In light of the magnitude-7.8 earthquake that hit a vast portion of central Nepal on April 25, please join with us in praying for the people of Nepal. The PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) has set up a fund through Mission to the World for those interested in donating to relief efforts.
WEPC members Chris and Janna Lee are raising support to return as missionaries to Namibia, Africa. They previously spent more than eight years in the country as church planters, but are now returning to focus on serving the deaf community. I recently talked with Janna over the phone, and she shared with me how she became a Christian, what she loves about sign language, and the challenges she and Chris face in returning to Namibia. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
– Jessie Harvey
When did you become a Christian and when did you first feel called to the mission field?
I became a Christian when I was nine years old. Around that time, I realized I was a sinner. I had heard about Jesus all my life, and I knew he was my only hope for salvation. So I trusted him around the age of nine, and I was baptized around the age of twelve.
My church when I was growing up was very mission-minded. They had missionaries who would come in and show slides and tell mission stories. My parents were also very mission-minded. They had missionary friends who they had grown up with and who were serving in places like Brazil . . . Kind of interesting—around the age of seven, I was in school, and they were showing us a little film about Holland. I knew it was far away, on the other side of the ocean. There was a man who just looked like a sinner to me, [laughs] and I thought, “That man needs Jesus.”
I went forward at my church when I was seven years old. They asked me why I came forward, and I told them I wanted to be a missionary when I grow up. From that moment on, when anybody asked me what I wanted to do, I would just tell them I was going to be a missionary when I grow up.
Chris accepted Christ as a teenager in Sunday School class. He was a senior in high school at Derbyshire Baptist, and then he went off to Virginia Tech. During the Thanksgiving holiday, his roommate invited him to travel with him to Illinois to attend the Urbana Missions Conference. On the last night of the conference, they asked if anyone felt led to go to the mission field to stand up. He was sitting almost at the top of the bleachers, and he stood up. He said he just felt like God was calling him to be a missionary.
Briefly describe what your work will look like in Namibia:
I will be working directly with the deaf people, trying to communicate with them and share Jesus with them at an after-school program at the deaf school. I will also be trying to find interpreters in Namibia and trying to build workshops to train more interpreters and give them help.
Just out of curiosity, will you be signing in an international sign language? I would guess the spoken language in Namibia is not English.
Actually, the spoken language in Namibia is English, but Namibian Sign Language is different than American Sign Language. I learned Namibian Sign Language first—and more fluently—when we lived in Namibia. But the only thing they really trained interpreters in was the vocabulary words. You know, “This sign stands for this. This signs means this.” But there was not a lot of training in interpreter skills or code of ethics, you know, how an interpreter is supposed to work. So I’ve been studying to become an interpreter at J. Sargeant Reynolds, and I’m hoping to go back with everything that I’ve learned through workshops and classes and really build a team of great interpreters who can really communicate for the deaf there—in church services, in court rooms. A lot of deaf people end up in jail because there’s not enough qualified interpreters to communicate what happened and to get the correct answer back. There’s just a great need for trained interpreters.
It’s interesting that you mention that learning sign language is more than just learning a vocabulary.
Exactly. There’s a structure to the language, where the word structure goes, where the sign structure goes. I’ve learned a lot about space and how deaf people use the invisible space in front of them to set up their story. I never knew that existed in a deaf person’s eyes before.
Every now and then, interpreters show up in the news. I remember during one of the snowstorms in New York this past year, the mayor of New York was giving a press conference about shutting down the subway system. His sign language interpreter, who was actually deaf himself, got a lot of attention for his facial expressions.
It makes more sense to a deaf person seeing your facial expressions! Your facial expressions are probably 40 percent of sign language. People think it’s all in the hands, but really it’s a lot in the face. Like when your eyebrows go up, a deaf person will think you’re wanting a “Yes” or “No” response to a question you’re asking them. And if your eyebrows go down, you’re asking a what, when, where question.
So why Namibia?
It’s a long story! We were headed to Nigeria. We had filled out all of the paperwork, and they did not accept us. The government of Nigeria did not accept us. A man who did not like the missionary we were going to help spoke out against us to the government and told them not to let this couple in our country. Even though we had never met him before, he was saying horrible things about us to the government! But the Lord used that. Here we were fully supported, ready to go to Africa, and without a country to go to. So we were praying about Ghana and Namibia. And the Lord really put a burden on both of our hearts, especially Chris’s heart, to go to Namibia. We just saw through step after step that Namibia was exactly where God wanted us.
