When I went to college, I wanted to translate Arabic for the FBI. So how did I end up doing language survey in the Deaf community? Well, God.
In high school, I took an Arabic class. And another one. And I loved it. And I loved my teacher. He was from Morocco and I’ve had a place in my heart for Morocco ever since. I loved learning the language, the ins and outs, and how many patterns were in the language. For example, the three letters k-t-b all referring to letters. By changing the vowels, you can change the meaning. Kitab – book. Maktab – desk. aktab – I write. This system works across the language with other three letter forms. It’s so cool!
So, I went to college and majored in Arabic and Islamic studies. Then, in my second year of college, my Arabic professor drained all the fun out of it. Turned it legalistic and soul-crushing. And I hated it. And I didn’t take a third year of Arabic. I had completed the language credits needed for my degree and so I continued to take the culture classes, but that was all.
But also during my second year, I took a course that sparked my interest – Intro to Linguistics.
After my second year of college, I went to Florida for a summer training program with the Navigators. During the summer they took us to Wycliffe’s main office and we spent a day learning about what Wycliffe did and their mission. And it was there that I felt a nudge that the FBI had enough help, and I could help bring the Bible to Bibleless people groups.
In my third year, all my favorite courses ended up being dual classes in both my department and the linguistics department. Except for my extra curriculars. I needed more credit of just random stuff, and I felt a nudge to take American Sign Language courses. I have Deaf family and wanted to be able to communicate with them, and I needed courses, and a friend wanted to learn to sign as well, so we signed up for the classes together. And I loved it. The same spark I had in my high school Arabic class came back. Did you know that many signs for group words – team, group, department, family- are all in the same location and movement, but the handshape changes? So, just like Arabic, it’s systematic!
When I graduated, I realized that I didn’t have obvious career options in mind. I had base knowledge of a lot of things. I knew I loved sign language. And I thought I liked linguistics, even though I wasn’t really sure what that was. And I knew I wanted to work for Jesus. For a graduation present, I had my parents get me a trip to Dallas so I could take part in a week long orientation to Wycliffe called TOTAL it Up! It shows you the cool things Wycliffe does, like linguistics and translation, and beyond.
In the doorway into the training room, they had a large sign showing all the languages left in the world that didn’t have a Bible translation. Organized by country, of course I went to Morocco first. The only language that still needed anything in Morocco was Moroccan Sign Language. And I was sold. Let’s do this. Let’s get them a Bible. So, I started asking around about sign language stuff. “Do you guys do sign languages?” “How does that work with sign languages?” “Can you get this in sign language?” And finally they asked me, “Have you talked to the guys up at SIL-UND?” I had not. I didn’t even know it was a thing. But I went back and started researching. A graduate school about linguistics that specializes in sign language?!! “Jesus, should I do this?” “Yes.”
So, May 2014, I pack up and head to North Dakota. And I have one of the best summers of my life so far. Finally, a place where most everyone was like me. They loved linguistics. They understood sign languages. They had way more knowledge about these things than me. They were teaching me how to learn new sign languages by teaching me Chilean Sign Language. I was taking sign language Phonetics! There was a system. I was getting my mind blown weekly at all the new cool things. I was in my element.
And then I came home. And there were no friends. And there were no people who understood. And I was working at a job where nobody saw me. And I was not good. And I gained like 50 pounds. But I applied to the Masters program at SIL-UND, I got in, and I went back for my second summer. Where I met Steve and Dianne Parkhurst. Steve taught me SL Phonology and it turns out I love SL Phonology. And I heard more about Steve’s story, how he started out wanting to do spoken language things, and he went to Morocco, and then he transitioned to sign languages and now he and Dianne are working in Spain with the sign language projects there. And Jesus says, “Go to Spain.” And I’m like, “What?” So, I ask the Parkhursts if I could come for a bit. Get some more international experience, see a real project, work on some things for them? And they say, “We have a guest room for this purpose.”
So, I go home and start planning a trip to Spain starting in January. But home is a place with no friends, no community, and little inspiration for me at this point in my life. And I’m depressed^. And it turns out, I don’t really care about going to Spain. But, I’m stubborn and I’ve already raised some money, and I’ve already told people I’m going and I’m not going to look like a fool and not go. So, I get on a plane. And about 2 weeks later, it turns out God was right all along. I needed to go to Spain. Over my 90 days there, I came out of my depression. I realized God hadn’t abandoned me. I found new friends. I loved the Spain project. I loved the people. I loved spending time with Steve and Dianne and their boys – I didn’t have brothers growing up, but Spencer and Alex are two great ones. I realized that God had placed me exactly where he wanted me, and he had been doing it for a while.
Fast forward 3 more years and I’ve graduated with my Masters in Sign Language Linguistics. I wrote a thesis about Ethiopian Sign Language. I’ve visited a total of five foreign countries.
And I hear Jesus say, “Apply to DBS.” So, I applied to DBS. And then I waited. And I got an interview. And then I waited. And then I was told they wanted a second interview. And then I waited. And waited. And did I mention I waited? And about 3 months later, they actually had the second interview. And then the next day I had a third. And then I heard nothing. And then it was the new year. And I heard from a friend who was also applying for the job that he had to be in Dallas the next day to start orientation. And I had heard nothing. So I send an email, “Just checking in.” And I get back, “This email is to let you know that you have not been selected for the position.” My reaction, “What the crap?” What the crap to DBS, but also what the crap to God. Why would you tell me to apply if I wasn’t going to get the job. And a week later I see a picture of some old friends on Facebook, that they’re working for DOOR in language survey, and would we, the viewer, please pray for them? And I feel a nudge. “Go email them. Ask them if they need help.” “No, God. Last time I listened to you, things got worse.” Silence. Then a week later, “Email them.” “Fine, but just watch they aren’t going to reply.” But he did. Less than four hours later. He replied and said, “Wow! We have been praying about and looking for help in this area.”
It can’t be that easy. “God?” *smug smile* One month later, I’m on a plane to Kenya for training with DOOR in the survey department. Five months later, I’m on the field for my first official survey. Six months later, I’m officially partnered with DOOR. One year later, I’m writing this blog and planning our next two survey trips this year.
You might notice that my conversations with God grew over the years. Back in undergrad, my decisions were based on nudges. I didn’t actually hear anything. Then I started asking questions and he would respond. Then He started telling me things and I would do it. (Or not do it.) But through it all, God led me to where I am. He slowly shifted my goals, viewpoints, next steps, until they got me to where I am. And I regret none of it. And I don’t feel used. Because everything that I’m doing, I love that I’m doing it. God gave me the desires of my heart, and now he’s fulfilling them. Not everything was smooth sailing. Go read my blog post about Kenya to get a glimpse of that. But everything was worth it.
^I went into the field when I was depressed because Jesus told me to. If Jesus tells you to do something, don’t let people talk you out of it. Many of my friends have been held up by the system because other humans were afraid of their mental state. Don’t take it lightly, but don’t let other humans be your God. Talk to God, listen to him, find out what he wants, and then do it. It’s worth it.