kneebending. A new belief-system is just the beginning. To live out the new outlook, to change a society, is costly and hard.It requires self-sacrifice. It requires courage in the face of hardship, opposition and failure. It requires the development of new skills to put new ideas into practice. It requires an ability to see the long-term goal despite current difficulties. It requires much forgiveness and love. Some of this progression is described in 'Inventing the Individual' but I am not sure that Larry Siedentop understood what lay behind it. Those who make the changes are themselves being changed by the love and forgiveness of Christ. God is the source of the required wisdom, courage, and generosity of spirit, as well as the new worldview. Those involved in the Deaf Ministry frequently bend their knees in prayer.

The final funeral speakers (signers) now take the platform. They are both Deaf, and bothhave been helped by the Deaf Ministry. Tully tells stories of Serevi, a much loved friend. There is laughter and there are tears. Volovolo is very nervous, he has never signed before such a large crowd, and this is a crowd that includes chiefs. Carefully and coherently he tells of the last two days of the life of his friend Serevi. He grieves, and we weep with him. And we also rejoice. Once Tully and Volovolo could not communicate, they knew very little, they had few if any friends, and they were ignorant of the fact that they are precious to God, and have a contribution to make. Now they are role-models among the Deaf, and work hard in their communities. Tully is a leader, teacher and mentor; Volovolo is an artist. As people change and grow a new form of society is born.

Ruth Harland
Daughter of the Founder

 

 

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