War changes face of ministry to Deaf Ukrainians


In Ukraine, Oleh and Marianna weren’t permitted to lead ministry to the Deaf because they are Deaf. Missions tugged at their hearts, but due to cultural norms, it wasn’t a possibility until recently. 

Like many of their countrymen, Oleh and Marianna fled because of the war. 

They found a Deaf church and their world changed even more. As Ukranian refugees made their way to this congregation, the church reached out to long time International Mission Board missionaries Mark and Vesta Sauter for some help and advice. Twenty-five years ago, Mark and Vesta planted Deaf churches in the Czech Republic. They now serve the Deaf globally, but they travel often to the Czech Republic and Eastern European countries.

During a visit to this church, Mark and Vesta met Oleh and Marianna and their connection led to a partnership. The couples are now working to translate Bible stories into Ukrainian Sign Language as well as plant churches.

Oleh and Marianna never imagined they could be part of a ministry. In Ukraine, the Christians leading the work among the Ukrainian Deaf are hearing and didn’t consider Oleh and Marianna qualified to lead. Since no seminaries exist that can accommodate the Deaf, they cannot be ordained. 

“It was ministry to the Deaf but never with the intent of Deaf themselves taking responsibility,” Mark said. 

Though Oleh and Marianna were once prevented from leading out in ministry to their own people — the Deaf — Mark said the war changed that.

“We’re not displaced. We’ve been placed. God has taken us to a place where He wants us to serve,” Oleh told Mark. “We didn’t feel forced out.” 

Mark said there is a mentality among the hearing that Deaf people are not competent, so they need to be taught in a hearing church where an interpreter translates the sermon. This means the message isn’t contextualized for Deaf members.

“Many Deaf grew up in a part of the world where, if something is interpreted, it’s OK, but contextually, it doesn’t have the same impact as if you do it in the heart language,” Mark said. 

Now that Oleh and Marianna are in the Czech Republic, they are ministering in their heart language and seeing great results.

Oleh led several Deaf Ukrainian refugees to faith and recently baptized them. It was the first time he’d baptized someone.

“I felt like I should feel guilty,” Oleh told Mark. “But I didn’t.” 

In addition to helping with church plants among Deaf Ukrainian refugees, Oleh and Marianna travel to help Deaf believers of the Balkans start new groups. They were introduced to the believers while traveling with the Sauters for trainings and to work on the Bible translation project. New believers resulted from Mark and Vesta’s training.

The Ukrainian couple use the Bible stories they translated with the Sauters as a foundation for sharing the gospel.

“Not qualified? I think not!” Mark said about the couple’s ministry-preparedness. 

Oleh and Marianna taking ownership of ministry is significant, Mark said.

“It’s huge because Deaf people have been made to believe all their lives that they’re not whole, or they’re not complete, or they’re defective,” Mark said.

Oleh and Marianna use Sign Language in their ministry and that communicates worth and validity. 

Mark has met and interacted with around 100 Deaf during his years of ministry who’ve asked, “Does God know Sign Language?” 

Discovering that God does, in fact, know Sign Language is a revelation. When a Deaf person shares a story in Sign Language, they discover God doesn’t see them as broken, and they are able to use sign language to communicate with Him. 

“When Deaf people see a message coming from God through the hands, and the expressions of a Deaf person, it resonates with their heart, and it fixes some of the misconceptions that they have been made to believe about not only their defectiveness before God, but their value to Him,” Mark said. 

More and more Deaf in Eastern Europe are finding value and spiritual connection — and the results have been vast and revolutionary. 

“I’ve worked for 27 years now with the IMB. I’ve never been at a point where I am as excited about what I see transpiring because of the delivery of scripture in the heart language among new people and the participation of our national partners with us,” Mark said. 

Mark asks for prayer for sustained ministry momentum among the Deaf. Pray for the Sauters’ partners to have the opportunity to engage, share, disciple and plant churches.