And he kept us there when other missionaries got kicked out. God made Richmond, Virginia and Windhoek, Namibia sister cities right at the time God was calling us to Namibia. We didn’t even realize this was happening until about a year later when we needed some extra paperwork to stay in the country. Tim Kaine was the mayor of Richmond at the time, and he was a good friend of Chris’s dad. Chris’s dad told Tim Kaine we were getting ready to be kicked out of the country, and Tim Kaine wrote a letter to the mayor of Windhoek asking him to let the couple from their sister city stay.
What will be your greatest challenge in going back to Namibia?
It’s just so far away! By the time you get to Namibia, you feel like you have found the ends of the Earth. It takes about 24 hours to get there no matter where you’re coming from. It’s just a long trip.
Also, it’s an isolated country. It’s kind of regressive, out of the way, and in the middle of a desert. Of course, electricity is on and off. It’s very unstable. And because it’s a desert country, water is rationed.
What are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to the people. The Lord really gave us a great love for the Namibian people, especially the deaf community. But there are a lot of dear friends that we made during our eight years there who have continued to be our friends through the years. We are just looking forward to going back and helping them and strengthening them in as many ways as we can.
When did you first feel the call to work with the deaf?
I was in about the sixth grade, and there was a lady who interpreted in our church for a few services. I was very curious, and I asked if she would give me a few lessons. She did! She met me in the church office for probably two months, and she was just giving me a little bit of sign language vocabulary. It only last two months, and then I was in sixth grade, and life kept moving on.
My brothers worked for the Bill Rice Ranch, a camp in Murfreesboro, Tennessee that was started by a family who had a deaf daughter who they wanted to teach about Jesus. She started bringing her friends home who also wanted to learn about Jesus. So they started like a cowboy camp where deaf children could come for free and ride horses. My brothers went there every summer when I was a girl, and they worked for about three months each summer just to interact with the deaf.
And then my brother married a girl whose mother was deaf. Before the wedding, my dad went to the bookstore and bought all of these books and videos about American Sign Language. He put them on the table and told me to learn quickly because the wedding was coming, and he wanted us to communicate with the mother of the bride. So I watched some of those videos, but never with the intention of being an interpreter. It was not near the passion I have now of being fully able to communicate the gospel to these people in their own language.
But it was a seed planted!
It was. The Lord just always seemed to keep us aware that there was a deaf world out there.
And Chris recently shared with me that when he was in sixth grade, there was a deaf girl that had an interpreter—doing what I do everyday. Going to school, sitting in class to interpret for a student. The Lord was planting a seed in Chris’s heart, too, for the deaf.
Chris was the one who found an article in the Namibian newspaper that was advertising free Namibian Sign Language lessons. Chris encouraged me to go these lessons. If the seed wasn’t planted in his heart as well, I never would have done it. If Chris didn’t have a passion to reach the deaf, I wouldn’t be so free to be able to go to class, study, and put hours and hours and hours into learning something. I recently heard a musician who was talking to children about playing an instrument, and he said you need about 10,000 hours of practice before you get good at something. If I didn’t have a supportive husband in Chris who allows me the 10,000 hours to learn, it just wouldn’t happen. It’s a team effort.
What do you like about working with SIM (Serving In Mission)?
SIM is a great support system. It’s a team effort in a lot of areas. They’ve been around a long time, and they know the ropes. I feel secure with them. You know, when we were young, we did it as independent missionaries. We did a lot of stuff on our own. But it’s nice as we get older, still wanting to serve the Lord, to know that as a team, we can do more. When we’re weak in one area, another part of our team can be strong. And when they’re not having the charity or wisdom in one area, we can be there for that. Being there on a team in Namibia is going to be different than when we were there as church planters, just the two of us.
SIM also has a lot of elderly missionaries who are still serving. They’re like, “Now that you’re older and not as physically able, we can still use you in this position.” So I feel like there’s a real future with SIM, that I can continue to serve the Lord no matter how old I am.
What is your timeline in reaching Namibia and what challenges do you face in getting there?
My goal is to have our support raised by August 12. That’s coming up!
Paperwork in Namibia can take quite a while. But once we get 80 percent of our support, then they really start focusing on the paperwork and getting that going for us. So I’m hoping by August 12, we do have at least 80 percent or our support and then hopefully be on the field by the end of the year.
Because the forecast continues to predict a wintry mix on Saturday, February 21, plans for an alternate T2 gathering that evening have been cancelled.
