First deaf church in Central Texas brings gospel to underserved community

Spring Forth Deaf Church is currently meeting in tandem with Alliance Bible Church, hoping to start its independent services there sometime next month. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photo Editor

By Jackson Posey | Reporter

The book of Revelation says heaven will include people from every language. Spring Forth Deaf Church, the first deaf church in Central Texas, hopes American Sign Language is well represented.

According to the International Mission Board, the 70 million members of the global deaf population are “some of the least evangelized people on Earth.” Only about 2% of deaf people have been introduced to the gospel. With no deaf churches between Dallas and Austin, that was just as true in Central Texas as anywhere — until Richard Larson came to town.

Larson, the deaf pastor of Spring Forth Deaf Church, comes from a family of deaf ministers. After growing up at a deaf church, Larson met a man from Waco at a deaf retreat in Kentucky. That encounter changed everything.

“The guy had told me that in Waco, they need a deaf church,” Larson said through a sign language interpreter. “And I felt called to do that. I had already been thinking of moving and setting up a deaf church somewhere else that needed it. And I wanted to spread the gospel and spread the word. And my experience that I had in Ohio — I wanted people that were deaf in the community to have that.”

Larson came home to tell his wife, and they spent the morning praying about moving to Waco. One morning, while driving their children to school, God gave them a sign.

“There was a street cleaner truck in front of us at a red light,” Larson said. “And on this truck, it had mud flaps on the back of it. And it said ‘Waco, Texas’ on it — that same morning that we were praying about it.”

It was a winding road to Waco. Larson studied ministry at an online seminary during the COVID-19 pandemic before eventually showing up at Alliance Bible Church’s doorstop to introduce himself to the pastor and pitch his idea for a deaf church. Two months later, while at a retreat in Georgia, he got an email requesting another meeting. Apparently, his presence was an answer to a prayer.

“I introduced myself again. I told my testimony. I explained my whole situation and what was going on,” Larson said. “Pastor Mark told me that they had a confession to make. … They prayed for about a year to partner with somebody, someone that they wanted to partner with, and it didn’t happen. And then they decided to fast for a week before I showed up. So they were imagining Spanish, Korean. They didn’t think of deaf when they thought of someone to partner with, so that was a shock for them.”

There is a long history of attempts at deaf ministry in Waco, but mostly as subsets of hearing churches — not fully deaf churches. Among the most notable figures is the Rev. Carter Bearder, sometimes called “the deaf Billy Graham,” who worked with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board as a Baylor student from 1949 to 1954. The January 1951 edition of the American Annals of the Deaf lists him under “Southern Baptist ministers and leaders” and notes that he lived in Brooks Hall.

One national study in the January 1954 edition listed one deaf ministry in Waco: a Bible class at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church taught by “Mrs. Dan Mayfield.” It also listed two local church workers involved with ministering to the deaf population: Jesse Dudley, who lived on Webster Street, and the Rev. Louis Fant, who had taken Bearden’s place in Brooks Hall. But no deaf churches.

“My understanding is that in Waco, they’ve been struggling significantly to establish a deaf church,” Dr. Lewis Lummer, a deaf senior lecturer in the department of communication sciences and disorders, said through a sign language interpreter. “They’ve had interpreters that would go to different churches, but they haven’t had any deaf church.”

Lummer noted that going back to the 1830s and 1840s, Waco had a significant deaf population with a deaf church, but it disappeared decades ago as the city’s deaf population declined.

“A long time ago in Waco, they had an employment place where deaf people could learn and had deaf-friendly jobs,” Lummer said. “They had a newspaper company and factories and things like that. … A lot of people had previously been afraid to hire deaf people, but here they hired them quite a bit.

“The people that were coming were coming from Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, and just through natural networking, it all kind of spread and people migrated to the area. And the church itself, historically, has been strongly tied to the deaf community.”

Before long, a deaf day school opened, building further connections between Waco and the deaf community. But it didn’t last.

“When that day school closed, … a lot of deaf people just kind of left the area, and the community shrunk,” Lummer said.

The lack of a deaf church in the area has been sorely noticed by many deaf residents, including Lummer, who temporarily lived in Waco before moving to Georgetown. Deaf ministries at hearing churches can do valuable work, but there are drawbacks: isolation, lack of connection to the pastor, paying for interpreters and so on. Services with interpreted teaching but no interpreted worship can also pose problems.

“It was very difficult,” Lummer said. “For spiritual growth, for relationships with the church community — it all just kind of disappeared. And that’s been a struggle, really. It’s been a struggle for a long time, to see the deaf community struggling that way for such a long time. I would say maybe 30 or 40 years, really.”

Spring Forth Deaf Church is currently meeting in tandem with Alliance Bible Church, with fully interpreted services and deaf participation; Larson occasionally preaches as well. Sometime next month, they hope to host their independent services at the church.

Spring Forth’s services don’t just appeal to the deaf community, and the church plans to continue offering interpretation moving forward. Lago Vista sophomore Jeremy Hill, a first-year sign language student whom Larson jokingly called “signing-impaired,” has been attending Spring Forth since its first service on Easter. Despite how new he is to the language, he said he has been greeted with warm hospitality.

“The biggest thing that I think has marked my experience so far has just been the welcomeness — just the patience, the love, the hospitality,” Hill said. “Coming into that community, obviously, I’m not fluent in ASL. You know, I can hold a conversation decently, but even that is kind of rough sometimes. But they are very patient and very welcoming.”

One Sunday, Larson invited Hill and another Baylor student into a church planning meeting, which was otherwise comprised of all deaf people, and provided them with an interpreter so they would know what was happening. Hill said that experience marked him.

“I would’ve completely understood if they were just like, ‘No, this is just a deaf community thing. We want to do that separately.’ But they were so welcoming and so accommodating for us,” Hill said. “Just being able to see that the barrier that can often be between the deaf and hearing community — just seeing the love of Christ and the unity that’s in the body of Christ overcome that — I think has been something that has just been so encouraging and just so loving.”