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Founder of Adventist Deaf ministry dies at 89

Griffith was denomination's first Deaf pastor

Founder of Adventist Deaf ministry dies at 89

Arthur Griffith, who lost his hearing during a childhood illness, was a pioneering leader of the Adventist Church's Deaf ministries. Some church leaders hope to increase outreach to the Deaf community, an often ignored and misunderstood subculture. [photos courtesy ADM]

Arthur Griffith once created Bible study movies for Deaf people by setting up a movie camera he could operate with a makeshift foot pedal.

In the 1960s, a sheet covering the window turned a room in his Portland, Oregon home into a movie set where Griffith would stand in front of projected slides to minister to other members of his often-neglected subculture and language group -- the Deaf.

Griffith, who died last month at age 89, was ordained as the Adventist Church's first Deaf minister in 1969, following a request for him to serve as the leader of a Deaf Bible study group. A former machinist lacking formal theology training, he founded much of the church's Deaf outreach and served as a minister to Deaf church members around the country.

He studied with, converted and mentored most of the Deaf Adventist leaders currently serving the church.

"Many people's lives have been touched by this great man of God," said David Trexler, speaker/director of the Arizona-based Adventist Deaf Ministries, a supporting ministry of the Adventist Church.

In North America there are some 300 Deaf Adventist Church members and five all-Deaf congregations, said Esther Doss, a spokesperson for the ministry. Only 2 percent to 4 percent of the 2 million Deaf population in the United States attend a church of any kind, she said.

"Deaf people are a subculture and isolated in some ways," said Griffith's son Alfred, a pastor to two Deaf groups in Central California. He laments that other denominations are ahead of the Adventist Church in reaching out to that community.

Some denominations feature multiple Deaf congregations in one city, while others offer DVDs for the Deaf in multiple sign languages. One even has plans for a Deaf seminary. The church in North America has two full-time ministers and one part-time minister to the Deaf, as well as five Deaf campmeetings throughout the United States.

Though some Adventist congregations offer sign language interpreters, it can be difficult for the Deaf to follow proceedings and many phrases are lost in translation. In North America, speakers of American Sign Language must learn English grammar to read.

Some rituals at all-Deaf congregations are noticeably different -- heads are not bowed during prayer, hymns aren't sung but signed, and applause is replaced by a waving of hands.

Adventist world church undersecretary, Larry Evans, and a church vice president in North America, Debra Brill, have formed a task force to coordinate Deaf outreach, which has limited work globally. Evans first met Griffith while serving as a ministries coordinator for the church in Oregon.

Griffith was born in 1920 to Minnesota farmers, who soon moved to Alberta, Canada. Still a child, he and his brother contracted spinal meningitis. His brother did not live, and Griffith lost his hearing.

In 1944, Griffith married Alyce Grove, whom he met at a Deaf campmeeting in Portland. In 1956, their seven-year old daughter Linda died after being struck by a car. From then on, his desire to see her again at the Second Coming drove him to passionately share the message of the gospel and the resurrection, his son said.

His simple films were seen by North American church leaders, who sponsored a set of 12 professionally produced films to share the church's message with the Deaf.

Griffith later published a newsletter, drawing 500 subscribers, which allowed the Deaf community to better network with each other. He served as Deaf ministry leader throughout the country, and retired near Manteca, California. He is survived by his wife and four children.