The original event scheduled for February 21 — T2 Event: Luke — was cancelled earlier in the week because of inclement weather in the forecast. All women who had paid to register will receive a refund.
For more information about T2 and the Women’s Ministry at WEPC, click here.
“May I speak with a minister, please?” said the hurried voice when I answered the phone. “It’s a personal matter.” I confirmed with her what I had suspected: she needed financial help. I transferred her to my co-worker. According to our church’s protocol for would-be Mercy cases, those who live within about a mile of WEPC, attend here, or participate in one of our ministries are eligible to apply for assistance from the WEPC diaconate.
The diaconate—a group of men elected by the congregation who lead the church in Mercy Ministry—is now recruiting men and women to serve as Deacon Assistants. The new volunteer position is open to members who have a heart for the sick, widows, orphans, and others who may be in need. An informational meeting will be held after the second service on Sunday, January 11, in room 160.
After I had transferred the woman’s call, I heard my co-worker say to her, “I am so sorry, but you live outside the specific area we are able to help because of our own limitations. I’d be happy to give you the name of some of the churches in your area.” The caller hung up.
The woman on the phone is one of a dozen or more who call the church office every month requesting help, often for paying a bill amid job loss or sickness. About half of those who ask are eligible to apply. Applicants must meet with one of the workers in the front office, fill out a Mercy Request form, and answer a few basic questions about his or her situation. This information gets emailed to the four deacons of the month.
One of the deacons will call the applicant and arrange for a Sunday meeting with at least two deacons, who will listen to the applicant’s story and decide how best to help.
The most frequent Mercy cases are immigrants living in one of the church’s neighboring communities. They are often “struggling with impediments to getting a job because they don’t speak the language, they don’t have the skills, and they’re trying to learn the culture,” Deacon Max Doerfler said in a recent phone interview. Doerfler is one of the deacons who will lead the Deacon’s Assistant training scheduled for Wednesday evenings, January 14—February 18, 6:00–7:15 PM.
In years past the deacons were more quick to write a check to address an applicant’s short-term needs. In part because of books such as Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, however, the deacons have come to believe that “sometimes being merciful in a Biblical way is actually not meeting their financial request,” according to Doerfler. Instead, the deacons might point an applicant to ESL class or the Food Pantry or help him or her apply for a job. “We do a little bit of relief, but we also try to equip them to be a productive member of society and to be able to provide for their families,” Doerfler said.
Similar as this mission may be to many charity organizations, Doerfler believes that what sets WEPC’s Mercy Ministry apart is Jesus. “We also want to share the Gospel with them because we believe that’s their ultimate need,” he said. The deacons explain to Mercy applicants early in the process that Jesus is the reason this church has a Mercy Ministry, and they pray with applicants.
Doerfler remembers a recently emigrated family from Egypt that WEPC once helped. The friendship that developed between the deacons and the family opened the door to conversations about Jesus and Allah. According to Doerfler, their needs were overwhelming, and he appreciated the opportunity to “share the Gospel and to work through some really tough physical needs, knowing we had to rely on God.” Eventually the husband in the family found a job, and the wife started attending the sewing class at WEPC.
The deacons—who also care for the church building, open and close the doors on Sunday mornings, and oversee the church’s budget—have seen their obligation to lead the church in Mercy Ministry grow over the past ten years “based on the demographic of our neighborhood and the people we are trying to build relationships with,” Doerfler said.
Deacon’s Assistants would help address the burgeoning requests, as well as engage a broader swath of the congregation in what is often time-consuming and difficult work helping an immigrant family find its feet. Particularly, a female Deacon’s Assistant would be helpful in talking with a female Mercy applicant who might be more comfortable sharing her story with another woman, Doerfler said. Or, a Deacon’s Assistant who speaks Spanish or Arabic would be helpful in case of a language barrier.
Some WEPC members are already informally serving as Deacon’s Assistants. One member, for instance, came alongside an immigrant family and helped the mother apply for her child to attend the WEPC Community Preschool. “She helped the mother navigate the social network, helped explain things, and has been her advocate. She’s been great,” Doerfler said.
The Deacon’s Assistant position would help formalize the role, providing training and support to those already serving and drawing in more members interested in helping. The training will focus on “why we do it and how we do it,” Doerfler said. “We’re not a government entity designed to provide a social welfare net. This is about advancing the kingdom of God and pushing back on the effects of sin and a fallen world.”
