Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Name: Vonda Hamilton

Current Status: Alumni

Graduation Year: MA '15

Vonda Bland Hamilton (MA 2015), who has worked with the deaf for decades, has always wanted to convey the meaning behind idioms in American Sign Language (ASL). Since ASL and English are different, a word for word translation does not make sense, which creates another barrier between deaf people and those who hear.  She has recently confronted this issue, while fulfilling her longtime dream of writing.

“My mother always encouraged me to write,” Vonda remembered, “but I thought I should wait until I had more experience.”

After decades with that thought in the back of her mind, her years of experience connecting and ministering with the deaf community led to the 2020 publication of Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Teaching ABC Idioms through ASL, with illustrator Samantha Smith.

Those years included ministry with the deaf across the nation and around the globe, but she didn’t learn ASL until she was in college.  Vonda grew up in a family that advocated for the disabled, because her sister had disabilities. Her family believed that everyone has challenges and everyone is special, but deaf people were not part of her environment. Her only exposure to deafness had been the Helen Keller story, which sparked an interest in the work of Keller’s groundbreaking teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Vonda was leading a Vacation Bible School, at the young age of 16, when she first saw people communicating through ASL and became very fascinated.  After visiting a nearby church in Lawton, OK, that operated a deaf ministry, her fascination increased, along with a sense of trepidation; she had always believed herself to be clumsy, and the speed of ASL communication seemed impossible to her.

“God spoke to me through that impossibility,” she said. “I realized that I needed to learn sign language to highlight the power of God.”

That sense of calling was confirmed when she became involved with deaf ministry education at Ozark Christian College, at about the same time her mother and sister moved into a housing complex that included some deaf residents.  While she received bachelor’s degrees in Biblical Literature, with an emphasis in Deaf Communications, and Christian Education, she became friends with her family’s deaf neighbors, learning the culture more naturally during her weekends at home.

She found herself involved in so many different aspects of ministry, including children, prison, addiction, and the homeless, that she finally admitted she couldn’t do it all.  When deaf ministry continued to exert the greatest call, Vonda approached one of her professors from Ozark, and expressed her desire to find a regular place of service.  The professor had just received a call from First Christian Church in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, looking for a part-time staff member.

Later, in 1990, Sandusky Christian Church, in the Tulsa area, established a deaf congregation, providing additional opportunities and experience for several years.  She also worked as a Deaf Ministry instructor at Ozark Christian College, followed by three and a half years at the Happy Hands Christian Deaf Education Center, working with young children.

During her years at Happy Hands, Vonda became convinced that, even though deaf people cannot experience music the same way that hearing people do, the biblical exhortation, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” still applied, and that she should pay attention to that in teaching children.

“I prayed that God would help me teach them to worship with music and fun songs,” she said, “and they learned to love the praise songs, frequently requesting that we do those songs instead of the traditional children’s songs.”

Vonda had created a video for deaf children, Big Bible Stories with Miss Vonda:  Jonah, and she received a request from her friend, Duane King (NCC ‘56, ‘61), founder of Deaf Missions, to create a series of videos for deaf children. Shortly thereafter, she established Expressions of Emmanuel with her husband, Steve, who has years of experience in writing, film, and television.

Expressions of Emmanuel works to minister with the deaf population across the globe through video, writing, and outreach, to reach the deaf for Christ.  The world’s deaf population of about 250,000,000, is estimated at only about 2% Christian.

“Helen Keller said, ‘Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from each other,’” Vonda commented.  “Does deafness separate people from God, too?  No, but we must share the gospel with the deaf community in ways that work for them.”

Vonda earned her master’s degree in Ministry and Intercultural Studies from HIU in 2015, because of her longtime desire to return to teaching in higher education.  She learned about HIU from a former minister at her church who was an alumnus and she was delighted to find that the University was more affordable than most other graduate programs.  Though she is too busy with Expressions of Emmanuel, currently, to return to teaching, she meets her need to teach by working with interns.

As she continues with the development of additional resources to share the gospel with the deaf community, including plans for additional books, she never wavers from her commitment.

“The body of Christ shouldn’t expect people to ‘get’ the gospel on our terms,” she said.  “Hearing people can always learn a second language, if they need to, but deaf people cannot learn to hear, so we need to meet them where they are.”