RIDGECREST, N.C. – The Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf (SBCD) gathered for their 71st annual meeting and elected a woman president for the third time in their history as they rallied around the theme "Good News 24/7" from Mark 16:15.
More than 130 people from 20 states, Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico attended the meeting July 15-19 at Ridgecrest Conference Center in Ridgecrest, N.C., and others followed special coverage on Facebook Live.
Anna Austin, a member of Sevier Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., was elected president. She told Baptist Press she is the third woman to be chosen for the position, following a hearing woman in 1952 and a deaf woman in 1976.
Austin said her role is to work with the group's board of directors in planning the annual meeting and then to help facilitate the meeting.
"I am honored that I was elected and will do God's will because everything that we do is for Him," Austin said in written comments, adding she has served SBCD in various positions for more than seven years.
"SBCD is important to me because we need to keep spreading God's words and teach others how to show love and grace to others," Austin said.
Speakers at the annual meeting included Dirk Hill, immediate past president of SBCD and pastor of the Deaf Mission at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.; Corey Harrison, pastor of New Life Deaf Church in Clarksville, Tenn.; and Bo Sherrill, minister to the Deaf at Parkwood Baptist Church in Concord, N.C.
Workers from the International Mission Board (IMB)and North American Mission Board (NAMB) gave reports from their various places of service among the Deaf.
The SBCD approved a restructuring of its Executive Committee, its board of directors and other committees. "This motion was passed with some amendments," Austin said. "We strongly believe it was time to restructure SBCD for the next century and to enhance our fellowship."
The highlight of the meeting for Austin was "meeting new people, seeing the people I love working with again because that's usually the only time we get to see them."
"I love SBCD because we can see how much God has impacted their life or how He uses them to serve others," she said.
According to an SBCD directory of churches, there are about 40 Southern Baptist Deaf churches, about 20 Deaf missions, about 40 churches with Deaf ministries and about 20 churches with interpretive ministries registered with the group.
Last year, Hill told Baptist Press the number of churches ministering sufficiently to Deaf people has decreased in the past 20 years. In the late '90s when the group gathered in Memphis, Hill recalled about 60 Deaf pastors in attendance. Now there are maybe 30 full-time Southern Baptist Deaf pastors in the entire United States, he said.
IMB reports that 35 million people in about 190 people groups worldwide use sign language as their first language. More than 200 sign languages exist, but they are connected through sign roots, IMB says.
"It is very important to us that the Deaf people go to a church that speaks our language (American Sign Language or sign language of the country they are in) because that way we have total access to the Bible and the teachings that we could learn from," Austin said.
Ministry to the Deaf among Southern Baptists traces back to 1904 when Myrtle Morris was sent by the Home Mission Board as a teacher to the Deaf in Cuba, according to Donnie Wiltshire, author of "A Celebration of Fifty Years: The Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf, 1948-1998."
"By 1948 there were solid Deaf ministries planted all over the South and strong lay leaders in every southern state," Wiltshire wrote in a history of the SBCD on the group's website.
The SBCD first met at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., as the Southwide Conference of the Baptist Deaf in 1948. Messengers traveled – mostly by train – from Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee, and lodged in homes of First Baptist Memphis members.
"They told about their individual church ministries. They described their needs. The needs described are as contemporary as today," Wiltshire wrote. "... Two days. That's all. But in those two days a movement was begun. A movement that has changed Southern Baptist Deaf ministry."
The group's name was changed to Southern Baptist Conference of the Deaf in 1954.
Next year's annual meeting is scheduled for July 24-31 at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky.
For more information, visit sbcdeaf.org.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.