After watching Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” starring Denzel Washington, Taylor Barnett, then in high school, marched downstairs and told his parents, “Mom, Dad, I want to be a jazz trumpet player. Can you get me lessons?”
Now Worship Arts Director at WEPC (along with his wife, Tiffanie Chan), music professor at VCU, and a member of Richmond’s No BS! Brass Band, Barnett is putting together A Richmond Big Band Christmas, slated for December 14 at 4:00 and 7:00 PM at VCU’s Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. Combining Barnett’s love for music and ministry, the concert will feature fourteen jazz musicians, including three singers, who will perform “energetic, modern arrangements of the sacred songs you love in this highly entertaining and uniquely American musical style,” according to the concert’s website, www.rvachristmas.com.
Barnett started playing the trumpet in middle school band class because his older brother played, and because “trumpet always gets to play the melody.” He had considered quitting. But with encouragement from his mom and an inspiring band director, Barnett continued in high school. Then, once he saw Washington’s portrayal of Bleek Gilliam—“the cool jazz musician playing gigs”—Barnett was hooked on jazz.
“That whole vibe they portray I thought was way cool,” Barnett recalled of the movie. “From that point, I pretty much decided that’s what I’m going to do.”
Barnett’s parents said “yes” to trumpet lessons. Barnett soon realized that one of his friends in band class was the nephew of a world-renowned trumpeter. “I was like, ‘Your uncle’s John D’earth? You should let me come over and hang out sometime.”
And he did. D’earth also lived in Charlottesville, where Barnett grew up. Not long after they met, D’earth called Barnett’s parents. “I think Taylor’s got a lot of potential, and I’d like to teach him if he’d be into that,” Barnett remembers him saying. Thus began a mentorship that encouraged Barnett through high school, college, and graduate school at VCU, where D’earth is now serving as artist-in-residence.
“He really took me under his wing,” Barnett said. “I would get to ride with him down to Richmond, see him rehearse, and play concerts. He let me sit in with his band when he played in Charlottesville. He really took a lot of interest in me. He and I are still friends.”
In 2013 Taylor Barnett and his wife, Tiffanie Chan, joined the staff at WEPC as worship arts directors. Their daughters are Abigail (L) and Clara.
Barnett went on to earn his masters in music from VCU and his doctorate of musical arts from James Madison University. He has performed with the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, the Oratorio Society of Virginia, and with artists such as Gladys Knight, The Temptations, Frankie Avalon, and Steve Wilson. Now as a music professor at VCU and a member of No BS! Brass, Barnett has his finger on the pulse of the Richmond music scene. His vision for A Richmond Big Band Christmas is to bring together some of the city’s best jazz musicians—friends and colleagues—who have been playing together for years.
“I’ve been around long enough and I’ve been teaching at VCU for long enough that I know a lot of people and I know a lot of formers students who are now playing in bands and teaching in music stores and schools,” Barnett said. “And that’s partly the impetus for doing the Big Band concert, seeing all these great artists and all these great artistic events going on around the holidays.”
Jesus, however, is also a central to Barnett’s vision for the concert. “With the exception of when Handel’s Messiah gets played, there are [only] a couple of things that are actually proclaiming Christ,” he said of the Richmond Christmas season. “We were thinking: How great would it be to get the best jazz musicians in Richmond together with singers and do a concert of only sacred hymns?”
The idea for the concert was inspired by “Go Tell It!”, an album produced by City Church in San Francisco. Jazz musicians that attend City Church put together jazz arrangements for the church’s Lessons and Carols service one year. The service was so well received that the musicians made a recording of the arrangements the next year.
After listening to the album, Barnett called City Church’s Worship Arts Director, Karl Digerness, to ask him for advice on putting together a similar concert in Richmond—and to ask if he could purchase the musical charts.
“We don’t really do that,” Barnett remembers Digerness saying. “But that actually sounds really cool because it would fit where God has placed you in the Richmond music scene and knowing all these musicians and also being in a leadership role at your church.” Digerness gave Barnett all the charts from the album, which A Richmond Big Band Christmas will draw from.
Barnett’s colleagues in the music community whom he approached about helping with the concert have also expressed enthusiasm. When he wrote to them in June about his vision for a “Christ-centered Christmas concert” in the heart of Richmond, many responded “Yes, please! How can I help?” Barnett recalled.
For more information about the concert or to buy tickets, visit www.rvachristmas.com. Net proceeds will benefit Virginia’s largest free healthcare clinic, CrossOver Healthcare Ministry.
Watch this short film on A Richmond Big Band Christmas: